As our national leadership squares off on the all-important issue of immigration and proposed "amnesty," a series of posts looking back at the themes and controversies informing my novel regarding illegal immigration and its toll on the heartland, El Gavilan. This one is from December 2011.
My 2011 novel, El Gavilan, examines the effects of illegal immigration and a single murder on one Ohio town. Many of those undocumented workers came to the Buckeye State via a torturous path dubbed the Devil’s Highway.
The Devil’s Highway technically runs between northern Mexico, across desert wastelands of blasted-out ironwood and saguaro, and on up into Arizona. It’s considered the deadliest stretch of ground to cover for those who would flee Mexico to America, yet thousands try every year and many don’t make it to the other side.
El Gavilan opens with a quote of unknown provenance: “Never attach more feeling to a thing than God does.”
The poet Ofelia Zepeda said of the region through which the Devil’s Highway runs, “You need a new kind of prayers to negotiate with this land.”
I’d argue the Devil’s Highway knows no true end. The ones who do reach the American portion of the borderlands don’t always opt to live out their days in Arizona, California or Texas. They head in deeper, trekking further north to make their meager living at myriad Mexican food restaurants…by mowing lawns or picking fruit for half-minimum wages in Georgia or Michigan and all points in-between.
Like the Oakies chased from their homes by the Dust Bowl tragedy nearly a century before—the destitute immortalized in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath—men and women fleeing Mexico for El Norte found their path hastened by the American highway system. Route 66, “The Mother Road,” may not be doing so dandy these days, but the U.S. interstate system is cranking right along.
A recent immigration study puts a fine point on it: “Ohio has the nation’s 10th largest highway network and is within a single-day drive for half of North America’s population. Ohio contains 70 percent of the country’s manufacturing capacity.
My home state links the Northeast and Midwest; thus, much business and cargo traffic passes through its borders on this well-developed highway network. Ohio’s economy is primarily based in agriculture and industry.”
In other words, and in any language: Ohio=Prosperity. (Or it used to; these days, Ohio is just about the hardest hit state economically outside of Michigan.)
But circa 2005, or thereabouts, before the housing bubble burst, my corner of Ohio was literally swamped with undocumented workers. Like drunken sailors, developers were plowing under acres of corn and soybeans and platting out vistas of cookie-cutter subdivisions constructed largely through the sweat and effort of illegal immigrants. The bastards trucked them in by the dozens in old Ford Aerostars to frame-out houses for chump change wages. (An exposed wall of one side of my garage—a house built circa 2000—is covered with Spanish writings scrawled in Sharpie).
The influx of undocumented, unassimilated workers changed the face of central Ohio, nearly overnight. As a journalist, I saw results some while before the average Ohio citizen maybe took notice. When the citizenry of central Ohio realized what was happening, handwringing ensued. Racial tensions rose, then spiked.
The impact on infrastructure and public services here in Ohio was profound.
The immigration report put it this way, by the numbers: “Seventy-two percent of the total population growth between 2000 and 2006 in Ohio was directly attributed to the immigrant population…The annual fiscal cost to Ohio taxpayers for emergency medical care, education and incarceration is currently $224 million and is estimated to rise to $372 million per year in 2010 and $627 million per year in 2020.”
When the Great Recession hit, a number of undocumented workers ventured back across that dusty line, suddenly finding prospects more enticing in the Mexico they’d earlier fled than in the financially decimated wastelands of post-recession America.
My aim in El Gavilan was to take one family’s immigrant experience, trace it up into Ohio, and then watch the ripples flare out when a member of that family falls prey to a seemingly racially motivated spasm of fatal violence.
But before the murder that fires the story of El Gavilan occurs, there is another scene of violence and loss, very near the start of the book:
El Gavilan opens with a tragic fire that claims more victims than necessary when first responders and Latino firebombing victims aren’t speaking the same language. Failure to communicate literally kills. The scene is based on all too real firebombing in Ohio that occurred in a mostly Latino, non-English-speaking apartment enclave in what had formerly been a white, working class neighborhood.
The victims were part of a family who’d chased prosperity from central Mexico all the way to Ohio’s Capital City—braving and surviving the passage through the desert wastelands only to be taken down deeper along The Devil’s Highway, taken down in Ohio, “the heart of it all,” as our state’s publicists liked to phrase it in the day.
Craig McDonald is a novelist and journalist whose first novel, Head Games, set along the Mexican borderlands, was a finalist for numerous literary awards in the United States and France. His new novel, El Gavilan, is available from Tyrus Books. Visit his website at craigmcdonaldbooks.com