The usual immigration saga tells migrants’ struggles to succeed in their newfound country. We all know, however, that the real stories can be far more complicated and interesting than that. Families extend beyond borders, classes and customs. Cultures and languages clash and co-evolve. Immigrants often find themselves in conflict among themselves and in opposition to the status quo in both their old and new countries, like it or not.
In this context, Linda LaRoche’s vivid, textured family biography, “Dust Unto Shadow” challenges the common wisdom about immigration through a fascinating tale of one mother’s courageous transcultural odyssey. In it, LaRoche tells us the story of her American-born Latino mother’s life, seen through Mexican and American eyes.
La Roche’s narrative is particularly fascinating in that it reverses the normal direction of Mexican-American immigration stories. It goes from north to south rather than from south to north.
LaRoche’s mother, Benilde, was born in Sacramento in the 1930s. Her family was prospering despite the Great Depression. But all was not well. Her father — the author’s grandfather — was a railroad engineer and tyrannical paterfamilias who became crueler with each day.
His wife (the author’s grandmother) had him arrested after one particularly violent incident. She knew, however, that her abusive husband would come after her just as soon as he got out of jail. Fearing for her life, she took her six children — including the author’s mother — and fled back to her family home in Jalisco, Mexico. There she resettled with her children, including young Benilde, as part of a tradition-bound family rooted in old Jalisco and its formidable social and cultural matrices.
They found both comfort and complications in Jalisco’s rituals and routines. No matter what they did, however, they were viewed as outsiders. As voyagers old country voyagers returned from a modern, alien world, they came up against ancient hostilities that had molded their family’s destiny for generations. Young Benilde, already acculturated to California life, had to learn how to balance between the two worlds.
LaRoche peels back layer after layer of race, colonialism, color-consciousness and class in this highly personal immigration saga that never loses its dramatic human focus. It is a story that will stay with readers long after turning the last page.
Though she has published articles and ghosted widely, this is the first full-length book that LaRoche can call her own. “Dust Unto Shadow” conveys a sense of spontaneous revelation throughout. The author attributes this to personally discovering family stories largely unknown to her before she started researching and writing this book.
LaRoche says that a late-1990s reality television show started the process by piquing her interest in genealogy. She got her mother to start telling her family stories. She found logic and revelations in these stories — agrarian feuding against the old landlords, rich haciendas, the Catholic Church’s omnipresent role, bleak feudalism and violence, gunfights in which family members had died.
I have gotten to know Linda over the years and she has grown on me. Like me, she traveled in Europe for some years. She was a theater critic for the Pasadena Weekly. She also taught writing at College of Southern Nevada.
Linda LaRoche also produced the film “The Trouble with Tonia,” a 23-minute black comedy that has won various festival awards, starring the late Lupe Ontiveros. It was honored by the New York’s Whitney museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The film also made the Atzlan Film Institute’s Top 100 list.
I get a strong sense that LaRoche’s identity as an old soul grew out of writing this book, and it should do so for those who read it as well.
Recently, LaRoche took part in her first public reading and book-signing at the Sierra Madre Library. She sold more copies than she would have expected at a more traditional bookstore.
And so her illuminating heroic immigrant biography finds its way into the greater world, spreading the clearer understanding of issues so sorely needed in today’s demagogic public environment.
Linda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org