A Glass of Water
Jimmy Santiago Baca
240 pages,
hardcover: $23.
Grove Press, 2009.

The largest kindnesses sometimes come in the smallest forms. The title of Jimmy Santiago Baca's first novel, A Glass of Water, is a nod to one such kindness. "Thirst (is) master," he writes of the parching conditions migrant farmworkers endure.

Baca, an Apache/Chicano memoirist, poet and activist, has written a political novel about migrant farmworkers in southern New Mexico, told through the experiences of one immigrant family, the Luceros. After crossing into "the promised land," Casimiro and Nopal make their home inside an old boxcar, work on a farm along the Rio Grande, and have two sons, Lorenzo and Vito. Underappreciated, separated from their country and frightened of INS raids, the Luceros -- like many other immigrants -- try not to cause any trouble.

The second generation, however, often follows a different path. Lorenzo stays behind on the farm, selling bundles of marijuana to improve their camp's conditions, while his scrappy younger brother Vito "(comes) out of nowhere, a great fighter, and he beat(s) down every opponent of every color." Vito eventually becomes a world-class boxer and "the people's hero."

"Stand up mojados, stand up Chicanos!" Vito shouts at crowds that gather to see him.

Baca's image-rich writing triumphs whenever the story returns to the fields, where the view is of "cottonwoods concealing the Rio Grande, a wall of leaves so dense that midday air was blue under its canopy." He knows these fields intimately, including their modern accoutrements, such as the women picking chiles who "lip (sync) while listening to their iPods." 

A Glass of Water adds another strong voice to the growing body of literature on immigration and migrant farmworkers, who are afraid to stand up for their basic rights because the boss could call la migra, and deport them before they get paid. But Baca's love for high drama can be frustrating. He bypasses emotional undercurrents in favor of Hollywood pyrotechnics, as when one boxer beats another to death. In order to be heard, it's true that you don't whisper, you shout. But shouting can also cause people to turn away, hands over their ears. Still, Baca should be commended for tackling injustice in his fiction. Perhaps his next book will demonstrate a greater faith in subtlety.