By Julia Hager
In her novel La Linea, Ann Jaramillo tells the story of fifteen-year-old Miguel, who leaves his home in Mexico to illegally cross the US-Mexican border. He leaves for California, where his parents and two of his sisters have lived for the past seven years. His parents left first, in order to make money for their children to cross la linea later. Miguel and his younger sister Elena thus live with their grandmother on a rancho in the small Mexican village San Jacinto. On his fifteenth birthday, Miguel receives the letter he has waited for his entire life. A letter from his father tells him to go see Don Clemente, a rich and successful immigrant smuggler. Don Clemente provides Miguel with proper instructions. Miguel’s carefully planned journey seems to fail, when Elena stows away from home and follows him. When Miguel finds out, he wants to send her back home, but Elena is determined to come with him. Elena gets them into trouble in the beginning; they are discovered by the federales and sent all the way to Guatemala. There, they are robbed during the night and lose their entire possessions. However, also thanks to Elena, they do not have to go back home, because she hid some of her money that was not found by the robbers. Through her, they meet Javier, an adult who also wants to cross the border and helps the two children to get on the Mata Gente, a dangerous freight train that goes up all the way to the border. In the north, they meet el Plomero, who was paid by Don Clemente to get the kids across the border. El Plomero even accompanies them into the desert, but is shot by the border police shortly after. Javier, who is injured and feels that he is a burden for the children, leaves them during the night and probably dies in the desert. Miguel and Elena succeed in crossing the border but the novel leaves open what happens after their arrival. In the epilogue, which takes place ten years later, we learn that Elena returned to Mexico, whereas Miguel stayed in California.
The author takes the reader on a trip: It is an adventurous way from the Mexican countryside, through the desert across the US-Mexican border, into an urban American environment. But it is also a trip into the mind of a young adult who is looking for his parents’ love and appreciation, who is struggling with his identity, and who needs to grow up fast and make responsible decisions for himself and his younger sister at an early age.
Mexican culture is portrayed in a thorough, non-stereotypical way in La Linea. The reader learns about the traditional way, but is immediately confronted with the exception to the rule. Reflecting on his name, Miguel says “I was the firstborn, so Papá should have named me Domingo, after himself and Abuelo and Bisabuelo and Tatarabuelo [...] but he named me after the authors he admired. Those were his saints, so those were the names I got.” (Jaramillo: 6) Stereotypically, Mexican society is often claimed to be male-dominated. Elena, however, is portrayed as a rebellious young girl who is not afraid to speak her mind. When Miguel tells Elena to cover up, she responds “Who are you to judge?” (14). Miguel thinks that parental authority is still important in his culture, but as a male brother, he has no authority over his female sister: “I could scold her about dishonouring the family, but I wasn’t her parent, and she knew it. She wasn’t about to let me tell her how she could dress.” (14-5)
Miguel wants to emigrate because he feels that he cannot become the person he wants to be, in Mexico. He repeatedly dreams about being a famous Mexican soccer player and in these dreams, he is “looking down on the people. They looked back up at me [...] I didn’t know who anyone was.” (8) If he was rich in Mexico, he would betray his culture, family and friends. Miguel explains: “Each failure I had on the rancho was just more proof to myself that my future lay across la linea, in California. If I’d ever belonged in San Jacinto, I didn’t belong now.” (24) Apart from the fact that it is difficult to pursue a career in Miguel’s environment, he feels that it would be viewed as disloyal towards his family and culture. The American dream includes high social mobility and Miguel is looking for this kind of self-fulfillment. As the reader learns in the epilogue, Elena returns to Mexico. She seemed more at home in Mexican culture than Miguel from the beginning: “The tomatoes that had escaped the bug attack were small and shrivelled. [...] I picked one of Elena’s tomatoes, growing right next to mine. It was round, red and warm from the sun.” (23)
La Linea is a novel about crossing borders. The protagonists literally cross the borders of Guatemala and the US. Crossing the Guatemalan border has no importance, because this border does not carry meaning for them. Only the American border is a symbol of hope, a better future, and reunion with their parents. However, during their strenuous trip through the desert, they do not even notice when they cross the border. “I always thought I’d know exactly the moment I crossed the border. [...] How could I not have felt something?” (96) Miguel is shocked because he confused the physical border with the symbolic border. The novel ends before the reader could see how Miguel and Elena deal with the cultural border they crossed. We only know that they came to the US without knowing anything about the culture. Elena returns to Mexico, probably because she was not happy in her new environment. The siblings also cross the border between childhood and adulthood. All of a sudden, Miguel is responsible for his little sister and should make responsible decisions. By making these decisions, he has to deal with difficult moral questions. His determination to get them across the border makes him forget about loyalty and friendship. Elena would not leave Javier behind at any point, whereas Miguel takes advantage of Javier one day and would leave him behind as soon as he becomes a burden for them. Elena’s behaviour shows characteristic qualities of Mexican collectivist culture. Miguel’s mentality is more goal-oriented and individualist, probably a reason why he felt more at home in America.
In the last paragraph of the book, Miguel realizes that it is not the physical borders that make the difference. He looks at himself in the mirror: “There’s the same old Miguel I was in San Jacinto, just a little taller [...] On the outside, the same me. Inside, it’s different. I thought I’d find the real Miguel, the one I thought I couldn’t be in Mexico, once I crossed la linea. I didn’t understand that there are thousands of lineas to cross in a life.” (118) Even before he left his home, he had already crossed a border in his mind, by making the decision to leave. Before he leaves home, he looks at himself in the mirror: “I hardly recognized me. Somehow, it seemed my outside hadn’t caught up with my inside.” (35)
Ann Jaramillo succeeds in combining an adventurous plot with a sophisticated cultural message. First of all, it is easy to empathize with either Miguel or Elena because they are portrayed in a human and universal manner. Their feelings and thoughts are not culture-specific. The story raises students’ awareness about the risks young children and teenagers take to make their way across the border. Especially the description of the freight train (and the fate of those who fail to jump on it in the right moment), the border militia and the life-threatening trip through the desert are tragic real life scenarios that pupils should learn about. Usually, novels about immigration and culture clash start where this novel ends. Successful integration, cultural adjustment, assimilation, all those difficult cultural issues are lying in front of Miguel and Elena at the end of the novel. In my opinion, La Linea is very suitable for the language classroom, although it should be complemented with stories of people after they crossed a border. Students from different age groups can learn or be reminded that we never stop crossing borders, and that the formation of cultural identity is a lifelong process that is different from individual to individual.