“Where We Come From,” the new immigration-themed novel by Oscar Cásares, might seem to be ripped from the headlines, but the Texas author started working on it well before the U.S.-Mexico border became one of the biggest issues in American politics.
Cásares’ book, his first in 10 years, follows Orly, a 12-year-old Houston boy who spends a summer with his great-aunt, Nina, in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, not long after the sudden death of his mother. Orly soon discovers that Nina has been sheltering Daniel, a young boy brought across the border by human traffickers. If Daniel is discovered by the authorities, it could spell doom for both him and for Nina.
Cásares, who was raised in Brownsville, is the author of two previous books, “Brownsville,” a short story collection, and “Amigoland,” a novel. He discussed “Where We Come From” and his hometown with The Times via telephone from Austin, Texas, where he now lives. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did the idea behind the novel come to you?
It's interesting, because I think that, at first glance, people might think the book is very topical, and that something in the news must have caught my eye. But I came at it from a completely different angle, which was the idea of this outsider coming into this world, that being the Orly character.
I'd grown up in Brownsville, but I'd had all these nephews and nieces who had gone down there for the summer, and were absolutely shocked. They had no sense of what they had entered, and people were speaking in this funny way, and nobody had air conditioners, and everyone drove a certain way, and the food was funny, and all this kind of stuff. And so while I found that really kind of funny when I was growing up, as I grew older, I had a different perspective on it, in the sense of my leaving the border and entering this other larger culture in Austin and other places I've lived.
So the idea of Orly going back to this place that, at least, his family claims that they're from, and that he apparently has these roots in, but he doesn't have really any personal lived experience there, was where it started. I knew that he'd be spending the summer there, and I knew that something was going to just be really unsettling to him. I’d had the idea of it for probably at least ten years, but really started writing it about 2014.
Have you been back to Brownsville at all since the 2016 election, when the border started becoming a huge national issue?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. I go down there every three or four months, more if I can.
How has the atmosphere changed in that time, since the election?
When I was growing up there, it was just the most common thing to know that some people had their papers and some people didn't have their papers. But as more news is focused on the region, one of the things that's come out is that there are actually two borders. There's the physical border of the river and the fence in whatever places it's been put up. But then there's the border that’s the checkpoints, which are anywhere from 80 to 100 miles north of there. And those have become a lot more difficult to get past. I mean, people will pay to get across, and sometimes they're successful. Sometimes they're not, but once they get on the other side, I mean, they didn't cross to live in Brownsville. If you're going to put that much risk and put your family in that kind of peril, you generally want to get up to Austin, or Houston, or Chicago, or someplace where you can actually earn a decent living, and also send some of that money back to the family that stayed behind. And that’s going to be that much more difficult if you stay in a border community where you're simply not going to be able to earn enough.
There are some scenes in the book where there's this tension between immigrants in the country legally and those who are not. Has that always been a bone of contention in communities on the border?
It was when I was growing up there. There was always someone who would use derogatory terms to refer to them. It's always been there, and I don't think it's necessarily unique to that region or to that culture, people tending to close the door behind them and not think too much about the next wave of immigrants. It's not so prevalent that you find everyone doing it, but you will run across people who do, and a large part of it, frankly, is the class difference. There's always been that rift to some degree, and it varies. I don't know that the current situation has made that worse; I don't think really it's had any effect on it whatsoever.
I think that [the border] is in the news, and people there realize it’s in the news, but I don't think that day-to-day life has changed that much. I will say that it's changed pretty significantly since I grew up and left there in the mid-’80s. I was visiting a school not that far from where I lived in Brownsville for a time, and the wall had been put up literally across the street from their soccer field. So the school was in the front part of the lot, and then the soccer field was in the back, and literally they were in the shadow of the wall. The area in many sections has become really a militarized zone with the number of border patrol agents down there.
A lot of the book deals with human trafficking, and delves into the lives of some of these immigrants. What kind of research did you do to prepare to write those scenes?
I first had to just understand that I knew very little about it. I mean, I grew up around it. It was commonplace, but not something that we delved into deeply. It was something that was a footnote to a relationship, "Oh, yeah, and by the way, he doesn't have his papers yet," or whatever.
