Mario Bencastro

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Odyssey to the North

Barbara Mujica (*). Americas Magazine, June 1999. Washington, D.C. USA.

Although a million Salvadorans —one fifth of El Salvador's population— live in the United States, the exodus has produced practically no fiction. This is not surprising, of course. Most of the Salvadoran immigrant population has been more concerned with surviving in a new country than with literary expression. Odyssey to the North, a new novel by salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro, is among the first to tell the Central American immigrant's story.

The story is set in the turbulent eighties and early nineties, when refugees of El Salvador's right-wing death squads and the left-wing guerrillas flooded American cities. Calixto, the book's protagonist, was not involved in politics in his native El Salvador, yet inexplicably finds himself on the governments's hit list. He pays off a coyote and flees to Washington, D.C., where he takes a succession of low-paying jobs. Sharing one room with nineteen other people. Calixto dreams of returning to his wife, Lina, and their children, but back home, his village has been demolished. There is nothing left to go back to. Besides, the situation is too dangerous.

In Washington Calixto's cousin Juancho finds him a job washing dishes in a hotel kitchen. There, he hooks up with Latin immigrants from all parts of the Americas. Some are fleeing persecution; others are fleeing hunger. None has the coveted green card, and all live in fear of raids by the Migra. Some are so desperate they marry just to legalize their situation. Through flash-backs and the dishwasher's conversations, Bencastro recreates Calixto's and Juanchos's life in El Salvador during the months preceding their scape and the arduous risky trip though Mexico and northward. What emerges is the portrait of a country in chaos, where terror and poverty reign and people are so eager to leave that they risk everything to get to the "Uniteds".

Once in the hands of the people smugglers, immigrants are subjected to the brutality of Mexican officials who harass immigrants, demand bribes, and violate Salvadoran women. Newspaper clippings add authenticity and immediacy to the narrative. One, from the Arizona Daily Star, recounts the deaths of thirteen refugees abandoned in the scorching desert by the coyote paid to take them to safety. Another, from the Arizona Eye, tells of the survivors of the trek through the desert who were forced to drink shaving lotion, deodorant, and their own urine in order to avoid dehydration.

Bencastro integrates other true incidents into his fiction, several of them quite recent and recallable. In one, a rookie policewoman fires on a Salvadoran man in Mount Pleasant, a heavily Salvadoran section of Washington. Confronted with a group of loiterers in a park, the policewoman tries to explain (in English) that drinking is forbidden on public property and clear the men out, but one becomes belligerent, causing her to loose control of her weapon. Several immigrants witness the scene, and immediately rumors begin to fly. Some say the immigrant was executed. Some say he was abused. Riots break out, and the violence attracts hoards of television crews, focusing national attention on the plight of the refugees.

Calixto and Juancho wind up taking different routes toward adapting to life in the United States. Juancho becomes enamored of an American girl, turns away from his culture, and insists on being called Johnny. But when things start to fall apart with the gringuita, he realizes that the adjustment process will be more complicated than he thought. Calixto remains emotionally tied to his family in El Salvador, and ultimately, it is his memories of home that sustain him.

Mario Bencastro has written a perceptive, cleverly constructed novel that humanizes the refugees that politics and the press too often reduce to mere statistics. He shows them to be strong men and women, filled with hope, faith, and the will to survive.

(*) Barbara Mujica teaches Spanish Literature at Georgetown University. She has published short stories and novels, and directed the theater group El Retablo.