There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants; By Gabriel Thompson; Nation Books; $26.95.
The issue of immigration has for decades provoked podium-rattling rhetoric from politicians and pundits of various stripes, and most recently it brought us what was supposed to be the swing voter du jour of the 2006 elections: Lou Dobbs Democrats, convinced undocumented workers were laying waste to working-class America and the rule of law in general.
As Gabriel Thompson notes in his new book, “There’s No José Here,” the immigration debate is typically a debate of abstractions, focusing on wage trends or crime patterns rather than the lives of the individuals caught in the middle. Thompson offers his earnest new book as a modest corrective to that oversight. In it, he chronicles the lives of a handful of mostly Mexican-born denizens of Brooklyn as they struggle to make ends meet. Thompson suggests immigration laws, government bureaucracy, greedy landlords and the immigrants themselves all share some blame for the problems they face. But he doesn’t set out to offer a detailed analysis of their causes or suggest fixes.
Thompson is content to tell characters’ stories in the hope that it will open his readers’ minds about the complexities of the immigration debate. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of characters and a particular issue or event — a new housing problem, life in the sweatshop, the death of a young relative, adding up to an interesting collection of anecdotes rather than a tightly focused narrative.
Enrique, a barrel-chested, fast-talking, big-hearted livery cab driver in Bedford-Stuyvesant is Thompson’s primary focus. (He doesn’t offer their last names, since many of the characters have been or are currently undocumented.) Thompson tags along on harrowing fare rides, chatting in Spanish in the front seat as Enrique chronicles his latest housing problem or complaint about his stepson, whom Enrique sees as wasting the privileges given him as a U.S. citizen.
Thompson’s biggest contribution is illustrating how the lack of legal working papers actually affects the lives of Enrique and other Mexican immigrants. Entering the country is barely a nuisance for them, but their lack of documentation makes their lives here harder in countless other ways. They are taken advantage of by one landlord after another, repeatedly moving from apartment to apartment only to confront more lead paint, rats and broken boilers. Landlords routinely threaten to turn them in to immigration authorities, or simply ignore their complaints.
Thompson’s characters work hard, but their wages are uniformly appalling. Enrique often works seven days a week, sometimes sleeping in his car between shifts. His girlfriend Juana makes just $1.00 an hour in a Brooklyn sweatshop. When their family flees one particularly rotten apartment, they find themselves living with relatives on Long Island, outside New York City, and Enrique has to choose between trying to get a livery cab license there or commuting back to his car service job in Brooklyn. He chooses the latter, adding several hours onto his work day.
To the author’s credit, the characters in his book are richly drawn and full of quirks and conflicted opinions. They are hardworking, proud and resourceful, but also sometimes reckless and outright looking for trouble. They can also be quite entertaining. When Angela, a profanity-spewing, four-foot-tall grandmother in rural Mexico, complains her children in the United States aren’t sending her enough money, it falls to Thompson to tell her what rent costs in New York. “Eleven thousand pesos? For each month?” she says. “Why in God’s name would anyone want to live there?” Eleven thousand pesos is about $1,000.
Thompson clearly loves working-class Mexican culture and is keenly aware of how alien it is to him, a tall, pasty college-educated gringo. As he checks for scorpions in his shoes in Mexico, or silently worries that Juana will give birth during a breakneck road trip, Thompson is constantly noting that his Mexican friends are bolder and tougher than he is.
But Thompson’s book is limited significantly by the nature of his project. He largely picks his subjects as they present themselves to him in his work as a Brooklyn-based activist and organizer focused on lead paint issues. This is not a comprehensive investigation into a little-known subculture, like Bill Buford running with English soccer hooligans in “Among the Thugs” or Barbara Ehrenreich delving neck-deep into the world below the poverty line in “Nickel and Dimed.”
Instead, “There’s No José Here” is the product of a well-meaning writer interviewing his immigrant friends and acquaintances. It’s an enjoyable and often eye-opening book, and would be an effective rejoinder to anyone who thinks the immigration debate is about facts and figures, not real people.