David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Pablo Cruz and the American Dream. By Eugene Nelson. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1975. Illustrations. 171 pages. $8.95.
Reviewed by Mario T. Garcia, Assistant Professor of History and Chicano Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara. Professor Garcia’s latest publication is “Merchants and Dons: San Diego’s Attempt at Modernization, 1850-1860” in the Journal of San Diego History, Winter, 1975. Dr. Garcia has also donated the Mario T. Garcia Collection in Chicano Studies to the Historical Society’s Research Library.
With the recent debate about “illegal” aliens in the United States, Eugene Nelson’s Pablo Cruz and the American Dream represents a timely account of the hopes, fears, and lives of the undocumented Mexican worker. Employing the innovative technique of oral history, Nelson relates the story of an “illegal,” Pablo Cruz, whom he interviewed in 1964. Although Nelson’s narrative reads like fiction, the experiences of Pablo Cruz remain all too real. Cruz and thousands of other Mexicans have “illegally” entered the United States in search of work since World War II. Without jobs in their own homeland and unable to enter as immigrants due to administrative restrictions, many Mexicans cross the border on their own. They have been not only influenced by other Mexicans who have returned and told of employment opportunities as unskilled labor in the United States, but also by American cultural influences in Mexico which entice potential Mexican immigrants by a distorted image of the “American Dream.” “I kept going to the American movies,” Pablo remembered, “and I wanted to see America real bad . . . maybe I could make money over there in the U.S.A. too.” (page 38)
Driven by the lure of jobs and money, Cruz joined other “companeros” in what has become a major migration to border cities such as Tijuana and Mexicali. Failing to get his papers, Pablo entered without documents only to be repeatedly apprehended and returned to Mexico. Finally, he successfully managed to elude immigration officials and worked for an extended time as a farmworker in Southern California. Cheated of wages by growers and labor contractors who used the threat of deportation, Pablo Cruz symbolizes the profitable army of cheap surplus labor that undocumented Mexican workers provide American employers. Besides repeated migration to find work and the lowest wages available, Cruz lived with the fear of being exposed and deported.
Despite his problems, Pablo Cruz never became disenchanted with the “American Dream.” After he married a Mexican woman in Modesto, Pablo became a U.S. citizen in 1959. “America was the `land of opportunity,”‘ he told Nelson, “. . . and I started looking for my opportunity. I started going to night school to learn the punch press, drill press and the lathe, and I tried to learn English. I went to school four nights a week, and I looked for work in the day, but the only opportunities I found were not very good ones.” (pp. 161-162) Regardless of his new citizenship and his belief in American mobility, Pablo Cruz, like countless other Mexican immigrants, continued to live with the apprehension that he might be returned to Mexico at some future date. Unfortunately, this fear has not only made it difficult for Mexicans like Pablo Cruz to organize for their self-defense, but has left them more vulnerable to exploitation. “But most Mexicans who live here figure if they are active in politics,” Cruz emphasized, “or they do something against the government, the government will take away their papers and throw them back to Mexico, you see. And all the Mexicans, one hundred percent, are afraid of that. They don’t tell you, they are afraid to say it; but in their subconscious they are afraid someday the American government will throw all the Mexicans south of the border.” (pp. 168-169)
By dramatizing the disappointments and expectations of undocumented Mexican workers in the United States, Nelson has made an important contribution. He has reminded us that Mexican economic refugees like Pablo Cruz represent more than immigration statistics, but are human beings in search of self-dignity. Rather than being the “problem,” the undocumented workers are the victims of exploitive labor conditions along the U.S. – Mexican border.