Translation Nation by Hector Tobar

Translation Nation by Hector Tobar

In Translation Nation, Hector Tobar, an American born to immigrant parents, opens his discussion of Spanish-speaking America with a discussion of Che Guevara. His discussion is not necessarily a political discussion, but focuses on how he, as a child, viewed Guevara, and how his attitude towards Guevara reflected the ideals of his parents, immigrants from Guatemala. He also talks about his own conflicts between his heritage and his American beliefs. "One of the first secrets I ever kept from my father was that I admired Maury Wills, the shortstop of the Dodgers, and Jerry West of the Lakers as much as, if not more than, El Che" (Tobar, 2005, pp. 3-4). This dichotomy between his Spanish-speaking heritage and all of the culture that went along with that heritage and those things that are considered so quintessentially American formed the background of his childhood. He talks about the fact that during his childhood there was a single pathway to Americaness: assimilation; more significantly, he talks about the fact that, for millions of Hispanic immigrants, assimilation is no longer the preferred method of Americanization.

Tobar begins his book with his personal story. He talks of his parents arriving in Los Angeles in the 1970s, including how they traveled, and even that he was conceived en route. He continues the book with a myriad number of personal stories. He examines immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South America. He looks at their communities, their motives for immigrating, and their personal stories. In doing so, he reveals the humanity behind an issue that many Americans want to simply label a crime. In fact, particularly at this point in American history, there is a desire to criminalize the individual, and not simply the fact that they have illegally entered a country. There is a no-tolerance feel to immigration policy that seems uninterested in finding out the stories behind these immigrants and trying to understand why they would risk so much to come to the United States, knowing that, once here, they will be living in constant fear of deportation or worse. Tobar personalizes these stories by interviewing Spanish-speakers in their communities.

One thing that Tobar makes clear is that immigration is not a border problem with a border solution. Many people assume that, because immigrants come into the United States at the borders, illegal immigration only impacts border states. That viewpoint is extremely outdated. There are thriving Hispanic communities to be found in the most seemingly unlikely places in the United States, like Kansas and Nebraska. Moreover, Tobar does not ignore some of the negative impact that this widespread diaspora has had on the surrounding community. He describes immigrants in Nebraska selling methamphetamines and how "All of this gave more work to the gang professionals of Southern California, war-weary detectives who found themselves sending faxes to Kansas and Nebraska that explained these organizations called 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha were, and how they had started in smoggy and overcrowded Los Angeles neighborhoods, and the various shades of meaning behind their exotic tattoos and how to decode that elaborate system of hand and finger gestures that kids were suddenly flashing on the streets of Liberal and Garden City" (Tobar, 2005, p.154).

One of the more interesting aspects of Tobar's book is that he did not simply interview immigrants to try to understand their experience, he also tried to infiltrate the immigrant experience in a way that his brown skin would permit him to do so, where an Anglo writer could not. He worked in jobs held by illegal immigrants, to try to give himself…