One of my heritage speakers just finished reading Rumbo al hermoso norte by Luis Alberto Urrea. It is a touching story that I have read with several students over the years, but I have learned that I have to actively sell it. Without my encouragement students abandon the reading within the first few chapters, but selling it just right can show them that a slightly more difficult book can be extremely rewarding.
The first few chapters describe a charming small town on the Northern Pacific coast of Mexico. I love the interactions between the three adolescent girls. A few years ago Luis Alberto Urrea came to speak at a local bookshop and mentioned that the natural banter between the three girls was inspired by his own daughter and her friends. The waxing and waning of rivalries and alliances among a trio of best friends is captured exquisitely. I also enjoyed imagining what it would be like to grow up in this small town playing soccer and wading out into the estuary to fish. This is a believable Mexican pueblo where the girls are well aware of American culture and have their own youthful obsessions, where the anachronistic melds with a global culture in a very recognizable Latin American fashion. This is also a Mexican pueblo virtually depopulated of men, who have headed north to find work. When drug traffickers come to town the three girls escape north to search for the men who left their village. I originally earmarked this book for student reading because I thought my heritage students would be engaged by these initial chapters. As it turns out, this is what I have to sell most.
My student was astute enough to recognize that, on some level, a story narrated in third person has to work harder to engage a reader. We had a short conversation about this as the rest of my students were reading in class, but I really wish I had more time to explore the implications of first or third person narration. In fact, I should have just continued the reading period so that we could continue chatting! Yes, it is easier to develop an emotional bond with a first person narrator who speaks directly to us. I am hoping that by the end of the book he will recognize that, in a book essentially about human relationships, there is a richness of experience conveyed by “seeing it all” that may have been lost if limited to the eyes of one character.
One of his other complaints was that it seemed unrealistic; what mother, he asked, would let her children cross the border alone? The iconic photos of protesters reacting against Central American children who traveled on their own to the US were taken last summer within a dozen miles of his house. Perhaps he, like so many American teenagers, has been so tightly wrapped in the cocoon of adolescence that he simply did not notice. Knowing who he is, however, I suspect that he did not connect the novel with the current news story simply because these fictional girls are fully-realized human beings whereas the real-life immigrant children are dehumanized “wretched masses”. This is not a snarky criticism of youth, but a recognition that literature can be a really decent path to understanding the world. Kids should read more fiction.
After finishing the book, while he is contemplating what to do to process the book, I had him watch this interview between the author and Bill Moyers in order to highlight some of the themes. At one point in the conversation they were talking about the dissolution of the Mexican-American Studies program at Tucson Unified School District and Luis Alberto Urrea states that ethnic studies is not against America, it is an entryway into America. Pour yourself a glass of wine and take an hour to watch the video… it is a great conversation.