An Appreciative Portrait

Philip Garrison tells stories of Mexican immigrants residing in Washington state

There's something about a wannabe that can make you wince. Consider the middle-aged white guy with feathers in his skinny braid, rapturously swaying along with the Hopi; the pimply faced college student who goes to India a GameBoy boy, and returns a top-knotted, turbaned Sikh; the pasty-faced high school bench-sitter who thinks somehow that if he talks like the cool black basketball player, he'll win the girls.

Truth be told, when I read Philip Garrison's introductory description of born-again Mexican-ness ("when I crossed that downtown bridge into ... Ciudad Juarez, it felt like meeting a version of myself I didn't know existed"), I braced to wince and avert the gaze. Thankfully, there was no need. As a matter of fact, not to look would have been to miss a rich mass of imaginative impressions in subtly researched pieces, stylistically polished, candid and authentic in perspective--the work of an essayists' essayist. Because I Don't Have Wings constitutes a musing on the lives of Mexican Central Plateau migrants who've found work in the "Inland Empire" of Washington State--between the Rockies and the Cascades. Organized by theme, enlivened by anecdote, some of these writings have already been recognized in Best American Essays' "100 Most Notable."

English instructor Garrison lives in the Yakima area of his subjects. He also helps run a migrant center--a food bank and interpretation facility.

The collection realizes a cultural study through a blurry, fluid, in-progress collage. It includes stories from composites of people he's known, historical and legendary characters, references to other scholarship, observations, meditations and personal experience. They define, reiterate and tell stories--often with ambiguous conclusions.

Central to these pieces is the loose, ad-hoc culture of the migrant workers. Most of these folks also hail from the same region in Mexico--the state of Michoacán, which sends tens of thousands of its residents to the United States annually. One of Garrison's theses is that this phenomenon is not new; there's been migratory movement through this territory since long before the United States owned the land.

The stories humanize the current debate. That of a woman named Meche, for example (under "Corridos"), illustrates seasonal pressures. It opens with her beaten and bleeding, stretched out in the emergency room. The ER doc thinks she's dying. Her macho father wants to kill the boyfriend. Boyfriend is puzzled: He doesn't know how this happened. Meche's mother wants to tell the police her daughter fell down the stairs. No stories reflect what the tellers know. At root is the end-of-season grind at the frozen-foods plant--the 24-hour, around-the-clock push to capture the ripe harvest, the numbing 12-hour shifts relieved by beer or a quick flirtation. Meche, given to relief with other women's husbands, met their justice through rocks in a sock.

She will survive this beating to sleep with another woman's husband. She will tell the police she fell down the stairs. Gossip will frame the community's memories of her. Until the community dissolves.

Without official legitimacy, without societal protections, but with historical precedents, Garrison's neighbors seep into society's margins. Migrants lack the traditional cohesion of Mexican life. They travel without maps or visualization of geography. Most are uneducated. Garrison describes as precedents the 18th century arrieros, pack train drivers, who traveled routes through Mexico and into 19th century Gold Rush California; the Mexican workers who built U.S. railroads in the 19th century; the Braceros from the 1950s. For many of these people, the U.S. West is their historical right; after all, it was taken from Mexico within recorded history. These migrants are marked with a fatalistic, sardonic attitude. ("Why did I run away from the border patrol car? Because I don't have wings, señor.")

You have to think that Philip Garrison himself participates in what he ascribes to his neighbors: testimoniar for the people he calls his friends. While one connotation of the verb suggests an unfiltered running off at the mouth, Garrison's definition applies to his collection: "Testimoniar means not just to serve as a witness, but also to witness for a certain perspective or point of view." It tells stories, and it teaches from firsthand experience.

And if to speak an appreciative portrait of a people who don't control official history, you invent a fictional abuelita born in Chihuahua, you can be forgiven a little poetic, wannabe license. This collection's worth a look.

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