Reviewed by Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976-77)
WITH THE EXCEPTION, perhaps, of Peace Corps Volunteers, most Americans have little understanding of the hardships faced by the poor in developing and underdeveloped countries. Without that understanding, it is easy to demonize those who choose to come to the United States—often illegally—in search of a better future. Certainly President Trump has taken that route, even raising the possibility of deploying troops along the border with Mexico to stop migrants, despite the absence of evidence that there is a growing immigrant threat. Clearly a gap exists between reality and the fear-mongering of some of our political leaders.
Dream of Another America by Tyler McMahon (El Salvador 1999-02) may help fill that gap. In this gripping novel, McMahon introduces us to Jacinto, a Salvadoran farmer who makes the arduous journey through Mexico to enter the United States. His goal is simple: he wants to work in order to earn sufficient money so he can buy the asthma medicine his son needs to live. The obstacles he must overcome to achieve his goal are many: the enmity of his neighbors because he and his wife fought on the rebels’ side in the country’s civil war; the venal coyote he hires to help plan and execute his journey; the incompetent guide who leads his migrant group into catastrophe; the heartless gangs that prey on migrants, robbing them of what little they have; and unscrupulous employers who take advantage of migrant laborers. Many of his fellow migrants do not survive against these odds.
Even more problematic for his endeavor, though, is Jacinto’s own naiveté. He’s a hard-working man of integrity experiencing the wider world for the first time. After what he saw in the war, he is reluctant to resort to violence even in his own defense. And it isn’t that he is shocked by the greed and dishonesty he encounters along the way, but it disillusions him, and he is disappointed in himself when he doesn’t live up to his own high standards.
Jacinto’s story is a common one, with echoes of another recent novel about immigrants. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award, focuses on immigrants from southern China. Like their Central American counterparts, they come to the United States in search of opportunities that don’t exist at home, and find themselves exploited by employers and loan sharks. When one of the protagonists of Ko’s novel, an undocumented single mother, is deported after being detained in a raid by immigration authorities, her young son is left behind. Believing that his mother abandoned him, he winds up in the foster care system. While the book doesn’t argue that the United States needs to admit all comers, it’s obvious that the implementation of our current immigration policies creates humanitarian nightmares.
In McMahon’s novel, the Salvadoran Jacinto has run out of options. In order to save his son, he must risk his own life to get to the United States to find work. In part, of course, the dire situation he faces at home is the result of US foreign policy. The novel does not spend much time explaining the background of the civil war in El Salvador, although Jacinto does recall the many horrors he witnessed during that time and observes the vast inequality between the rich and poor in his country. It is somewhat ironic that he looks to the United States for salvation, when it was the brutal US-backed regime against which he fought in that war. Peasants rebelled against exploitation by their feudal overlords, and the United States, fearing the spread of Communism, tolerated the regime’s murderous response. It was a dark time that was all too typical of American interference in the affairs of our neighbors to the south.
Many of us have forgotten these transgressions, unfortunately, and perhaps younger Salvadorans have, too. At one point, Jacinto reflects on a young man’s romantic notion of the United States: “Like so many Salvadorans of his generation, he dreamed of another America, one that existed in a sense, but that wasn’t available to them. Their dream didn’t include the America of smugglers, of crooked employers, of counterfeiters, of laborers sleeping on the street.” He might have added that their dream doesn’t include alliances with dictators or the inhumane exploitation of immigrants.
If the news were all so bleak, McMahon’s novel might be hard to take. But there are also bright spots. Despite the hardships Jacinto suffers on his journey, he is also the beneficiary of great kindness. There is Israel, the Guatemalan migrant who shows Jacinto how to hop a freight train, where to find temporary work along the way, how to evade Mexican authorities, and how to cross the border. There are the surfing gringo hippies who befriend Jacinto and feed him. There is the upscale grocery store manager who recognizes that Jacinto is a reliable worker and, as a result, treats him fairly. Back at home, Jacinto’s asthmatic son faces his own set of hardships without his father to protect him, but he, too, finds some light amidst the darkness: the gringo sent to work in the village (a Peace Corps Volunteer, perhaps?) comes to his aid; even a member of the dangerous MS-13 gang takes pity on the boy.
It is because of these glimpses of humanity that Jacinto refuses to give up hope. After one particular setback, when he complains about fairness, his brother-in-law lectures him: “All that you’ve been through in your life cuñado—that war, the land reform, your son’s illness, the awful trip you endured to come here, all that senseless killing and worthless suffering—I don’t know how it is you manage to hold onto this idea that there’s such a thing as fairness or justice to be had out there in this world.”
Dream of Another America is both poignant and disturbing, but above all it is a compelling, suspenseful story.
Clifford Garstang (South Korea 1976-77) is the author of In an Uncharted Country (Press 53), winner of the Maria Thomas Award for Fiction from Peace Corps Writers, and What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53), winner of the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. He is also the editor of the anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, which features short stories set in various countries around the world. His novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, is forthcoming in March 2019 from Braddock Avenue Books.