There's No Jose Here, by Gabriel Thompson

April 10, 2008


by Gabriel Thompson, 2007, Nation, 320 pages, $14.95 paperback.

The quintessential city of immigrants, New York, has seen in the last 15 years a massive influx of Mexican immigrant workers, mostly from the city and surrounding areas of Puebla. Go to delis or restaurants throughout the city; take a livery cab in Brooklyn or Queens; or pass by an apartment building under renovation, and their systematic absorption into the local service economy is immediately obvious. But despite their prominence, they remain somehow invisible, perhaps in particular to yuppie technocrats, who are also migrating to this and other global cities in droves.

It is this invisibility that independent journalist Gabriel Thompson seeks to undo in his There’s No José Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants. Thompson, a “white middle-class suburbanite,” as he calls himself, chronicles his friendship with Enrique, a Brooklyn cab driver, and his family, using the familiar conventions, and sometimes clichés, of narrative journalism.

The story begins in 2002 at Flaco’s, a hole-in-the-wall luncheonette blocks away from the Pratt Area Community Council, a housing advocacy group where Thompson worked as an organizer. Enrique—described as a lovable loudmouth but also a fierce community leader—immediately shares his housing woes, which include a basement flooded with sewage, a backyard full of garbage, druggie squatters barbecuing on the first floor, exposed wiring, rats galore, and, tragically, two young daughters poisoned by the century-old tenement’s lead paint.

Enrique clicks with Thompson and invites him into his life. And what a life it is. Having left his hometown, Cuicatlán, at the age of 16, Enrique arrived in Brooklyn, a far cry from the dusty campo he’d known all his life, and began working as dishwasher. Having come to the United States de mojado (illegally, or “as a wetback,” as many undocumented immigrants call themselves), he later became a U.S. citizen. But he still identifies as a mojado, Thompson writes, someone who is “always being chased in one way or another, whose duty it [is] to outsmart the authorities.”

That, in this case, means confronting the do-nothing New York housing authorities, even as Thompson’s organization, with the crucial help of local activists like Enrique, exposes the public health crisis represented by lead poisoning. But it also seems to mean superando—getting over, achieving a modicum of class mobility even if it means driving a cab 12 hours a day, six days a week (or, in the case of Juana, Enrique’s wife, stitching girls’ T-shirts in a sweatshop for $1 an hour).

After establishing Enrique’s story, Thompson pans out, describing the lives of Enrique’s wider circle. He drops in on Enrique’s friend José at a plastic jewelry factory. (This is the José of the book’s title: Whenever Thompson calls him, he’s always told, “There’s no José here,” presumably because Thompson is suspected of being la migra.) He interviews Candelario, the successful owner of Enrique’s cab company; Cecilia, Juana’s sweatshop manager, who turns out to be hardly less exploited than her charges; and Manuel, a second-generation soldier about to ship out to Iraq, whose “Viva La Raza” tattoo conflicts with his hostility toward mojados.

Each of Thompson’s mini-portraits knit together, forming a larger profile of a community. This continues in the book’s second half, in which Thompson accompanies Enrique’s family on a road trip to Chinantla, Mexico, where Enrique’s mother, Angela, lives. (The significance here is key: The first known Mexicans to settle in New York City came from this town.) Here, Thompson finds himself utterly implicated in his subjects’ family dramas, having disclosed the planned trip to Enrique’s father, who then insists on coming with them. This is problematic, given that his father hasn’t seen Angela since he abandoned her decades ago—after years of marriage in which she says he regularly beat her.

As in Brooklyn, personal profiles weave into larger story about Chinantla, where everyone seems to be Enrique’s cousin. The town has been transformed by its New York connection, sporting newly built concrete homes and a new church, all underwritten by its sons and daughters in El Norte sending remittances. And before heading home, Enrique admits for the first time that he will probably never return home to Mexico.

These stories come at a propitious moment, when the recrudescence of U.S. nativism has gained momentum and migrant workers have been scapegoated as the source of everything wrong in the United States. As Thompson notes early on, “Americans are so busy catapulting statistics at one another ... that immigrants get buried under the deluge, their voices suffocated beneath a mountain of footnotes and policy papers.”

This is the book’s raison d’etre, and There’s No José Here largely succeeds in projecting immigrant voices—if filtered through that of a sometimes insecure narrator, who says at one point that he feels “like a strange interloper, peering into the private lives of immigrants while revealing little about myself.”

“It can be quite lopsided, this game,” Thompson adds. Whatever the author’s conflicts, he succeeds in unveiling these “hidden” worlds—hidden, presumably, in the sense of not shared by the middle-class readers for whom this book is intended—and in making the lives he profiles outshine the statistics.

Pablo Morales is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.


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