Foreword to ‘The Barbarian Nurseries’

In this excerpt from the 10th-anniversary edition of Héctor Tobar’s 2011 novel, the California Book Club December selection, Reyna Grande explains why the book matters so much.

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How can it be that ten years have passed since Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries was first published? My son was nine years old at the time, and I hoped that once he was old enough for me to share this book with him, the United States would be a different place, one more welcoming to immigrants and people of color, and I could tell my son, “Look, this is how it used to be for us, but not anymore.” Unfortunately, that change hasn’t happened. It is heartbreaking to realize that the United States needs The Barbarian Nurseries as much as it needed it ten years ago. The book is as timely now as it was then, and its cultural importance remains; indeed, the story within these pages is one that North Americans need to hear and keep hearing.

In 2011, when The Barbarian Nurseries was published, Obama was in his first term as president, and we were still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession. The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, was re-introduced that year and had failed to pass once again. The country was in the midst of a heated debate over what to do with its undocumented-immigrant population. Tobar’s novel deftly navigated the racial discord, the fears and misconceptions about the immigrants among us, and our simultaneous reliance on and rejection of these human beings, thus offering us a complex examination of an issue in American society that is still—to this day—our most polarizing one.

In 2015, we had a presidential candidate who launched his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers and promising to build a wall, igniting anti-immigrant hysteria that would win him the election. The tenth anniversary edition of The Barbarian Nurseries is being released at a time when the country is just coming out of the traumatic four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, when anti-immigrant rhetoric was at an all-time high, and travel bans, visa restrictions, detention centers, separated families, mass deportations, and asylum restrictions came to define who we were as a country. As we emerge from one of the worst periods of anti-immigrant sentiment in modern history, and we embark on a journey of national healing and reckoning, Tobar’s novel resonates with us now more than ever.

The very existence of The Barbarian Nurseries is cause for rejoicing. This is a book by a Latinx writer, a writer from a community whose voice is all too often silenced or ignored by the publishing industry and beyond. In a country that is home to nearly sixty million Latinxs, the publishing industry is only six percent Latinx. So it is especially empowering to see the success of The Barbarian Nurseries, and I’m honored to champion a book that celebrates the resiliency and tenacity of a Mexican immigrant woman. It is more important than ever for writers of color to have all the opportunities we deserve to tell our own stories, and I am grateful to Héctor Tobar for continuing to widen the literary path for Latinx writers.

A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and a child of immigrant parents from Guatemala, Tobar has become an important voice in the Latinx community and beyond for his clear-eyed perspective and his literary activism. Through his books, articles, and essays, Tobar has shed light on the complex issue of immigration and the harsh realities of underrepresented and marginalized communities. His contribution to the national conversation on immigration offers readers a critical exploration of the social, cultural, legal, political, and language barriers Latinxs in the United States must overcome to make a life here. His sharp criticism of our ineffective legal system and his compassionate portrayal of low-wage immigrant workers humanize an issue that is often too politically abstract and devoid of empathy.

I’ve had the pleasure of personally interacting with Héctor Tobar on several occasions, but one interaction that stands out for me is a panel he moderated at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books around the time my memoir The Distance Between Us came out in 2012. During the panel, I remember Tobar asking me if I worried about being accused of writing Latinx stereotypes. I thought of my father—an alcoholic Mexican man with a violent temper who physically abused his children. I responded that I didn’t worry about stereotyping my father because I was very sure that when my father beat me, he wasn’t worried about being stereotyped. Only later did I understand that what Tobar was referring to was something else. My father was a maintenance worker with a third-grade education. My mother was a garment-factory worker who only finished sixth grade. These are the immigrant stereotypes that Trump, and others like him, use to instill fear in Americans—of unskilled, uneducated masses invading the country. Yes, there are immigrants like my parents, but there are also immigrants who are like Tobar’s heroine, an intelligent, ambitious woman who was forced to give up her college education and artistic aspirations to help her family. If it weren’t for the choices my own parents made, I would have been just like her and would have never fulfilled my artistic potential. In reading The Barbarian Nurseries, I appreciated that Tobar took a different approach in his portrayal of immigrants, thereby pushing for more diversity and representation of the many layers of Latinx identity and cultural heritage.

With compassion and insight, Tobar has brought to life a Mexican protagonist who will surprise you at every turn, whose voice is vivid, moving, and authentic. With elegant prose and a keen ear for irony, Tobar takes us into the life of a complex character, Araceli Ramírez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant working as a live-in housekeeper for an upper-middle-class family that has fallen on hard times after the economic recession. Tobar deftly renders Araceli’s interiority—her longing for what couldn’t be, her bitterness for the life she is stuck in, her strong sense of self, and her acute awareness of her surroundings and the people she works for. To her employers, Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson, a couple on the brink of financial and marital disaster, Araceli is an enigma. Though she is hardworking and responsible, she is taken for granted, and the couple never makes an effort to get to know their employee. They tolerate her presence because they need her, in the same way the country tolerates its immigrant workers, without ever really making her feel welcome.

Tobar also explores the lives of Araceli’s status-seeking employers. Scott, a Mexican-American man who’s lost touch with his cultural heritage, and Maureen, a white supermom who micromanages the lives of her children. The depiction of Scott Torres offers smart observations and interesting commentary on the dangers of assimilation. What does it mean for a Latinx family to lose touch with their roots? What is lost and what is gained through the process of assimilation and acculturation? As I got to know Scott Torres, I couldn’t help but think about my own family. Torres could easily be the adult version of my own children. My U.S.-born son and daughter are growing up with a Mexican mother and a gringo father, living cushy middle-class American lives. They refuse to speak Spanish to me, complain when I cook Mexican food too often, and roll their eyes whenever I tell them stories of my immigrant childhood. In the novel, the severed cultural ties are even more pronounced. The Torres-Thompson children have no connection to their Mexican heritage, and if not for the Mexican maid, would have no exposure to it.

