The Bookworm

The Bookworm
By Terri Schlichenmeyer
“Underground America”
compiled and edited by Peter Orner
c.2008, McSweeney’s Books $24
Let’s imagine for a minute, the unthinkable.
Let’s imagine the U.S. government has been overthrown and a powerful, armed group of soldiers has taken over. Chaos ensues. Inflation rises. Education is suddenly beyond the average person’s means. If you owned a business, well, you don’t any more.
Sounds like the stuff of Hollywood?
It’s not. Not in many parts of the world, as you’ll see when you read “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives” compiled and edited by Peter Orner, with a foreword by Luis Alberto Urrea.
With the help of grad students, volunteers and others, more than 60 undocumented U.S. immigrants were recently interviewed for the “Voice of Witness” book series. Here, you’ll read 24 stories from people who came from all over the world in search of a better life in America.
From a young man who escaped from Guatemala: “When we arrived at the house, and told my dad what happened, he said that we had to leave, that they were going to kill us… Then the soldiers set fire to our house and left.”
From a Colombian woman: “The coyotes said the immigration people would be looking for us. So we waited on the edge [of a river]. I submerged myself there, in deep, black water. Only my face was above the water so I could breathe.”
From the adult child of immigrants: “I’ve always reminded myself that the only reason why I have a good job is because my parents did backbreaking labor so that I could go to school.”
They show perseverance: “I’ve crossed the border eight times.”
They show willingness: “You don’t see a single American cleaning fish in the fish plants.”
And they could be us: “Honestly, I didn’t know how to fry an egg. In Colombia, I paid other people to clean my house.”
As I was reading this book, I had split thoughts. I was amazed at the determination the immigrants possessed, and their stories of desperation, longing for a better life, and loneliness for families left behind.
On the other hand, the stories recounted here are so similar that they really bog this book down. I was glad to see a wide variety of immigrants and countries of origin represented but, over and over, you read about an arduous journey to get here and, upon arrival, a different kind of struggle.
Maybe the repetitiveness is the point: In the Land of the Free, there is a hidden-in-plain-sight population of people who do important jobs but are treated differently than most. And no matter what’s said or done, immigrants will find a way to get here because America is their Promised Land. In the words of one man, “We spent about five hours walking. I didn’t get tired, though. All I was thinking of was, America, America.”
No matter which side of the (proposed) fence you stand on regarding this issue, you owe it to yourself to read this book. “Underground America” is a book that will definitely make you think.

Categories: Legacy Archive