“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.”
The novel opens with surrealist undertones as the main character, a young woman named Makina, is about to cross over to another world. Makina has been tasked by her mother to cross the border from Mexico to find her brother who left 3 years earlier. In order to have a chance at succeeding, Makina is forced to cooperate with the local cartel, who promise to help secure safe passage in exchange for a favor.
Makina’s journey illustrates 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. The women adapt ways to harness their power without men even noticing the ways that they take control of their lives and communities. 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 in her job as a switchboard operator as well as acting as an emissary between two entangled cultures.
Herrera has an unexpectedly whimsical use of language, his words both simple and inventive. The English translation captures this surprisingly well; the original Spanish version is surely even richer. 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.