Though his roots are Guatemalan, not Mexican, Tobar understands the complexities of the immigrant experience. He based the Torres-Thompson family on his own immediate and extended family. By doing so, he authentically captured an experience common with many Americans, not just Latinxs—the loss of connection to your past, your origins, to your ancestors. The pressure to succeed in this country can easily lead to the rejection of one’s cultural identity in order to blend into the dominant culture. The obsession with wealth and accumulating material things is a double-edged sword when the more you gain the more you lose. What defines success? And what price do we ultimately pay? The Torres-Thompsons paid for their success with isolation. Scott Torres has no relationship with his parents, especially his Mexican father, whom Maureen Thompson has banished from their lives. As a result, their children haven’t seen their grandfather in years. After a domestic dispute that Araceli witnesses, both of her employers leave the house separately, unaware of each other’s absence, and Araceli finds herself alone with the couple’s two boys. When no word comes from either Scott or Maureen, she is forced to set off on an ill-fated journey across Los Angeles. When Araceli embarks on this journey with the boys to find their absent grandfather, to me, the journey becomes about finding and rediscovering that lost part of the Torres-Thompson family’s Mexican identity. Something that I hope for my own children, though maybe not quite in those circumstances.

The setting of the novel moves from an Orange County gated community by the sea to the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis to the Latinx barrios of South-Central L.A. A native Angeleno and a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Tobar knows the city well, and through Araceli’s journey, he takes his readers through an exploration of the varied communities that make up Southern California. The Los Angeles in The Barbarian Nurseries is one I know firsthand. Having lived in Highland Park (before it was gentrified), East L.A., Whittier, and South-Central L.A., and repeatedly visited my mother who lives in Pico-Union with a homeless encampment right across the street and a four-star hotel less than a mile away, I admired Tobar’s skills in portraying the setting so vividly and accurately: the tastes, the sounds, the textures of these places where marginalized people try to make a home, to survive, to find their way in an unwelcoming world. The Latinx lens through which Tobar invites readers to view California is crucial to us expanding our understanding of the state itself and ultimately the country.

It is disappointing that when lists come out of the “best books about California,” Latinx writers seldom make it on them. Latinxs are the largest ethnic group in the Golden State, yet our version of it is often overlooked. Such lists that leave out books by Latinx writers not only are incomplete, they also lack an authentic representation of the state’s Latinx identity, including its Mexican ancestry. In The Barbarian Nurseries, with his journalist’s eye for detail, Tobar gives us his own version of the Golden State, a rich and vivid portrait of the urban and suburban Southern California landscape. He vividly exposes its textures and layers, its idiosyncrasies and contradictions, its social and racial dynamics, its poverty and wealth. This is a novel that must certainly be included in those California booklists.

As I read The Barbarian Nurseries and Araceli’s experiences in affluent Orange County communities, her isolation and feeling of being out of place, I saw myself reflected in her experiences. Growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood in Northeast L.A., I was never exposed to its wealthy side, nor to its affluent neighbor, Orange County. It wasn’t until I went north to study that I began to develop a critical eye for my surroundings, and I wonder if, to some extent, this was also true for Tobar. He and I both attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, although at different times. I experienced great culture shock when I arrived in Santa Cruz, and I imagine that Tobar did as well, both of us Latinxs coming to study in a place where we were the minority. When I moved to Santa Cruz from L.A., I thought I had moved to another state! This version of California was unlike any I had known. It was there in Santa Cruz that I met my first vegetarian and vegan friends, when I first heard the words “compost” and “hippie.” It was my first time seeing true affluence, living among Silicon Valley workers and wealthy retirees. (But it was also my first time seeing white homeless people.) I used to walk along West Cliff Drive with the ocean on one side and beautiful homes on the other. I would peek into those houses through their tall windows, imagining myself living in one of them. I would watch the surfers, see the white mothers pushing strollers while power walking. After graduation I had to leave Santa Cruz because I couldn’t afford that version of California. So I headed back south and lived in Boyle Heights, then moved to South-Central L.A. with its trash-lined streets and graffitied walls. Living there was even worse after I had seen with my own eyes that there was another, more beautiful version of California, one that might never be mine. And I worried I would always be on the outside looking in. All of these feelings I sensed in Araceli Ramírez, and this is why, when Tobar throws her into a media and political firestorm in the last part of the book, it is even more heartbreaking.

Well, my son is nineteen years old now and when I give him the tenth anniversary edition of The Barbarian Nurseries, I won’t be able to tell him that this is “how it used to be,” but I will be able to say that this is how it is and how crucial it is that we work hard to change things. Coincidentally, just as the DREAM Act was reintroduced in 2011 when the book was first published, it has been reintroduced yet again in 2021 just as this new edition of The Barbarian Nurseries is being published. The national conversation about the immigrants living among us and those knocking on our door is a difficult one to have but an important one. If there was ever a time when our society needs to strive for more inclusion, compassion, and goodwill, it is now.•

Excerpted from The Barbarian Nurseries, by Héctor Tobar. 10th Anniversary Paperback edition 2021 published by Picador. Copyright © 2011 by Héctor Tobar. Foreword copyright © 2021 by Reyna Grande. All rights reserved.

Picador USA
THE BARBARIAN NURSERIES, BY HÉCTOR TOBAR
Picador USA Bookshop.org
$17.48

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