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Books: Ana Castillo, The Guardians

September 15, 2007

gaurdian.jpgThe greatest moral challenge facing the United States today as it grapples with the issue of Mexican immigration is to pull back from the spiral of prejudice, hatred, and discrimination. Ana Castillo’s beautiful, compassionate and compelling novel of life in the U.S.-Mexican borderlands should be widely read as an antidote to the poisonous caricature of Mexican immigrants that has intensified in the overheated political debate over imigration.

The Guardians does not explicitly take a position on immigration policy, but it is far from neutral. Her eloquent and richly detailed account of the painful history and experience of people struggling to build a life in the harshest of environments and hardest of circumstances will open many hearts to a greater undrestanding of the U.S. Mexican experience. If understanding is the beginning of compassion and justice, Castillo has made an invaluable contribution to American life and culture at a crucial moment. The politics of this novel can be summed up simply: less hatred, more love.

The Guardians of the title are ostensibly the mountain range along the border in the small town near the cities of El Paso and Juarez where the novel begins and ends; but more profoundly,the Guardians are the four main characters and co-narrators of the novel who try to protect each other as they make their way through the patchwork of borderlands that make up their world: the geographic borderland between the U.S. and Mexico of course, but also the social borderland between the small town of Cabuche and the urban barrios of El Paso and Jaurez, legal and illegal, youth and age, and the spiritual borderlands between the sacred and profane, hope and despair.

Castillo writes beautifully, but in a language that reflects the ambiguities of the borderlands. Though she artfully paraphrases the many Spanish words and phrases her characters use to tell their stories, Anglo readers completely unfamiliar with that language may still struggle at times, as I did, to fully understand their meaning. But this struggle with the language is an essential part of our coming to understand the characters, to share as readers in their narrative struggle to create a langauge and a life between the United States and Mexico.

With a sepia-toned cover featuring a beautiful woman in a white gown dancing alone in the desert, and cover blurbs emphasizing that the book is sensuous, lyrical, vivid, etc, Random House seem to be trying to market the book as a work of lush magical realism along the lines of Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the book is in fact as tensely plotted as a thriller and situated in the starkly real world of border police, coyotes, economic desperation and the vicious illegal traffic in drugs and people that render human life so cheap.

But if the world Castillo depicts is gritty, the characters she brings to life truly are magical, reminding us of the dignity, grace and miraculous capacity for love that people can demonstrate in even the most painful and trying of circumstances.

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