I went down and I spent some time with the border patrol. We went down and looked at a few stash houses. They had started a program when I went down there: If they happened to bust someone operating one, and if they could seize the property, they would then knock it down, demolish it. I happened to be down for one of the times they were knocking it down.
The most critical piece of research was talking to a former INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] agent who I met. He’d been an agent for 30 years or so. His job had been to go into Juárez, pose as an immigrant and then get himself smuggled into the U.S. and taken all the way up to Chicago or wherever they were going, and then bring the operation down.
This was a critical piece [of research] because what I found in speaking to the immigrants that I knew was that most of them want to get through that experience and put it behind them. Even when they're in the midst of it, they don't want to look up, they don't want to be noticed. Because to be noticed is to be a target. They just want to survive and get through it. Whereas his job, by virtue of having to make a case, meant he had to document everything that was going on around him. He had to know how long they were in certain locations, how money was being paid, who were the caretakers of the immigrants, all those logistics.
Anyway, I reached out to him and he was amazing. He'd tell me about actual cases where he'd experienced something similar to what I was describing. That was just invaluable. I didn't even know someone did this kind of work. It helped that he's written three memoirs about it, so he's a storyteller as well.
In the novel you have these short passages that focus on incidental, minor characters in the book, and you kind of zoom in and briefly tell their stories about where they came from and how they and their families have been affected by immigration. How did you decide to include those scenes?
I remember being in a little Chinese restaurant that has since gone under, that I think was in Tarrytown here in Austin, a really kind of affluent, old neighborhood. The kitchen doors opened at one point, and I just looked back there, and everyone working in the kitchen was Mexican or looked to be Mexican. And of course, that wasn't the face of the restaurant. And it just struck me that no one in that restaurant knew who was cooking their food.
We see the nanny with the stroller walking down the street, and we see the gardeners, but in a way they become invisible to us. They're here, but they're not here. I think it's convenient for us to not have to know too much, to not have to hear their stories.
So I was always fascinated with that, and fascinated with the idea of these people who are marginalized and still living very full and sometimes traumatic lives, but with their own aspirations and their own failings. And in the novel, they work as almost snapshots in that we get a glimpse of how the characters are brushing up against them, but have no clue. I mean, we as readers do, but the characters themselves see them as the room service waiter, or the gardener, or whomever. But not as a person. It's someone who's providing a service.
Do you think that if more Americans were aware of these stories, that it would change, maybe, the way that they look at immigrants? Or do you think that Americans have just collectively decided not to care about it, in a sense?
I think it's such an overwhelming issue that people tend to fall on one side or the other. One side is the shouting side, and the other side is the “I don't want to think about it anymore” side. I wrote this piece for the Washington Post last year, after we had completed most of the editing [of the novel]. This was right in the middle of the kids being locked up in cages, and [the Post] asked if I wanted to write something about that, and I thought, "Oh God, I don't want to go into this." I mean, I do. I have very strong feelings about it, but it seems that you cannot have a reasonable discussion about this without someone yelling. And the other thing that was happening was that this audio recording had come out of the kids crying, just wailing.
So I thought about it for a while and then I sent a single line, it was basically the idea for the essay: What language are [these kids] crying in? It was an attempt to get it beyond the politics of left or right, or blue or red, whatever, and just get it to the most basic level of humanity. Here's this child crying, do you turn your back, or do you actually care enough to do what you would normally do? I think most people would pick up the child, and I think most people have the capacity to feel this tragedy that's enfolding.
I don't have any fantasies that it's going to change people's minds all that much. Hopefully, it will give them a little bit more pause to maybe wonder, what else is this person who is taking care of my kids, what else is going on in her life? What else is happening with the guy who picks up my leaves every two weeks? The issue is a lot more complex than simply the politics would lead you to believe.
I think as a country, we've become very comfortable with the idea of this cheap labor. And it crossed my mind too; I was paying a decent amount, but I wasn't paying that much for that meal that I picked up in that Chinese restaurant, and a lot of that had to do with probably the substandard wages that these workers were getting in the kitchen. And to a certain degree, we just sort of shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, that's just the way it is, and they are still better off than where they were." So, yeah, maybe it will change a few minds. I don't know.