Finding hope in a new land

by Stephen J. Lyons

Mexican-born author Rose Castillo Guilbault first saw America from the window of a Greyhound bus. The 5-year-old sat next to her divorced mother, Maria Luisa, who had taken a distant cousin’s advice to heart: Head to El Norte. "Get out of this cesspool. It will pull you down and drown you. You’re still young. Start a new life in a new country."

The little girl from the Sonoran Desert is now a woman in her 50s, who has earned four college degrees, including an M.B.A. from Pepperdine University. Guilbault’s memoir is a brief but stirring account of adjusting to a new culture, a new climate and eventually, a new stepfather. She tells her hopeful story honestly, through a child’s eyes, recalling the first awkward day at an American school, as well as the first time she toiled alongside her mother in the endless rows of garlic: "By the end of the day my shoulders felt as if someone had stuck a hot iron between them." She was 11 years old at the time.

California’s Salinas Valley certainly afforded more opportunities for both Guilbault and her mother, but each Christmas they returned to their roots in Mexico. Those visits "filled the emptiness created by my psychological isolation in American culture and the physical isolation that came from living on a remote farm." But as with immigrants before and after her, the sense of isolation turned into assimilation; before long she was just another California teenager, "dragging Main" and brushing her long black hair until it was "as straight as Cher’s."

Farmworker’s Daughter ends with Guilbault’s last day of manual labor working in a packing shed. She is about to begin classes at a university. The "conveyor belt ladies" hug her and say, " ‘Don’t come back. Make us proud, hija.’ " And she has.

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