When their sons and husbands leave home to sneak into the United States, Mexican women ask the underlying question in Crossing Over: Will they arrive or will they die? Three million illegal Mexican aliens some say it's really more than twice that number are in the United States because they won the life-or-death gamble against the desert, the Rio Grande and vigilant border guards. Thousands of others lost, and their women at home never got an answer.

In 1996, a speeding pickup truck crammed with 27 undocumented Mexicans tried to elude the Border Patrol and hurtled into a ditch in Temecula, California. Among the eight who died were three brothers, Benjamin, Jaime and Salvador Chavez. Author RubŽn Mart’nez visited the grieving family and kept in close touch with its members as they made their way to California's strawberry fields, Missouri's tomato farms and a Wisconsin slaughterhouse knowing that if they remained in Mexico they and their children would be frozen in futureless poverty.

Through the Chavez clan, Martinez skillfully depicts elements of migrant culture the fatigue of a back-breaking day in the fields, the ever-present fear of being caught, the bitter dealings with coyotes yes, coyotes. That's the name given to the smugglers who demand from $500 to $3,000 per person to shepherd their migrant clients on the road to an American future and who have no compulsion against abandoning them when things go wrong.

Especially riveting is the tale of the dead brothers' sister, Rosa, who decides to join her husband in the U.S. Cradling her two-year-old daughter, Yeni, Rosa crawls under barbed wire fences, staggers up desert hills, sits in a van so crowded she has to ask permission to stretch her legs and for two weeks eats little more than potato chips and sips soda. Years from now, a grown-up Yeni probably won't remember the trip, but Rosa will. And so will you.

The follow-up to the author's 1993 nonfiction book The Other Side, which also examines Hispanic culture, Crossing Over appears at an appropriate time during the national debate on immigration reform. It presents a compelling and compassionate case on behalf of foreigners who aspire to the low-paying jobs that most Americans don't want.

Alan Prince of Deerfield Beach, Florida, is an ex-newsman and college lecturer.


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