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Reviewed by:
  • A Glass of Water
  • Sean McCray
A Glass of Water. By Jimmy Santiago Baca. New York: Grove Press, 2009. 215 pages, $23.00.

Jimmy Santiago Baca's first novel is as notable for its lyrical prose and humane treatment of the plight of immigrant workers in the southern United States as it is for its novelistic shortcomings. Though Baca renders the experience of immigrant laborers honestly, A Glass of Water's thematic impact is undercut by intrusive, if earnest, authorial commentary and characters that border on the stereotypical.

The novel follows the Lucero family through father Casimiro's trek from the desert into New Mexico and into the adult lives of his two sons, Lorenzo and Vito. Casimiro's story is presented as archetypical of his generation; his efforts at building a better life in America are stymied by a corrupt and exploitative labor system and an endemic Chicano passivity. In contrast, Lorenzo and Vito reject the tropes that hard work, loyalty, and perseverance can affect a realization of the American Dream. Lorenzo, with the help of a graduate student and the proceeds from marijuana [End Page 195] smuggling, creates a populist utopia on his overseer's land, complete with improved labor conditions, a school, and a soccer field. Vito becomes a boxer, whose consistent destruction of a series of minority opponents and populist post-fight speeches inspire a following of Chicano fans.

Episodes throughout the novel are punctuated by the musings of Casimiro's murdered wife, Nopal. These semi-lyrical intrusions often foreshadow events in the lives of her husband or sons. Too often, however, Nopal serves as an explanatory voice, as if Baca felt that his prose were insufficient to the task of making a point. In order to emphasize even more the struggles of Mexican American laborers, Baca introduces a love interest—alternately for Lorenzo and Vito—who is all too conveniently a graduate student ethnographer tasked with uncovering the effects of oppression on the culture and language of migrant workers. Carmen is depthless in her tear-spilling sympathy for Lorenzo and the workers and equally two-dimensional in the infrequent paragraphs written from her point of view. A Glass of Water functions better, however, when ancillary characters speak out from the margins of the plot. One older fellow comments, "I had all the fantasies as a young man, that I was special in my talents, but it turns out I was very common," and in contrast another, younger man says, "Chicano life is unbearable because we make it so. … [W]here's the story in scurrying away like mice from la migra" (74). The disparity between the fantasy of virtuously pursuing the American Dream and the reality of what it takes to achieve it that plays out melodramatically in the narrative of Casimiro and his sons is more subtly and effectively articulated in such asides.

Baca's novel is, in the end, frustrating for its stylistic deficiencies but laudable in its exploration of a topic that remains largely on the periphery of the broader issue of immigration. A Glass of Water examines the human toll of immigrant labor practices from the point of view of those inside the workforce, who believed in the myths of success and freedom only to realize too late that neither can be achieved. Lorenzo and Vito, however, provide an alternative to either passive acceptance of oppression or self-reflective paralysis; in their stories, culminating in revenge for Nopal, the brothers posit Baca's most profound and brutal assessment of the violent choices Chicano and other immigrant workers must make for their survival. [End Page 196]

Sean McCray
University of Nevada, Las Vegas


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pp. 195-196
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