“Nothing More Than That”:
Oscar Cásares’ Where We Come From
This is the next instalment of the Literary Insights column by Susanne Carter.
When Oscar Cásares began writing Where We Come From five years before its publication in 2019, immigration was an issue of concern in the United States but not considered the “crisis” it has been elevated to under the Trump administration. This novel joins a growing body of literature that looks at immigration from a very personal perspective. In this article, I discuss Where We Come From. In the Writers Notes I describe why this novel stands out among recently published fiction in this growing genre.
University of Texas professor Oscar Cásares returned to the Rio Grande Valley where he grew up to write Where We Come From. But it is a very different area from what it was when Cásares was a child. There is an increasing divide among the communities on both sides of the border with the recent bolstering of border security. Where people used to cross over the border with ease, they now live a feeling of unease caused by fear and suspicion, writes reviewer Maceo Montoya.
Whereas most immigrant novels highlight the experiences of immigrants trying to enter the United States, Where We Come From focuses on an older woman living in a border town who unwillingly becomes involved in helping to smuggle immigrants across the border. What begins as a favor to Nina’s Mexican housekeeper to temporarily hide her daughter and granddaughter in Nina’s guesthouse escalates into a full-scale operation as a continual flow of immigrants use her guesthouse as a stopping point on their way north. Unable to turn away the immigrants, Nina lives in constant fear of being caught doing something she knows is illegal.
The plot is further complicated by Nina’s need to hide her covert activity from her aging mother, her brother, and her godson, Orly, who is spending the summer with her. Eventually Orly meets Daniel, an immigrant boy his own age who is hiding in the guesthouse indefinitely until his father can be located. Feeling displaced and uncertain of their future, the two boys find commonality in their situations, despite their varied circumstances. “Where they came from” becomes secondary to “where they are.” As New York Times Book Review reviewer Javier Zamora writes:
Cásares beautifully shows us that anyone can become part of a family and that where you come from is “nothing more than that” — where you come from. It isn’t where your story ends, “only where it begins.”
Where We Come From contributes to the genre of immigration literature as a novel that humanizes the people involved in the flow of immigrants on both sides of the American-Mexican border. In addition to the novel’s primary characters, Cásares intersperses short italicized passages describing the lives of peripheral characters—a maid, a gardener, a deported teacher, and others—who have brief encounters with the main characters. These snippets expand our understanding of and compassion for immigrants who live among us but are often invisible in American life.
Cásares described his aim of helping readers to see the “human side” of the immigration issue in an Alcalde interview by Danielle Lopez:
I’d like them to see the human side of this situation and see that people like the characters in the book are vulnerable and scared and in need. I didn’t write this with a political agenda. I don’t think I can change people’s minds. But can I get them to see it a little differently? Maybe.
The novel’s quality is also enhanced by its factual accuracy. Although Cásares was born in the Rio Grande Valley and frequently returns to visit the border region, he felt the need to do additional research about the immigration process to make sure his writing was accurate. He interviewed both an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) secret agent and an immigration lawyer to fill in the gaps of his own knowledge and make sure his fiction told the truth.