BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Clinging to a Monster in a Desperate Gambit
‘The Beast’ by Óscar Martínez Details Immigrant Trek
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: December 17, 2013
The “beast” that Óscar Martínez writes about in his often harrowing new book is not actually an animal. It’s the train on whose roof Central American immigrants ride across Mexico, making their way to what they hope will be a better life in the United States. The beast, though, truly is a monster: It can devour the lives or limbs of its stowaways, and hosts the human predators who target them.
Pau Coll/Ruido Photo
Early in his travels on what he calls “the migrant trail,” Mr. Martínez wonders how many people have perished on these journeys. A priest tells him that the entire 2,000-mile-plus route is “a cemetery for the nameless,” but Mr. Martínez is not content with that answer. And so he has made it his task in “The Beast” to give not only names but also life histories to the men and women, forgotten and spurned, whom he meets.
That’s how we come to know Jaime, a 37-year-old Honduran who heads for the United States after a hurricane destroys his farm, but loses his right leg when he falls from the train. And Auner, Pitbull and El Chele, young Salvadoran brothers fleeing the gang violence that has already claimed their mother’s life. And at the end Julio César, who sits by the Rio Grande, studying its currents and patiently waiting for the right moment to swim across.
By disposition and training, Mr. Martínez is ideally situated for this task. A Salvadoran, he writes for the investigative reporting unit of the newspaper ElFaro.net, one of the best online publications in Latin America. Mr. Martínez, now just 30 and in his mid-20s when he wrote this book, consistently demonstrated physical courage as he traveled back and forth across Mexico and confronted the risks posed by corrupt police officers, drug cartels, the migrant-smugglers known as coyotes, greedy townspeople and the beast itself.
“On top of a train there aren’t journalists and migrants,” he writes, “there are only people hanging on. There is nothing but speed, wind, and sometimes a hoarse conversation. The roof of the cars is the floor for all, and those who fall, fall the same way. Staying on is all that matters.”
When published in Spanish, in 2010, Mr. Martínez’s book bore a title that translates as “The Migrants Who Don’t Matter.” Changing that to “The Beast” may subtly shift the emphasis to the train and away from its reluctant passengers, but Mr. Martínez never wavers in his focus on the Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans and Nicaraguans who travel “without anyone but robbers and kidnappers even glancing in their direction.”
This translation also lacks some of the sizzle of the original, through no fault of the translators, Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington. In the original, Central American peasant Spanish collided with Mexican narco-gangster argot, underlining the difference between the migrants and those who exploit them. It would be nearly impossible to render these distinctive forms of speech without the slang sounding forced and artificial. But Mr. Martínez’s voice, that of an attentive observer who has seen everything but still has the capacity to feel indignation and sympathy, comes through intact.
He describes Tapachula, the first place migrants encounter after they cross the Suchiate River from Guatemala, as “a Mexican town that smells of fritters and lead.” Walking the streets there “is like stepping on a spinal cord, a touchy boundary line between two countries in conflict.” Atop the train, passengers are “clinging like ticks onto its roof struts”; they find that “it’s so cold it feels like someone is whipping us with glass.” But riding a bus is not much better, because the road is “winding like an intestine through a no man’s land of forest and patches of rugged limestone.”
The graceful, incisive writing lifts “The Beast” from being merely an impressive feat of reportage into the realm of literature. Mr. Martínez has produced something that is an honorable successor to enduring works like George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” or Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives.”
Mr. Martínez is not the first to write about the migrant trail. Ted Conover’s excellent “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants” was published in 1987, and feature films like “Tres Veces Mojado” and “Sin Nombre” have also tried to portray the drama and tragedy of smuggling humans. But as Mr. Martínez makes graphically clear, the whole system has become markedly more brutal, corrupt and dangerous: These days it’s “everyone against everyone, migrants caught in the middle.”
In the second half of the book he focuses on the United States-Mexican border, a subject that has been written about exhaustively. But even in a place like Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Tex., he finds something new to report. He writes with compassion about deportees, some of whom “hardly speak Spanish” after growing up in the United States, and how they become prey to the touts and currency exchange dealers as the migrants step into Mexican territory, “disoriented, with a plastic bag in hand that holds a copy of the papers ordering them out of the country.”
“I can tell that for a few of them, it’s hard to take those first few steps away from the Santa Fe Bridge,” he writes. “They stare into the distance, into their home country,” the United States, forced to “use Spanglish to ask how to reach their hometown, which they may hardly remember. Some have no family in Mexico at all.”
Though Mr. Martínez seeks a broad historical view, his book may also be useful in our current immigration debate, if only because it puts the lie to characterizations of undocumented immigrants as having “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” as Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, has put it. As Mr. Martínez shows, the situation is one of “narcos and migrants vying for the same spaces,” an unequal struggle if ever there was one.
“What gets the narcos angry is that migrants attract enough attention to force authorities to look like they’re doing something,” Mr. Martínez explains. When the Mexican drug smugglers grow “sick of migrants heating up their turf,” they don’t hesitate to kill entire groups of Central American intruders, or kidnap them and hold them for ransom.
“Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death,” Mr. Martínez writes. “The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their head.” By capturing that grim reality, and in such gripping prose and detail, Mr. Martínez has both distinguished himself and done us all a vital public service.