The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar

The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar

The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 422 pages, 2011, $13.41, ISBN 978-1-444-726763


Since it was first glimpsed by Spanish explorers, California has been described in mythical terms. The first white men who saw it named it after a place featured in libros de caballería (the ones that made Don Quixote crazy). After the U.S. acquired it from a defeated Mexico in 1848, it became a Golden Land of Opportunity, and settlers from everywhere from “back east” to the Far East arrived seeking something better. In the 20th century it became the world’s preeminent myth factory, then served as a mecca for hippies and the technology-centered industries influenced by their utopian values. However, the myths of California have always existed alongside its less glamorous social realities: in the colonial period it was a vast backwater; 19th-century prospectors and coolies encountered a harsh and unforgiving society, as did many of those who later flocked there in search of fame, fortune, enlightenment, or simply a better life. Given the state’s history, it’s not surprising that many of those who have experienced the tarnished side of the state’s golden image have been of Latin American, and especially Mexican, origin. The current situation of such people in California is the main subject of Héctor Tobar’s novel The Barbarian Nurseries (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011). Like T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, Tobar’s book juxtaposes and interweaves the lives of poor undocumented laborers and wealthy Bobos living in Southern California. Tobar’s vision is a broader and less Dickensian update to Boyle’s story that paints a portrait of contemporary Californian society and its relationship to Latin America.

Araceli, a young undocumented immigrant from the urban area of Mexico City, is the live-in maid of Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, who live in a gated community in Orange County and move in a circle of similarly hyphenated, multiracial families supported by the high-tech industry. Their over-protected children sleep in what Araceli calls the “room of a thousand wonders,” full of politically correct educational toys and books. All is not well in paradise, however. The economic realities of the late 2000s hit home and force the family to downsize their hired help, leaving Araceli as the sole servant in the house. The fallout from a serious fight between Scott and Maureen strands Araceli with the two oldest children, Brandon, 11, and Keenan, 8. Believing that the boys have been abandoned, Araceli attempts to deliver them to their Mexican grandfather’s house in Los Angeles. This journey, the boys’ first exposure to real life and the tapestry of L.A. history and society, results in Araceli’s arrest on charges of child endangerment. In the ensuing media circus, she becomes a symbol for both pro- and anti-immigrant forces, a pawn in the political aspirations of an Assistant District Attorney and a scapegoat for the Torres-Thompsons’ own sense of parental inadequacy. In the end she is freed because of a lack of evidence against her. She is not immediately deported, as she feared, but is able to leave California with her new romantic partner, a young Mexican-American man. At the end of the novel, they are on the highway in Arizona, where Araceli must decide whether they will continue on to New Mexico or turn south to old Mexico.

The nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the protagonist, who resists at every moment being stereotyped by the social forces that surround her, is one of the best aspects of the novel. Equally important, however, is the portrayal of the people of Southern California. True to life, a large portion are Latinos, ranging from the half-white non-Spanish-speaking Scott Torres to the undocumented Mexican domestic workers and day laborers who tend his house and garden. Other characters include various Latino police and court officers, a Mexican-born neighborhood leader, a Salvadoran woman who gives Araceli a hand in L.A., and a young Mexican-American hipster college student and her undocumented friend who turned down a scholarship at Brown because of her immigration status. All of the characters, Latino or otherwise, are sympathetically but ironically rendered as complete human beings whose personal experiences shape their beliefs and decisions. At some of its best moments, the novel portrays these characters grappling with the personal experience of broader historical and global forces. This is evident, for example, in the description of the sudden unease felt by the employers of maids and nannies like Araceli, people from places where “[…] children in used American clothing [celebrate] exotic holidays involving the burning of incense and parades with religious icons. The knowledge of that distant poverty provoked feelings of admiration, guilt, and mild revulsion in varying degrees, and also a sense of confusion. How can we live in such a big world, where hooded sweatshirts and baby ballerina dresses circulate from north to south, from new to old, from those who pay retail to those who pay for their clothes by the pound?” Such questions give voice to the current liberal malaise about everything from immigration to the environment. The employers of the undocumented, including the Torres-Thompsons, are well-meaning humanists who are somehow incapable of transcending their involvement in an exploitative economic system.

The Barbarian Nurseries has its flaws as well, such as the occasional clunky sentence or inelegant description: “Araceli’s back ached because she spent much of the waking day turning and twisting on a thin mattress, feeling it slide back and forth over the steel sheet her jailers called a bed frame.” Thankfully, all the Spanish seems to be spelled properly, although I did catch an error in Portuguese (São Paolo for São Paulo). Its biggest problem, however, is the lack of verisimilitude in the characterization of Brandon, who is supposedly so well-read, but also so isolated, that he mistakes homeless people for characters from a book and can only articulate his experiences in the language of high fantasy. While this conceit provides an interesting defamiliarization of typical urban scenes, the level of detachment from reality is frankly unbelievable in a character who is not meant to suffer from social or mental disabilities, regardless of how over-protected he is.

Notwithstanding such problems, the novel as a whole is an excellent portrayal of Southern California’s (and by extension, the United States’) fraught relationship with Latin America through the experiences of the people who live it. This relationship produces not a few ironies, many of which are portrayed in the experiences of Araceli. When she is under arrest she both enjoys her Miranda rights--“That’s another thing I really like about this country […] The right to keep your lips pursed together like a chase nun in a convent is enshrined in their Constitution, and there is no officer or judge who can force you to open your mouth”—but is also struck by the anger and hatred of the assistant D.A. who questions her: “He seemed to believe that she lacked basic human morality and intelligence; at the same time, he thought her capable of great criminal cunning.” This reminds Araceli of the way certain Mexican Machos view women, and it reminds the reader of many of the ironies of the United States, where the founding ideals of the nation have often butted up against the realities of racial and ethnic prejudice and economic exploitation. While such broad themes are ever-present in the novel, their refraction through the lives of the characters provides a sympathetic portrayal of human experience at the crossroads of North and Latin America. The protagonism of Araceli re-centers this story at the margins, showing the personality, humanity and agency of this “illegal” person. By the end it is clear that Araceli, who rejects both the ancestral guilt of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl and the mirage of Los Angeles, will decide the course that her life will take.


Brandon P. Bisbey. Assistant Professor of Spanish, Northeastern Illinois University.

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