Transcending Borders

Rose Castillo Guilbault's essays celebrate immigrant successes

In the current way-past-silly season of armed ex-Marines RVin' Arivaca, English-only battles slogging on and horrible numbers of desert deaths, this slim collection of essays stands out as a graceful testimony to immigration and the spirit that transcends borders.

A memoir of Rose Castillo Guilbault, Farmworker's Daughter recounts her life from toddlerhood in 1950s Sonora through high school in 1970s Salinas County, Calif. Now a regional executive of AAA and chair of the board of governors for the Commonwealth Club of California, Ms. Guilbault has written for Pacific News Service and the San Francisco Chronicle, and served as an editorial director to the San Francisco ABC television affiliate. And she entered school not knowing English. As she tells it, Ms. Guilbault's odyssey began after her mother, María Luisa, socially stigmatized herself in Mexico by divorcing her adulterous husband. A distant cousin persuaded María Luisa that a new start--and a better life--were available to her in the United States. So she and 5-year-old Rose boarded a Greyhound for California. When her mother met and married farm foreman José García, and Rose entered public school, the child was poised to see and experience both the life of braceros and Mexican and "Okie" migrant workers, and that of mainstream America. The entries in this collection--essays that first appeared in Ms. Guilbault's San Francisco Chronicle column--are arranged chronologically. The first describe Ms. Guilbault's Mexico: life in Nogales, broken up by train trips south to the Yaqui village where her mother's family lived; her quiet home in Nogales, from which her salesman father was usually gone; the rumors and confrontation over her father's previous family and current mistress. Themes that will recur in later chapters surface early in the book: the rich, noisy, soul-satisfying nature of Mexican social and family life, but also its race, gender and class disparities. Mexican standards that forgive male indiscretion and demand female propriety. The Mexican idealization of the U.S. lifestyle. Assimilation. The majority of the essays in Farmworker's Daughter focus on Rose and her mother adapting to U.S. life. When María Luisa married José, they moved to the farm he oversaw, and another of Guilbault's themes--isolation as the outsider--emerges. While Rose will be swept into American culture through school, her mother will never quite enter it. She would not learn English, or be able to drive a car, or be otherwise independent. Rose would be her conduit to the world.

Once Rose got the hang of the language, she had access to one aspect of success in America--academics--but she relates one story after another of how she missed other access. She was never invited to birthday parties or to children's houses. When she was once prompted by some girls to bring her doll to school to play, she missed the significance that "doll" meant "Barbie," and she and her baby doll were personae non gratae. She was a solitary child on the farm, where even the children of migrant workers had no time for her: They, she discovered, were family-clannish, and all work. Rose's key to middle-class America lay in facility with language, and she pursued it through debate, theater, speech and journalism. Encouraged by a writer on the local newspaper, Rose decided at 15 that she, too, would be a journalist. Rose would write for her school newspaper and yearbook, and for the King City Rustler Herald as high school columnist. She would win a newspaper internship and eventually a scholarship based on her writing.

Written to appeal to the broad spectrum of a newspaper audience, the essays in Farmworker's Daughter are short, accessible, nicely detailed and personally modest. They are not political, though they include the periods of the Vietnam War and the César Chavez drive to unionize farm labor. The best writing--as in the opening to the Vicam, Sonora piece, and her central essay describing the seasons in Salinas Valley--is breathtakingly lyrical.

But its strength is also a weakness. Not a serious complaint, but with a newspaper audience in mind, these end up being very polite pieces; they're personal commentary without a bite. One longs slightly for a trace of acid--resentment directed at the gossips in Nogales, for example, or at a boss or system that would terminate her stepfather with little notice, no benefits and no retirement, after working 29 years.

Clearly, Ms. Guilbault has seen injustice, but this book is less a litany of hardships than a celebration of immigrant success. (Take that, Chris Simcox, and your vigilante goons.)

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