LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
For those of us who have reported in Mexico or on the border, journalist and author Alfredo Corchado is a giant. He's tackled the dark roads of the drug trade in prize-winning reporting and nonfiction. And in his new book, "Homelands", he looks at another key issue facing Mexico and the United States - immigration. Corchado was born in Mexico. His family moved to California to join his father, picking fruit alongside him in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. He says his new home was a far cry from his idyllic small town in Mexico.
ALFREDO CORCHADO: It's run-down trailer house. My uncles were living there. A cousin of mine was living there. And we were in the middle of a melon field with rats coming out at night.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That story is set amid what he calls the great Mexican-American migration of the last 60 years. The book is both a deep history and a personal reflection of the forces that have transformed both the United States and its neighbor to the south and of the people who, like Corchado, have emerged as a mix of both countries.
Alfredo Corchado joins me now. Thank you so much.
CORCHADO: Lulu, it is my pleasure to be with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book is framed around your family's experience and the experience of some of your friends. And from this background, you become a journalist at one of the most prestigious papers in the country, The Wall Street Journal, when you were in your 20s. And that's where you were drawn into reporting on immigration. And you write, in this book, (reading) I was now following a silent pilgrimage of immigrants deeper into the heartland of America, immigrants often referred to as the sleeping giant with the potential to reshape the most powerful nation.
This was in the 1980s. What were you seeing then?
CORCHADO: This is a time when President Reagan had granted amnesty to more than 2.7 million immigrants - the majority of them Mexicans. What I was seeing was images of my first encounter with the San Joaquin Valley, you know, many years before. I was seeing a community suddenly waking up and saying, who are these people and why are they here? Obviously, they were there because there was a demand for them. You began to see the transitioning of a different United States.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, a United States that wasn't based around what you described, the original immigrants coming from Europe, a more sort of European and white tradition - and all of a sudden, in these communities, having contact with Mexicans, Latinos.
CORCHADO: Exactly. And, you know what, historically, it's always been that way. I mean, there's always been this - if you want to call it a love-hate relationship with Mexicans. I mean, they love you when there's a demand for you and then they scapegoat you when times are bad. It was this thing, though, we really want your work. We want your sweat. We love your music. We love your food. We're not so sure about you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hmm. One of the other things that you've always done so well in your reporting is take us to the other side of the border and the debates that so often get ignored in the United States. Mexicans are not just some sort of faceless criminal horde, but the country is riven by its own divisions about how to deal with the United States, and in particular NAFTA. It seems so timely now to look at how Mexico was worried about what would happen when it passed back then.
CORCHADO: Mexico didn't really want NAFTA. I mean, that's one of the things that I find so interesting. There was a real resistance to NAFTA. And NAFTA was something that was actually imposed by the United States, you know, by this vision that we are one continent and we want to be able to compete with other continents, whether it's Europe or whether it's the Asian continent. But Mexico adapted. You know, we're just weeks away from a humongous election in Mexico, and NAFTA is still very much in the minds of a lot of Mexicans. I think it's transformed the country in many ways. It hasn't really - you haven't really seen a rise in wages. There are still these very vast disparities. But I think people now feel like, you know, we are part of a North American continent. I mean, we're so integrated with other states - not just Texas, but other states in the United States. I mean, how do you really divide us anymore?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you point out that there's been winners and losers in the Mexican side of the border too. You know, Mexican small business owners were bankrupted by the likes of Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, food franchises. When I was reporting in Mexico in the Mexican countryside, you saw how small Mexican farmers couldn't compete with Cargill, and their livelihood was decimated.
CORCHADO: And that's when you saw a big push North. I mean, you saw farmers who couldn't compete with Iowa or these cornfields. All these farmers suddenly had to come to the United States to make a living. I mean, it had a huge impact, and it still - I think Mexico's still, in many ways, reeling from that and still trying to adapt to this new North America, if you will, at a time when you also have a president who says it was the worst trade deal ever.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And within all this, these ebbs and flows of NAFTA and immigration, there's you and your family, and you trying to make your way in this America where you are feeling pulled by both sides. You described yourself at the end of the book as sort of a broken-down bridge, but a bridge nonetheless. Is that how you see yourself?
CORCHADO: Often, these days, that's exactly how I see myself. I mean, it was interesting. I took my mother to Mexico about a year and a half ago. And we were traveling, and suddenly it was really quiet as we were pretty close to our hometown. And she said - outloud she said, I wonder whether it was worth the sacrifice. This is a week before the election of 2016. And there was a sense of a lack of gratitude of everything she had done, everything she had given up, everything she had sacrificed - and for what?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did that make you feel when your mom said that to you?
CORCHADO: I was heartbroken. I remember I was - I put my sunglasses on because I started crying. I mean, she started pointing out things that were ours, like a little ranch and a little river that ran through the fig trees. And she said, you know, this was our piece of land. That was our home. This was ours. And now we have to basically prove ourselves to a country that's maybe not as generous or as tolerant as she thought. And we talked - I mean, we talked about it I think for days. And I said, you know, Mom, the United States, this country, it's values, its principles, its ideals are bigger than what we're living today. We just have to believe and keep moving ahead. And it's a debate that we constantly have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alfredo Corchado. His new book is "Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration". Thank you so very much.
CORCHADO: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.