Reviewed: Looking for Esperanza

By Sonya Huber

October 1, 2012

Reviewed: Looking for Esperanza

If James Agee’s life experience had overlapped more with the lives of his sharecropper subjects in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he might have been able to produce a book like Adriana Páramo’s new work, Looking for Esperanza. The book was chosen for publication by Benu Press as the 2011 winner of its Social Justice and Equity Award in Creative Nonfiction and is available through Small Press Distribution.

Páramo begins the search for this Esperanza, a migrant Mexican agricultural worker, after reading a newspaper article about the woman’s harrowing journey across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Mindful of her status as a border-crosser, she watches herself as well:

“Mothers come out of their trailers and call their children in, then close their doors behind them. I feel their curious eyes on me, studying me from behind drawn curtains….Ethnicity: Hispana. I’m sure I look like one of them until I catch my own reflection in a window. I’m standing next to my sports car: a flashy orange sunset Firebird. In my French-manicured hand, I’m holding one expensive briefcase, handmade, one hundred percent genuine leather. And I’m clean, well-fed, and healthy. No wonder nobody talks to me.” (6)

Páramo uses the events of the circuitous search itself—along with her encounters and conversations with other migrant women—to relay more than an investigative report. What she offers in addition is an Agee-ian deep communion with her subject. She creates an empathetic portrait but also serves as, in poet Carolyn Forché’s term, a “bridge person” between two overlapping cultures. She observes details and provides context on the plight of undocumented women, but she also she goes beyond reporting to sort tomatoes with the women in order to understand the pain such work lodges in their bodies and to appreciate and relay their endurance.

Páramo’s varied background—child of a Colombian immigrant, mother, and child of a single mother--is offered alongside careful immersion literary nonfiction in a vital braiding that reveals the source of the author’s insights into the struggles of the women in her book. Páramo boldly merges ethnography, memoir, research, quest, letter, imagined scenes, and poetry; at one point in the narrative, she turns to explore emotions spurred by the loss of her own mother, allowing the reader to see the ways in which role models and connections among women are so vital—and so sorely missed when they are absent.

Her exploration of her mother’s strength as an immigrant provides impetus and motive for her need to understand similar border-crossing stories and sacrifices. In many ways, her vulnerability in this book addresses a lack in some works of immersion reporting that capitalize on the feeling of voyeurism for the writer and the reader.

At another point in the narrative, she breaks for a chapter entitled “The Wetbacks Are Coming: A Manifesto,” in which she writes, “Beware. They are closely related to skunks, martens, and weasels…. They’ll devour your pantry, and when they’re done, they’ll chew on its mahogany shelves and its silver handles.” (93) She inhabits the conflict between documented and undocumented from a poetic perch, studying fear itself.

Her focus on the overlapping political resonances, hidden human experiences, and embedded subjectivities in one geographical area recall U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway’s recent foray into nonfiction, Beyond Katrina. Páramo’s poetic, vivid, and astonishing work sets a new standard in the form of immersion writing and creative nonfiction.

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