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Conover's Coyotes: A Continuation of Steinbeck's Migrant Worker Legacy
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Ted Conover's journalistic work has garnered acclaim during recent years, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His books such as Rolling Nowhere (1984), Coyotes (1987), and Newjack (2000) portray the vagabond lives of hoboes, the secret world of America's illegal aliens, and the realities of prison life, respectively, in unabashed and exhilarating terms, and always from an insider's point of view. Considering his fascination with the displaced, the homeless, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and those who must wrest a living from the earth and its ironic abundance, it comes as little surprise that Conover lists John Steinbeck as one of his favorite authors (Radostitz). The similarities between the two writers, however, go beyond common interests to areas such as investigative tenacity and approach to telling a story. Today's most visible documenters of the "undocumented"—Conover, Ruben Martínez, filmmaker Arturo Pérez Torres—like Steinbeck, manage to temper their compassion for their subject with unabashed, unpolitic honesty. Obviously, Steinbeck holds no cartel on honesty and compassion. An inquisitive public demands those traits of its reporters, and the best journalists demand it of themselves, regardless of their influences.

So instead of weeding through the annals of investigative reporting in search of what is Steinbeck and what is not, it is easier to start with a book that bears an unabashed scent of the Steinbeck spirit in terms of approach and style, in terms of an unflinching quest for and portrayal of and quest for the truth, and in choice of subject matter. In Conover's Coyotes (a term that refers to the smugglers who bring undocumented aliens into the U.S. from Mexico), we have a book that examines as its central theme several of Steinbeck's perennial topics rolled into a composite, namely agricultural labor, a migratory workforce, and Mexicans and Mexican culture. Conover's book rolls The Grapes of Wrath into a saucy Tortilla Flat, and sprinkles the dish with flavors reminiscent of The Harvest Gypsies, The Wayward Bus, Travels with Charlie, In Dubious Battle, and Viva Zapata! It is safe to assume that if Steinbeck were living he would be intrigued by the current Mexican migrant situation, as it contains so many of the themes that interested him. Conover describes the seed from which Coyotes blossomed: " It dawned on me that Mexican illegals were the true, modern-day incarnation of the classic American hobo. Coyotes, my second book, recounts a year of work and travel with these men" (Conover, "More About me"). Conover's study reveals a hardscrabble world replete with drinking, scuffles, prostitutes, low wages, and constant movement. Considering the frequency with which these same themes appear in Steinbeck's work, it is hard to imagine he would have been able to keep away from the present-day migrant scene.

However, if we are to draw comparisons between the two writers and assess any influence Steinbeck may have on Conover, we must go beyond thematic elements. Numerous are the journalists who have delved into an America enhanced or crippled by an ever-increasing influx of Mexican migrant workers, so pervasive and polemical has the topic become in recent years. What separates Conover from a generation of commentators who rely increasingly on statistics and political currents is his focus on the individual. In researching his story, he spent a year living, traveling, and working with Mexican immigrants. His is not a policy book, he states, but a story: "It relates to policy only insofar as I hope through it to flesh out a missing perspective in the immigration debate: the perspective of those whom the whole thing is about" (Coyotes xviii). Indeed, Conover's accounts of his experiences in the orchards of Arizona and Florida, in the barrios of Los Angeles, in an isolated mountain-town north of Mexico City, alongside the Alonsos', Carlos' and Victors' of his sundry adventures—all these recall in vividness and texture the obstacles and dangers faced by Joads and Wilsons. In Harvest Gypsies in particular, Steinbeck made several recommendations to help alleviate the suffering of migrants and incorporated statistics and case studies in doing so. But it was his humanistic approach, believable...



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