By Yuri Herrera
The novel opens with a surrealist feel, in which the main character, a young woman named Makina, is about to cross over to what seems like another world or alternate reality. Makina has been tasked by her mother to cross the border from Mexico to find her brother who left 3 years earlier on a mission of his own. In order to have a chance at succeeding, Makina is forced to cooperate with the local top dogs, who promise to help secure safe passage in exchange for a favor.
Makina’s journey demonstrates the unimaginable risk undertaken by those crossing the border illegally, the stakes that make it worth losing everything, and the forces that motivate immigrants to stay in a new country despite their permanent status as an outsider in a disillusioned society. By showing the US through Makina’s perspective, Herrera turns the tables on the common notion of Latinx immigrants as criminals. In the US, Makina’s compatriots must be “armed with work”, constantly deflecting persecution and protecting themselves from violence by existing just on the edges, in the backs of restaurants and on bleak construction sites.
The story also showcases savvy women who choose not to be victims in a misogynistic society. Rather than submit to being second-class citizens, the women adapt ways to harness their power, as if running a low-key matriarchy despite the shortcomings of men. Early on in the book, her mother says, “I don’t like to send you, child, but who else can I trust it to, a man?” Makina’s power stems from her ability to interpret many layers of language and act as a messenger in her job as a switchboard operator as well as other roles.
The English translation is truly a work of art, and I don’t doubt that the original Spanish version is even richer. Herrera has an unexpectedly whimsical use of language, his words both simple and inventive. The plot is largely executed in the abstract, with towns, countries, and activities that go unnamed but are understood implicitly by the reader. These concepts are interspersed with tangible details that bring to mind stark images. To read this book is to take a journey to the US from the Other Side—any origin/identification/language that makes you forever the target of disdain and suspicion.
“The city was an edgy arrangement of cement particles and yellow paint. Signs prohibiting things thronged the streets, leading citizens to see themselves as ever protected, safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and intermittently bewildered, blithe, and buoyant; salt of the only earth worth knowing.”