May 2009

Kati Nolfi


Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

This is a quest, a journey, a road trip, a fantasy, a reversal. Teenage Nayeli and her friends Yolo, Vampi, and Tacho are from Tres Camarones in Sinaloa, Mexico. Dazzled by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, they plan a romantic migration and return, a trip north to the US, not for work or money but for love of country -- to bring back seven strong Mexican men (and Nayeli secretly hopes, her father) to fight the bandidos and narcos and revitalize their town. Taking after Tía Irma, Nayeli cries, “We can repopulate our town. We can save Mexico. It begins with us! It’s the new revolution!... Isn’t it time we got our men back into our own country?”

Television and movies are the sites of learning and inspiration for these Sinaloans. With visions of Yul Brynner and Estip McQueen, the pilgrims depart Tres Camarones for Tijuana and the border where they enact their own cinematic fantasies. Tacho imagines the journey as a French resistance war film: “There would be a close-up of the blood drops falling on the cobbles, but the impatient Border Patrol agents would wave them through.” The films become their compass and mirror as they travel.

There is a Don Quixote connection here. Nayeli is given the book for her travels but doesn’t understand it and leaves it behind. Her father is named Pepe Cervantes. And both Tía Irma, Tres Camarones’ new mayor -- all bluster and hubris -- and Atómiko, the garbage picker and warrior influenced by the Kurosawa film Yojimbo, are quixotic characters who dream the impossible dream. When the group plans to leave from Tijuana with some beggars from the dompe instead of the Siete Magnifico, Atómiko says, “It’s not what you set out to do. You have to accomplish your quest. To El Norte. Besides, these warriors are not worthy.”

With self-awareness and irony, Beautiful North acknowledges its debt to the idealistic quest narrative and the tragic migration story. While the travelers experience hindrances and impasses, there are incredible conveniences and filmic contrivances, a sense of a blessed, narrow, and telescoping world. Even the humiliation, cruelty, and filth they suffer are leavened by the magical unreality. There are misfortunes, but this is a comedy and the suspense, adventure, and resolved hardships are in service of an exuberant escape and a happy ending. The desperate undocumented immigrants who try to cross for a better life are at the margins of a bildungsroman. Urrea simultaneously explicates the seriousness of Mexican-US immigration while drolly narrating a Wizard of Oz-like circular fairy tale.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0316025275
352 Pages