If Hector Tobar turns out to be the Charles Dickens or the Tom Wolfe of the 21st century, he owes a big thank-you to the people of California.
Some of them, anyway.
"Really, 187's passage is what made me want to write this book," he says.
Proposition 187 was the now-infamous voter initiative that was on the ballot in 1994. It denied basic assistance — social services, health care and public education — to illegal immigrants. After a lengthy legal contest, the federal government declared 187 unconstitutional. But Tobar remembers how shaken he was when the measure first passed.
"To me, it was really shocking to live in that California, because I had grown up in a California that was a really optimistic place and was accepting of outsiders," Tobar explains. "It was founded by outsiders — almost everybody here is from someplace else."
Tobar has just gotten off a train that brought him from his Mount Washington neighborhood to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. As early-morning commuters swirl around us, Tobar's point is well-taken: the different features, hues and accents here are testament to the still-potent pull of the Golden State.
Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, is a California native, but the immigrant's story is never far from his consciousness: His parents came here from Guatemala. As the current debate about the legitimacy of undocumented immigrants continued to erupt, Tobar decided he wanted to explore those immigrants' tenuous status and the interdependence between those who are served and those who are doing the serving, using fiction as his vehicle. Thus, The Barbarian Nurseries was born, with its smart, grumpy heroine, 26-year-old Araceli Ramirez.
"In California today, many people see someone like [Araceli] and they think of someone who's done something illicit — they've crossed the border illegally," Tobar says. "In Los Angeles today, 'Guatemalan' is, for many people, synonymous with 'servant.' "
In Araceli Ramirez, Tobar has created an astute observer of the privileged SoCal lifestyle. As she rides with her employer, Maureen Torres-Thompson, and her sons, Brandon and Keenan, Araceli notes Brandon's deft finger work on the buttons of his electronic toy:
"It occurred to Araceli that he might do well with a piano or guitar lessons, but la senora Maureen never pushed him. Sometimes you had to push children to do things that were good for them: If she ever found a partner to share her dreams, they would raise their offspring with that piece of Mexican wisdom. Maureen had the air conditioner on high and the cold made Araceli's nose run, and she gave a theatrically loud sniffle and feigned a cough, but her jefa didn't seem to notice."
When the California economy goes into meltdown, Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson's pricey lifestyle is badly shaken. They're barely hanging on to their large house with the ocean view in a gated community in Orange County. The money worries lead to marriage troubles, and after a particularly nasty argument, Scott storms out to stay a couple of nights with a friend. Maureen takes their baby daughter with her for a couple of spa days. Each assumes the other has the boys; in fact, Araceli is left to console and care for them.
The housekeeper is afraid that if she calls the police, she'll be deported, the boys will be split up and dispatched by Child Protective Services to something Araceli hears as "Faster Care." She decides instead to reunite them with the grandfather whose photograph she dusts weekly. His central Los Angeles address is on the back of the photo, and she thinks she can find it.
Araceli's determination to do the right thing — or the only thing she can think of, under the circumstances — takes her and the children on an odyssey through the elegant portals of Union Station and past that, into several of the neighborhoods that constitute unseen Los Angeles: the shabby rooming houses in the garment district, just beyond downtown; a proud working-class neighborhood in the gritty suburb of Huntington Park; homeless encampments by the railroad tracks.
Eventually the Torres-Thompsons figure out that neither of them has the boys, and the children's alleged disappearance is the catalyst for a huge manhunt and, later, public debate about America's sloppy immigration policy.
Yuppies, immigrants, politicians and vigilantes — Tobar has them all coming together in a Crash-like moment for a perfect California ending that will leave readers pondering the inconsistencies in the country's dependence on illegal immigrants even as some of us persist in keeping them at arm's length.
LYNN NEARY, Host:
A number of writers have captured the tenor and flavor of life in contemporary Southern California: Joan Didion, T.C. Boyle, Michael Connelly. Add to them Hector Tobar. Some critics say he's written the definitive book about Los Angeles.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited with Tobar recently, to talk about the landscape and people who inspired him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: This train's final destination is...
KAREN GRISBY BATES: Hector Tobar has just jumped off a sleek commuter train at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Across the platform, an older passenger train is just pulling out - the past and the present passing each other.
Tobar has a pleasant face, with sparkling brown eyes that widen with pleasure when he talks about Los Angeles history. He's doing that now, as we enter a Metro lobby with murals of L.A.'s evolution.
