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
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.