California journalist Linton Robinson and Tijuana writer Ana Maria Corona collaborate on a collection of stories and essays that turn the frontera between the two countries into a magic mirror of nationality, culture, race, sex… and cuisine. And it does this without attempting to do so: as Pulitzer nominee Luis Urrea (a member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame who has written for many of the publications these pieces originally appeared in) puts it in his review: "This is not an immigration book, nor would I call it a border book. But it is a well-guided journey into an interzone." It speaks of those lines that separate and unite us through sketches of people… and the occasional plate of food.
The chapters here are of two different types. The long ones are interview-based explorations of sub-cultures: Tijuana gamblers (including those who gamble with the lives of gamecocks and even their own), Mexican gigolos, girls who come to work as maids illegally in California. Don't think for a minute that what these people say is anything like what you've read in other "border" or "immigrant" books: every word is a revelation of new outlook and connections.
The other pieces are shorter, and tend to revolve around Mexican cooking and scenes from Ms. Corona's childhood in Guadalajara. These are luminous essays, reaching out from humble fare like corn, chile peppers, and mole sauce to apprehend Mexican culture, the conquest of the Americas (or was it vice-versa?), and a flickering universe hung between religion, faith, superstition, rumor, and being what you eat. "Eat" in the larger sense, as best shown in the "Faith, Aphrodisiacs, and Freeze-Dried Blood" segment. Among the many questions and ambushes in these "food pieces": chiles conquer the world in the same way that women ultimately conquer men, the fact that goats are common in Mexican food and society, but practically nonexistant in the United States, shows a great deal about both cultures, that men go to whorehouses to get away from women.
My favorite line in the book comes from that FreezeDried Faith chapter:
"Life, health and sanity are all circles of light surrounded by endless darkness. Perhaps it is in the twilight between the two that the nature of both become more clear to us. If we're going to have faith, we might as well have blind faith: if we're going to be realists, we might as well be a magical realists."
Ms. Corona has a finely-tuned eye for borders and boundaries of sexuality, as well. A touching picture of her life emerges from between the lines as she stirs that element into the salsa she serves up to us. As in this line from a piece that goes worldwide on the hot bite of chiles:
""Chile" is a term very frequently applied to the masculine member. Chiludo means having a big "chile"; therefore "well hung". The chile is strong, it "bites". In Spanish, capsicum is not "hot": we would say a chile is picante or picoso. The word pica is an aggressive verb that describes the bite of ant or the sting of a bee, or the sauce of sarcastic, biting, picaresco humor. It also has the same sense of English words like "pick" and "peck", as well as the beak of a bird.
In that sense it is yet another term men apply to their sexual member, a term I readily understand; there was a period in my life when my image of male sexuality was very much like that kind of "picking"; a sharp, devastating piercing and carrying away. "Pico" meant to me the deadly beaks of rapine birds. I understood it by watching the garzas, white egrets that hunted in the marshes, wading in with emotionless eyes to watch for the chance to stab that stiff length of death into whatever careless fish swam by."
No attempt is made to sort out Ms. Corona's contributions from Mr. Robinson's, a blending further blurred by the use of first person narratives for interviewees. I assume it's deliberate because it's so much in keeping with the rest of the book.
This is a work that should impress readers quite apart from the usual "gringo lit" fans: it appeals at once to NPR-listener sensibilities, feminists who don't mind seeing third world women saying things outside the usual canon, lovers of gentle humor, food freaks who will drool over the descriptions of dining and painstaking food preparation, and any reader who loves well-written, incisive essays that start from unusual places…then transcend them.
Midwest Book Review
Of all the places where cultures meet across imaginary lines, the California/Baja California border is arguably the richest--in cultural cross-polinization, in shock, in uproar, in sheer numbers going both ways. San Diego, for example, is the only region where the numbers of undocumented crossers has not dropped, but risen. Tijuana is the most visited tourist city on earth, far outdrawing Disneyworld.
This is not an immigration book, nor would I call it a border book. But it is a well-guided journey into an interzone where gigolos and chefs, wanderers and mothers, bad guys and dreamers swirl. Many of its insights make you feel like you've enjoyed a good meal--perhaps a fish taco and a cerveza next to the Mexican sea.
Member: Latino Literary Hall of Fame