3 out of 4 stars
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Stretching from the 1950s to the 1990s, J.C. Salazar’s novel Of Dreams and Thorns is the inspirational story of one man’s lifelong struggle to rise above his condition and make his family happy and proud. Twenty-eight-year-old Ramiro Ocañas lives in the traditional small Mexican village of Naranjales, where he tries to make ends meet for his wife, Eliza and their four children together. The young man’s economic prospects wither as the family’s land is gradually bought up by the large Monterrey conglomerates, so he decides to immigrate to America, the world of dreams come true. His life journey touches on a wide range of delicate issues, from the flaws and drawbacks of a patriarchal society to the multifaceted implications of immigration.
In Naranjales, Ramiro could consider himself lucky to belong to the Ocañas clan, one of the most respected families in the village. In Chicago, he quickly becomes “the other”, the ignorant Mexican immigrant forced to face the reality of his own limitations and to experience the full impact of the cultural clash. The author does a great job in portraying Ramiro’s fear and confusion in the big city. The language barrier makes him feel like a deaf-mute, helpless and invisible to the engulfing Gringo crowds. Ramiro has no intention of staying in America forever. He only wants to work for a few years to earn enough money to go back to his homeland and buy his little farm. Not everything goes as planned, though. His journey will prove more of a sinuous path rather than a sensational adventure.
Despite its general realistic note, the novel is wonderfully punctuated with poetical descriptions of the fertile Monterrey valley or the colorful Californian fruit orchards. Many of the traditions of the typical Mexican family are reiterated in the migrant community in self-imposed exile. The third-person narrator skillfully uses flashbacks to plunge into Ramiro’s bitter-sweet recollections and to solve the puzzle of his complicated family history. Apart from the twists and turns in the protagonist’s destiny, the plot has many adjacent threads contributing to a better portrayal of interpersonal relationships in a diasporic community. There are shorter or longer Spanish insertions reflecting the picturesque and vivid image of a multicultural world.
As a character, Ramiro is credible and relatable. He is far from the conquering hero of a land of opportunities. We admire him for his strength and determination. Sometimes, we despise him for cheating on his wife or using physical correction to punish his children. We may blame him for his mistakes or we may not understand all of his decisions, but we may also envy him for the love and loyalty of his ever growing family. To my satisfaction, such an authoritative patriarchal figure in the novel does not exclude the presence of strong female characters such as his mother, Doña Lupita, or his wife, Eliza. With no patience for frivolous sentimentality or self-indulgent pity, Doña Lupita runs her household with a heavy hand and expects her sons and daughters to come up to her high standards. Eliza is perhaps the most interesting female character in the book because her portrait is a blending of light and shadows. She is committed to her dutiful role of wife and mother, but she is also the woman who secretly enjoys her newfound freedom when her husband goes to America. Her feeble attempts of emancipation will fully blossom in her two rebellious daughters, Alicia and Sylvia.
The author’s greatest achievement is his talent to stir one emotion after another in a bewildered reader who does not know what to feel or expect next. In spite of being a pleasant read, the book has its weaknesses. For example, the long and tedious descriptions of Ramiro’s money calculations or of the various roads taking him home could have been reduced or dropped out altogether. The few typos and grammar mistakes I have noticed did not spoil my joy of reading, but force me to give J.C. Salazar’s Of Dreams and Thorns only 3 out of 4 stars. Nevertheless, I recommend the book to all those interested in reading a troublesome immigrant tale of hardships, love and survival.
Of Dreams & Thorns
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