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Book Review

'Guardians' challenges the US-Mexico divide

The Guardians, By Ana Castillo, Random House, 211 pp., $24.95

In her 1994 essay collection "Massacre of the Dreamers," Ana Castillo says of women/writers/activists of Mexican-Indian heritage: "Choosing to be conscious transmitters of literary expressions, we have become excavators of our common culture, mining legends, folklore, and myths for our own metaphors." In "The Guardians," her fifth novel, the award-winning poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist continues to mine history and make metaphors, fixing her critical eye on the treacherous divide between Mexico and the United States and the psychological and physical fallout of the illegal movement of humans, drugs, and money between Mexico and the so-called Land of Gold just beyond its northern border.

"The Guardians" is the story of Regina, a 50-plus-year-old Mexican widow whose US-born husband was shipped off and killed in Vietnam before their marriage was consummated. Cheated of life with a man she didn't really love anyway, Regina gets on her feet, using her newly acquired immigration status and her dead husband's Army benefits to purchase a tiny house on a plot of desert hugging the US side of the Texas-Mexico border. No longer an illegal who must "hide in the shadows," Regina becomes a teacher's aide in a middle school where she falls in love with a young, ponytail-wearing, Chicano history teacher. Miguel Betancourt preaches politics and talks like "a book with a quiz at the end of every chapter." He is also "blindsided, dumbstruck," over the virgin widow and drawn into her complicated immigrant world.

Unlike Miguel and Regina, Regina's brother Rafa and his family in Mexico must, as Regina bitterly puts it, "crawl on their bellies for a chance to make it." Together with their son, Rafa and his wife dodge the border patrol and live at the mercy of coyotes, the devious human guides paid to take them to the American Southwest. When Rafa fails to make it across the desert to Regina's house, lost in the netherworld between Mexico and Texas, an unsettling story of desperation and violence is set into motion, transforming Regina's life and those around her.

Like Castillo, a vocal immigrant-rights activist who made her reputation in the 1970s as a social protest poet writing about, among other things, the economic inequality of Latino people in America, characters like Regina and Miguel wear their politics on their sleeve. Regina asks, "What if this country accepted outright that it needed the cheap labor from the south and opened up the border? And people didn't like drugs so that trying to sell them would be pointless? What if being a brown woman, even one with red hair, didn't set off the antennas of all the authorities around here, signaling that you were born poor and ignorant and would probably die poor and ignorant?"

Regina's boldly utopian musings are expressed more out of anger and frustration with life on the border than out of a sense of hope for the future, and Castillo's novel does little to suggest a way out of the political impasse. As historian Kenneth Davis observed in reference to congressional bickering over an immigration bill defeated this summer, "Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself." Regina understands all too well. The challenge, one that Castillo takes on in virtually everything that she writes, is to expose this "dirty secret" and to dare to imagine a more perfect world.

Laura Ciolkowski teaches literature at New York University.

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