When you live in the United States, immigration is one of those issues that is always lurking just beneath the surface. Quite literally, it is changing the face of the nation, almost no matter where you live. Indeed, most of us see changes due to immigration playing out in our communities in real time.
Change is hard, and immigration—particularly at the high levels the U.S. has experienced in recent decades—brings both positive and negative developments. Economic growth tends to be a benefit, but cultural upheaval can be more of a mixed bag. As Americans, we have an obligation to understand what these changes mean, both from the perspectives of our own communities as well as of those coming here.
On its surface, “Signs Preceding the End of the World” by Yuri Herrera is a migration tale that fits into this unfolding narrative of American cultural and demographic change. It’s the story of Makina, a Mexican migrant on a journey across the southern U.S. border to visit her brother. Along the way, she is shot, encounters dead bodies, and (being a young woman) has to fend off sexual predators. At first glance, it would seem the intent of this book—which was published in 2009 in Spanish before being translated into English in 2015—is to confront readers with the harsh realities that Latin Americans face in today’s world.
That intent is noble, no doubt, but there is more to the story than that. The entire novel turns out to be an allusion to Mictlan, the underworld in Aztec mythology. The book begins with a near-death experience involving a sinkhole, which seems to signal the beginning of Makina’s journey to the underworld. The rest of the book is essentially an Odyssey for Makina, who must travel to Hades and back if she is to find her way home.
An important theme in the book is communication. Makina is a multilingual telephone switch operator from a small village in Mexico. Her ability to speak three languages allows her to cross geographic, cultural and legal boundaries. She represents a kind of commingling of languages and cultures. Unlike many migrants, the original purpose of her journey is not to emigrate and settle in the United States, but rather to communicate—in this case to deliver a message from her mother to her brother. Additionally, in exchange for protection along the way from drug cartel members, Makina agrees to transmit a mysterious package for them. The package is never fully explained, leaving the reader to speculate about what is being delivered.
Makina’s character is not whom we typically think of when we imagine Mexican migrants. She is tough, street smart and seems to embody an emergent, strengthened role for Latin American women in society. In one scene on a bus, she narrowly avoids breaking a boy’s fingers when he tries to grope her. While she receives the assistance of several men throughout this story, she is fundamentally a survivor who can fend for herself in a dangerous world.
Herrera’s style of writing is straightforward in a way that is informal but doesn’t cheapen the experience of reading. One interesting feature of the book is a lack of quotation marks around speech, so characters’ words blend into their thoughts and even into the narrator’s descriptions, giving the book a dream-like quality. One is constantly left wondering: Is this situation real or is it imaginary?
A final theme of the book concerns the process of shedding one’s skin and taking on a new identity. “I’ve been skinned,” Makina says at the end of the novel. When she finally reaches her brother, she finds he has no intention of returning to Mexico, as he has built a life for himself in the United States. His transition is not just metaphorical. He literally has a new identify now, having taken the place of an American who signed up for military service and then went AWOL. Makina eventually gets her own papers and correspondingly, her own new identity. This is where the story ends, with a new beginning.
One question this book forces us to ask is whether the United States of America is what it purports to be. Herrera is not just calling America hypocritical from the standpoint of not living up to the maxim that “all men are created equal.” Such criticisms are commonplace (and have varying degrees of merit). Rather, he seems to be pointing to something more spiritual. He’s telling us to look past the narratives we tell ourselves to darker truths that lie underneath, whatever those might end up being.
Makina, being an outsider, is better-equipped than most to navigate this labyrinth of reality and fiction. Given her intelligence, resourcefulness and feminine mystique, we are inclined to think that she will do well in America. On the other hand, her blunt approach can be unsettling. In that sense, she could benefit from a little more mystery. Her success can’t be assured, but I for one am willing to bet that her story has a happy ending.