Newsbook: What’s Life Really Like on the Mexican Border? These 3 Books Help Give a Sense.

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Based on the tradition of retablo painting, a Mexican folk art in which stories are depicted visually on pieces of repurposed metal, this memoir is framed as a series of singular episodes from the writer’s life that had far-reaching impact. Solis grew up just a mile from the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, and he tells stories about his childhood and coming of age, including his parents’ migration to the United States from Mexico, his first encounter with racism and finding a Mexican migrant girl hiding in the cotton fields.

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THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER
Dispatches From the Border
By Francisco Cantú
250 pp. Riverhead Books. (2018)

Tired of reading about the border in books, Cantú joined the Border Patrol. In this book, he describes his four years working in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Though he and his fellow agents are primed to deal with Mexican cartels, the reality is much less threatening. “The aliens we encounter are not narco bosses and murderous kidnappers but their victims: bewildered, disoriented, helpless migrants,” wrote our reviewer. Still, border patrol agents “slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth”; they “dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze” to deter them, writes Cantú. According to our reviewer, the writer “seems unwilling to look too closely at his complicity in despicable behavior.” But the final third, in which Cantú recounts a friend’s fight against deportation, “lays bare, in damning light, the casual brutality of the system, how unjust laws and private prisons and a militarized border have shattered families and mocked America’s myths about itself.”

ACROSS THE WIRE
Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border
By Luis Alberto Urrea
190 pp. Anchor Books/Doubleday. (1993)

In a series of linked vignettes, Urrea, who is Mexican-American, depicts the suffering of Mexico’s poor in Tijuana, where thousands of migrants are now living in squalid shelters. Our reviewer compared Urrea’s book to Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” his memoir of life and death in an internment camp, and says that it’s just as difficult to read. “But we keep returning to Urrea’s prose because it is startling, poetic and razor-sharp; in the midst of the most brutal sequences, we are informed and shaken, made to feel the pain of others as if it were our own,” wrote our reviewer.

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