Luis Urrea’s Into The Beautiful North takes a unique place among works that I know about Latin Americans headed for the USA. Films like El Norte, for example or Sin Nombre, or Philip Caputo’s novel Crossers (See WW Nov. 29, 2009). Anyhow, the unusual aspect of this one is that the principals aren’t looking to make fortunes in the promised land. They want to seek out and repatriate their wayward men. And it’s not grim.
The Sinaloan village of Tres Camarones, somewhere on the coast outside Mazatlan, is without men, at least men of viable age for labor and matrimony. They’re all in el norte looking for work. In their places have come drug dealers and predatory cops. After a viewing of The Magnificent Seven at the Tres Camerones rude outdoor cinema, young Nieyla comes up with the notion of heading to the USA to round up seven wayward Mexican warriors to return to defend and repopulate the town. The convince La Osa–Aunt Irma, the mama bear of Nieyla’s clan as well as the newly-elected mayor–to allow them to give it all a try. So off they go–Nielya and her two female buddies as well as the local gay guy, Tacho, who closes his bar (El Mano Caida–”Fallen Hand” or (better, I think) “Limp Wrist” in English) for the duration.
Much of their journey is as funny as anything you’ve ever read. Their time in the Tijuana garbage “dompe,” (Urrea spend some childhood time there and returned to do volunteer work and further research for the book, so those scenes are authentic), their encounters with a host of bizarre characters (I am Atomiko!) and circumstances, the multiple levels of Spanish/English/Spanglish. Our gay guy, for example, says “El Mano Caido,” and the border patrol agents hear “Al Quaeda.” Complications ensue.
Of course good comedy always requires pain to work, and wrenching hurt abounds in such areas as the stark poverty and the absurd relationships between the mojados and the Border Patrol.
In my judgement, Into the Beautiful North does not quite reach the heights of Luis’s magnificent Hummingbird’s Daughter (see WW April 7, 2011) because a few of the most significant situations he creates here call out for more in-depth treatment. In essence, this becomes a coming of age tale for the three girls, particularly Nielya. The journey matures them, strengthens their bonds on one level, but destroys their girlhood ties, and that process deserves more attention.
But this is picking nits, I think. You feel joyful and triumphant when you finish the last page, just as you do throughout most of the book. Thank the writing gods for Luis Urrea. And all the other gods, too. He’s as good a man as he is a writer, which is beyond rare.