By Monet Moutrie
Although Rolando Hinojosa wasn’t born in a foreign country, his life and his work offer much in our discussion of American immigrant Literature. Born in Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley, Hinojosa comes from a family with strong American and Mexican roots. His work is characterized by his passion for the people living in the lower Rio Grande Valley—people with cultural backgrounds as diverse as his own. Unlike immigrants that hail from countries separated from the United States by vast oceans or seas, many Mexican-Americans live their lives on the border of two countries—working, communing and learning in both the United States and Mexico. Hinojosa came from a family with solid ties to Mexico; his father fought in the Mexican revolution while his mother raised the family in the United States. Such a background guarantees that Hinojosa was exposed to two different cultures, and then a hybrid of both. Mexican-Americans, like other immigrants, are asked to sort through both their home culture and their new culture; Hinojosa dissects the different ways in which individuals either choose or refuse to go through this process. He depicts the day-to-day realities of living in these border-towns—places of transition, of change.
Dear Rafe is a novel that focuses on wealthy ranchers and their exploitation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans living in a small city in the Valley. Published in 1985, this novel does not read like an anachronistic piece of fiction. Rather, in light of the debate over immigration laws in Arizona, this novel is a timely and relevant piece of literature that analyzes the corruption that dominated the economic and political life of many towns and regions in the Southwest.
Hinojosa is a playful writer. Post-modern in his self-awareness, Hinojosa willingly documents his own failings and prejudices as a writer. Dear Rafe is broken into two parts. The first part is constructed in the form of epistles; Jehu, a Mexican-American living in a border town, writes to his cousin, a veteran recovering from injuries sustained during war. Through these letters, Hinojosa paints a town in which politics and money have corrupted those in power. Through Jehu’s letters, the reader can see how the poor Mexican and Mexican Americans are being played, again and again, by wealthy Anglo-Texans. The second half of the novel contains short interviews with the members of the town. Each individual offers his or her own suppositions about what has been happening—scandals are whispered about, and corruption is mentioned under a slight slippage of the tongue. By the time the last page comes, the reader is painfully aware of the distortion that exists within the political realm and the profound effects it can have on the lives of those with little to no power.
The regional aspect of Dear Rafe is important, yet the story that Hinojosa weaves extends beyond the Texas-Mexican border. This story contains both fools and heroes, those committed to doing what is right and those swayed by the temptation of money and power. Hinojosa breathes life into a collection of people with varied educational and cultural backgrounds. The reader is brought into a world where the border between one country and another is much less defined than some would assume. For many people living in these border communities, their stories have remained hidden. Hinojosa and his work give voice to thousands of individuals who have previously been ignored in the literary canon.
Editor’s Note: "Borderless" is a column that focuses on literature of immigration and diaspora, featuring reviews of well-known, under-known, and new texts. Get to know its author, Monet Moutrie, here.