There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants | Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books)

The passage of HR 4437, aka the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, caused cities across the nation to erupt last year, drawing protesters into the streets in numbers that enshrined immigration as the public-policy hot button of the moment. Perhaps, then, it’s the perfect time for a book like Gabriel Thompson’s There’s No Jose Here: Following the Hidden Lives of Mexican Immigrants—a readable social history of immigrant life in the United States that dispenses with the standard policy focus in favor of a vibrant picture of what it takes for an immigrant to get by in this country.

Thompson is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has written for the Brooklyn Rail, New York magazine, the Nation, and In These Times (where I’m an editor, though I haven’t worked with him). Throughout There’s No Jose Here he avoids taking a stand on the immigration debate. He’s more interested in understanding who America’s 34 million immigrants are—and the way he’s chosen to gain this understanding is to examine the struggles of a single man, a New York City livery driver named Enrique. “Abstractions are ultimately dehumanizing,” Thompson writes in the introduction, adding later, “Competing narratives crashing up against one another remain at arm’s length from the immigrants themselves.”

The book opens in 2003, when Thompson, then working for a housing nonprofit, meets Enrique at a local taqueria and gets the short version of his life story, which culminates in his current apartment woes. Enrique’s landlord is absentee at best—broken pipes spew sewage in the basement, trash litters the backyard, rats fall through the rotting ceiling, and Enrique suspects his downstairs neighbors are dealing drugs. All of this in an apartment Enrique and his girlfriend, Juana, moved into with an eye toward finding a better home for their kids. Enrique asks Thompson to help him get his landlord to fix the apartment.

While Enrique is a documented immigrant—Thompson uses “documented” and “undocumented” rather than “legal” and “illegal”—Juana is not. The difference in their status has nothing to do with how she came to the States (via the same coyote as Enrique) or when (two years before him). When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, Enrique’s employer was willing to lie and say that he’d been in the country since 1982 so he could get amnesty.

Uneven application of the law and its effect on the lives of immigrants is one of the themes of Thompson’s account. As Enrique fights to get his Brooklyn apartment fixed he becomes involved in the local community council’s attempt to get the city to take stronger measures to protect kids from lead poisoning. (Health department statistics at the time showed that 94 percent of lead-poisoned children in New York were children of color.) But city bureaucrats tell Enrique that a beefed-up inspection program is impossible. “I’m here to tell you,” Enrique responds, “that your laws and regulations don’t mean anything to real families here.” Despite his disdain for the system, Enrique, whom Thompson describes as an “instinctive democrat . . . [who believed] he had a right to be wherever he wanted and say whatever he wanted,” continues to fight—and ultimately wins. Thanks to stiffer regulations, when he finds lead paint in the fourth apartment he occupies in the course of the book, it’s cleaned up within weeks.

Enrique transforms his first apartment on his own—withholding rent to purchase a new water heater, repair walls, and install new flooring. By the time summer rolls around, corn is growing in the backyard. Still, within the year a new landlord buys the building and raises the rent too high for the family to stay.

Through Enrique we meet other immigrants. His friend Manuel lives in North Carolina and is about to ship off to Iraq. His boss at the car service, Candelario, despite being undocumented, runs a thriving business with 40 employees. Jose, Enrique’s fishing buddy, is the Jose of the book’s title—he’s worked at the same jewelry factory for eight years, but whenever Thompson calls the shop he gets the same answer. And, after Thompson gives Enrique a stack of his business cards, there are the waves of folks who show up at Thompson’s office referred by “some cab driver,” asking for help with their own housing woes.

Thompson’s descriptions of people are sparse and apt, and he can make individual voices pop. When Enrique visits his mother in Chinantla, a town of fewer than 3,000 in the state of Puebla, Thompson writes, “Photos haven’t prepared me for how short Angela is: she can’t stand much taller than four feet; the top of her head is flush with the bottom windowsill to her right. Her first, smiling words are ‘Mi pinche hijo. Hijo de la chingada por fin lleg—.'” (“My fucking son, son of the fucked one, he’s finally arrived.”)

Enrique’s trip to Mexico demonstrates the cost migration exacts on families. Juana can’t risk the trip because she’s undocumented, and she instructs Thompson and Enrique to check on her mother. But Enrique’s father, Angel, and his second wife, Leticia, do join him on his trip. Soon after Enrique was born Angel moved to New York to work, and though he returned home a few times, after his last trip to the U.S. he stopped sending money back to Angela and eventually stopped calling. Still, Angel misses Mexico and has a better car than Enrique, so Enrique lets him come along, despite many misgivings.

“I’m surprised everything still looks like I remember it,” Enrique tells Thompson when they visit the abandoned house he grew up in. “I think maybe it was like a different life . . . that is how all immigrants feel, probably. You have to learn to change and live in new places, and you just do it.”

The book isn’t without its faults. People, especially children, are whisked in and out of the narrative, sometimes leaving you confused about who lives with whom. Occasionally Thompson’s authorial interruptions feel forced. But more often than not he maintains a carefully self-aware tone. Here he is recounting his first meeting with Maria, a neighbor of Enrique’s cousin, whose son is suffering from lead poisoning and whose nephew in Mexico has leukemia. “Now I feel more like a strange interloper, peering into the private lives of immigrants while revealing little about myself,” he says. “It can be quite lopsided, this game.”

There’s No Jose Here works because Thompson isn’t just telling the story of immigrants, he’s telling a story about struggling to make a life in the working-class United States. It’s a story about bad apartments, jobs on the underside of the economy, second marriages, and recalcitrant stepchildren. And as such, it’s a welcome and well-informed window into a part of the American experience too often reduced to statistics. v