Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States – Héctor Tobar (2005)


Part of a treasure trove discovered at an FOL book sale one year, I picked up Translation Nation up for any number of reasons: first (obvs) it looked really interesting; second, I live in Texas which will probably (if it’s not right now) be a majority-Latinx demographic state in the near future; third, I had noticed that I was reading too many white people authors (for me) and I wanted to add more diversity to the list,  and then finally, I wanted a really good solid non-fiction read about someone with a very different life experience….

Focused on looking at how life in the America of today is being changed by (and having an effect on) the Latinx experience, the book is split into four parts as a literary device to organize a lot of different perspectives and people. (Tobar has definitely done his homework in finding sources and varying points of view.) However, although this may have seemed a really good idea as a framework at the planning stage, it ended up being a rather obvious device on which to hang a bunch of disconnected topics.

So, this was an ok read, really. Started off really strong with really easy well written prose, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I realized that it was more of a patchwork effort put together to form a book (more so than the book contents support the entirety of the work). However, despite the patchwork, the overall picture that he paints with his reporting is mostly fully realized and with plenty of detail.

Tobar is a well-respected journalist, and was part of the writing team that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 LA riots, so he knows writing. And the actual writing wasn’t part of the issue – it was just that there wasn’t really quite enough to make this project a book in length and the padding wasn’t that well hidden.

But let me back up and give you the strengths: Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, and so knows of what he speaks (in terms of being in the Latinx community). He’s a strong writer with strong opinions, and he had a lot of latitude and support to travel in support of this book for interviews et al. He meets and talks with a lot of Latinx folks across the U.S., and participates in immersive journalism when (among other things) he lives in a ramshackle trailer with other workers at a chicken plant as part of this research, so that piece was solid.

It’s also a positive take on things which was really good to see (especially when you compare the immigrant/fear rhetoric coming out of the administration at the moment), and it reflects a more optimistic worldview for this country of immigrants. It’s also clear in showing how much influence the Latinx community can (and does) have, some obvious and some more hidden… It’s a lot deeper than fish tacos, my friends.

So, it’s slightly frustrating when you know an author is capable of some great work (ref: Pulitzer Prize), and yet the final product doesn’t reflect that in some way, especially when you’re aware that there really wasn’t quite enough material there.

Gosh. It sounds as though I really disliked this book, and I didn’t for the majority of the read. It wasn’t until the end when I could see the whole picture that it wasn’t quite the awesome read I was hoping for. I think I was swayed by seeing the title on a junior level History college syllabus somewhere and thought that, due to that selection, it would be stronger.

If you are looking for titles about the Central American/US immigrant experience, I would point you towards the work of Luis Alberto Urrea (The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004), Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border [NF 1993], perhaps, or his fictional Into the Beautiful North [2009])…) As you can probably surmise, I enjoy this guy’s work – it’s really solid.

For a different perspective via a well-written novel, T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is an excellent read and contrasts the lives of two very different families – separate lives but the same goals and how does that play out? Truly a good read.

Onward and upward, my readerly friends.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time – Mark Adams (2011)

Mark Adams has been an adventure magazine editor for most of his career, and yet he wasn’t the most adventurous traveler in the world. He couldn’t remember the last time he went camping or carried a heavy backpack, so when the time arrived to mark the centennial of Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of the Lost City of Machu Picchu, he successfully pitched his idea of him traveling to Peru to follow in Bingham’s tracks, lack of experience and all.

I wasn’t that well versed in Machu Picchu, only having heard it briefly mentioned in other people’s travel stories, but I did relate to Adam’s complete lack of adventuresome skills and experience. (Camping – bleugh.) As the book progresses, we learn in alternate chapters about the journeys of both Bingham and Adams and how history progressed.

Adams is a good writer, plenty of self-deprecation and wit, and has organized the book very well to keep both his story and the history of the Machu Picchu expedition clear in your head. There is one map at the beginning of the book, but to be honest, it’s not very clear and not that helpful so I googled various locations as the book progressed. I learned a lot about the early Inca history, about the history of Peru, about the early history of Machu Picchu – and it all fit very well together. Additionally, Adams did a good job of blending the present in with the past, reporting how there was (at that time of printing) still some controversy as to who really “owned” the relics dug up there – Yale or the country of Peru. (This has since been sorted out, and Peru was given the historic remains as it should have been.)

One of the interesting aspects of this whole story was how few ethics Bingham had at that time about respecting the past and who owned what and when. He was a self-promoter extraordinaire and gave himself lots of the accolades for “discovering” the Lost City (even though other explorers had arrived before him, and a handful of Peruvian farmers were already living there when he arrived). He spun his adventure into several books and a whole issue of National Geographic (which was just getting started around then). Obviously, this question of ownership and discovery is not new – consider the controversy of various Egyptian discoveries etc – but what was new was Bingham was the Master of Publicity for himself and for his causes, and society was ripe and looking for a dashing explorer hero. He fit the bill.

Along with this history was also the story of Adams and his own particular journey to the Lost City with his Australian guide (rather a Crocodile Dundee kind of guy), along with their mule handlers and porters, all of whom seemed to have good stories. Adams did a good job of this – he admitted his lack of camping experience and demonstrated some of his hard-learned lessons from hiking – and yet he was very respectful of the Peruvians who provided all the support for this trip and without whom, he would have been cold and hungry. Adams also brings into the picture the various other players that have been involved at various points in the MP controversy:  the wife of the former Peruvian president, a secluded amateur scholar who lives in a tent in Alaska, and the reactions of his family and his editors.

An enjoyable read where I also learned a lot – highly recommended.

(Another interesting fact: rapper Tupac Shukar was named after Tupac Amaru II, a Peruvian revolutionary who led an indigenous uprising against Spain. Tupac’s mum and dad were active members of the Black Panther party in NY and obviously had high hopes for their son.)