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My airplane reading this week: 'Into the Beautiful North'

A family looks north into the United States from Playas de Tijuana, January 2009
A family looks north into the United States from Playas de Tijuana, January 2009
Photo by Nathan Gibbs/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Flying to Chicago for the Latinos in Social Media (#LATISM) conference this week involved, as usual, a good book – one I’ll be reading again tonight on my flight home. So allow me to share a bit of my airplane reading, the novel “Into the Beautiful North” by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Urrea, a Tijuanense by birth, is one of my favorite authors on all things related to the border and Mexico. In 2004, just as I was taking a job covering immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, I was inspired by the remarkable narrative storytelling of his nonfiction “The Devil’s Highway.” The book pieced together the last, desperate days of a group of men who perished in the dessert near Yuma, Arizona. Urrea retraced their journey via court documents, survivors’ accounts and time spent with the Border Patrol, filling in the blanks with the imagined conversations of their final hours. The book also provided a glimpse of the difficult work done by agents who patrol the border desert.

"Into the Beautiful North" is less tragic but equally poignant. It also involves a group of young Mexicans heading north, this time four fictional young friends who aren’t looking to migrate, but rather to bring back a few men to a town whose male adults have left for the U.S., leaving the few residents left vulnerable to a drug cartel. Innocents abroad in every sense, the foursome make it from tiny Tres Camarones (Three Shrimp) to the post-9/11 border and beyond in a narrative that’s often laced with humor, but incisive in a way that you’re laughing and grimacing at the same time.

In this excerpt, protagonists Nayeli, Yolo, Vampi (a goth girl) and Tacho are about to be repatriated to Tijuana after being caught crossing the border. Tacho, who runs a taqueria in Tres Camarones called La Mano Caída, is looking forward to going home - until he says absolutely the wrong thing.

It was so noisy. Fences were clanking. People shuffled, muttered. The buses pulled up and the agents were yelling and the pneumatic doors were pulling open and the chain link was rattling. Migra agents moved through, telling them it was time to go home. The friends had to yell to be heard.

“What?” Yolo shouted.

“Home!” Tacho yelled. It was so absurd he started to grin. He yelled as loud as he could: “Think about home!

“What about home?” Vampi called.

“I think about La Mano Caida!” Tacho yelled.




Instantly, the Border Patrol agents froze.

“Al Qaeda?” the nearest one said.

“What?” said Tacho.

“Did you say Al Qaeda?”

“No! Dije ‘La Mano Caida!’ “ Tacho shouted a little too loud.

The agents jumped on his, wrestling him to the ground.

“This guy’s Al Qaeda!”

People shouted and surged away. The gate stood open and the bus loading began. He three girls were forced from Tacho, who was under a pile of ICE agents. People shoved. The girls shrieked. A man’s voice yelled “Get them out of here!” They were borne onto the bus.

Agents were wading into the crowd from all sides, headed for Tacho. The bus doors slammed. The bus lurched away, and the girls were trapped inside, watching them manhandle Tacho. They sobbed and banged on the glass. But the bus did not stop.

The paperback edition of the novel was published last year by Little, Brown and Company. Here's a video of Urrea discussing his work, his roots and what draws him to the subjects he writes about.

To all those heading home from the conference tonight, I wish you safe travels and good reading.