HECTOR TOBAR: So the first Spanish settlers who arrived in Los Angeles crossed the L.A. River at the point where it meets the Arroyo Seco, and they come to this spot of land. They find an Indian village of what will later be known as the Gabrelino Indians. And so we're standing, really, in the oldest corner of Los Angeles. This is the tip of our Manhattan Island. This is our Plymouth Rock.
GRISBY BATES: This, Tobar says, is a city that was built by successive waves of immigrants, which is why he was taken aback when Proposition 187 passed in 1994. The voter initiative, often seen as anti-Latino, denied services to undocumented immigrants. Tobar says 187 showed a mean-spirited side of the state he loves.
TOBAR: And to me, that was really shocking to live in that California because I had grown up in a California that was a really optimistic place. And it was really accepting of outsiders. It was a place founded by outsiders; almost everybody here is from someplace else.
GRISBY BATES: One eighty-seven was overturned a few years later on constitutional grounds, but it became a catalyst for Tobar. Born here of immigrant Guatemalan parents, he wanted to explore the dilemma of undocumented immigrants in fictional form. So he created Araceli Ramirez, the heroine of his novel "The Barbarian Nurseries." She's undocumented, which allowed Tobar to explore the debate about who belongs in California, and who doesn't.
Araceli is a live-in housekeeper; Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Yet, he says, they have a lot in common.
TOBAR: She became my alter ego. She's an intellectual in the body of someone who doesn't look like an intellectual, in the position of someone who doesn't look like an intellectual. I'm Guatemalan, my family is Guatemalan, and in the Los Angeles of today, Guatemalan is, for many people, synonymous with servant.
GRISBY BATES: "The Barbarian Nurseries" has been described as a novel that will redefine Los Angeles; that shows how class affects nearly every aspect of life here. In it, we see the city and its suburbs through Araceli's astute eyes. She works for Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson, an affluent Orange County couple whose upper middle-class life implodes when California's economy crashes. The economic meltdown sloshes over into the Torres-Thompsons' marriage, as this excerpt shows.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) Their fighting was part of a natural rhythm, a kind of release. They could fight and a day or two later, Araceli would see Scott rubbing his wife's back, or Maureen clasping his hand as they watched their children play in the backyard.
GRISBY BATES: But this time, there was no reconciliation. And after Scott and Maureen storm off in opposite directions, Araceli is inadvertently left with the care of their two young boys, Brandon and Keenan. The housekeeper decides the children should be delivered to their grandfather for safekeeping. She has a 30-year-old picture, with his South Los Angeles address, on the back.
So, Tobar says, Araceli gets on a train that takes the three of them to Union Station. It's a place she visited when she first slipped into the U.S.
TOBAR: It's one of the first places that she sees in Los Angeles, and this is a little bit what she expects Los Angeles to be like.
GRISBY BATES: The station's great waiting room, with its coffered ceilings, Moorish chandeliers and shining floors, was an elegant welcome to Araceli's new city. But as Tobar points out, his heroine soon discovered this isn't all there is to L.A.
TOBAR: And later she'll, of course, be disappointed because one only has to travel a mile or so from here to be in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Western United States - which is where she eventually will also take Brandon and Keenan, in search of their grandfather.
GRISBY BATES: With the boys' parents still AWOL, Araceli shepherds them onto a bus that takes them a few miles away from Union Station. Hector Tobar stands on 35th Street, the same one that's in his book. Down the block, the big factories on the edge of the Garment District loom over small, ragged houses. In the distance, downtown skyscrapers shimmer.
TOBAR: These were rooming houses, apartments that were built in the 1920s and '30s, when this was a place where people from Italy, people from the Ottoman Empire, people from Missouri came to live.
GRISBY BATES: And now, it houses the newest wave of immigrants. Like many of their European predecessors, many are undocumented, and they're making a living however they can.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HORN)
GRISBY BATES: Tobar spies a lady walking toward us, tooting her horn as she pushes a loaded shopping cart.
TOBAR: It's something like from in Latin America, even in the richest neighborhood. There's a person who comes in, for example, and sharpens the scissors; or a person who comes to sell bread. Each will have his own little announcement of his or her presence. So this lady here looks to be selling something.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN
TOBAR: Tamales. (Foreign language spoken)
GRISBY BATES: They're a dollar apiece, blisteringly spicy, and as common here as ordering a Big Mac would be across town.
With the publication of "The Barbarian Nurseries," Hector Tobar has made people like the tamale vendor, and like Araceli Ramirez, visible.
Now, having courteously thanked the vendor for her spicy lunch, he waves goodbye and starts back to his workplace near the gleaming towers.
(SOUNDBITE OF A HORN)
GRISBY BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEARY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.
DAVID GREENE, Host:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.