Good news and bad news

A memoir of success, a journey of horror

Take away the political fireworks, and the word immigration summons two distinct stories: one a tale of hope and endless potential, the other of risk, poverty, and sullied dreams.

While no person's life can be so easily reduced, two new books exemplify the two tales. Rose Castillo Guilbault in "Farmworker's Daughter" recalls her journey as a 5-year-old from Sonora, Mexico, to the Salinas Valley of California, where her divorced mother hoped to start anew with the encouragement of a distant cousin.

The duo faces plenty of hardship: Rose's mother initially works without pay in her cousin's restaurant; Rose bears the ethnic taunts of her classmates. When her mother meets the bracero, or farmhand, she will eventually marry, the three move to a farm deep into the country, isolated from the street life they knew so well back home.

Yet they are eventually able to buy their own home - her mother's dream - and watch their daughter attend college. The book ends with Rose, working her last summer with migrant workers to make money before heading to university. She goes on to become a columnist for Pacific News Service and the San Francisco Chronicle and now is vice president for corporate affairs at AAA of Northern California.

It's an affectionate story and a compelling one, full of poignant, powerful description. Yet, as is often the case with autobiographies following a strict chronology, some sections grow tiresome, while others fly by too fast.

In contrast to Rose's success story, journalist Jorge Ramos chronicles the last hours of a trip cut tragically short in "Dying to Cross, The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History."

On May 13, 2003, about 70 people were packed into a trailer headed from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston. It was one of the hottest days of the spring, the air conditioning was off, and the walls offered no ventilation. In the end, 19 immigrants died, including a 5-year-old boy.

The incident immediately drew attention to smuggling operations and the so-called coyotes, who sneak immigrants across the border for cash.

Ramos's narrative relies on interviews with survivors, police testimony, and news reports to explain why so many would-be Americans stifled their doubts and entered a packed container on a sweltering night. He recreates their attempts to escape as the nightmare dragged on.

The truck driver, believed to be participating in his first smuggling operation, finally opened the door in Victoria, Texas, and fled - before turning himself in at a local hospital. One of 14 defendants in the case, he was convicted of smuggling in March and could face the death penalty in a new trial.

In impassioned if often contrived prose, Ramos challenges the common perception of immigration as an issue confined to the thin line of the US-Mexican border: It is in the towns along that border where immigrants are most at risk, and where human smuggling operations are most perilous.

Ramos is an unabashed critic of US immigration policy and Mexican economic policy. Yet the book, for the most part, does not judge those involved, from the immigrants in economic straits, to the truck driver who claimed to be unaware of the desperate struggle in his trailer, to the coyotes who hawk an American Dream but are often at the center of tragedies.

Both books are timely, amid news about a new breed of minutemen - Americans patrolling the US-Mexico border - and post-9/11 immigration reform.

The stories succeed, too, by showing the human faces that are so often lost in immigration rhetoric.

One is a story of tempered success, one of horrific failure, but they converge in their humanity.

Sara B. Miller is on the Monitor staff.

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