Does our place of origin determine who we are? The question confronts all those who leave their country for another, whether they ask it of themselves or have it answered for them in the place they arrive. And it haunts the people who inhabit Where We Come From, the new novel from Oscar Cásares, who in setting the action in the Texas border city of Brownsville also invites readers to consider the contemporary complexities of immigration, assimilation, and identity as experienced by an extended cast of compelling characters.
Key to keeping readers both engaged and oriented is the structure of the novel, which is built in four multichapter sections, so that Cásares can give all his characters proper attention across overlapping storylines. The narrative begins in a small home on the Brownsville side of the Rio Grande, inhabited by the aging Nina and her even older mother. Nina’s life is altered the day the cleaning lady asks a favor: Could her daughter stay in the pink guesthouse out back for a few nights as she crosses the border to be with her husband? Nina’s granting of the favor is a critical early moment in the book; word gets out to professional smugglers (coyotes), and soon there is a steady flow of immigrants coming to the guesthouse for shelter. Nina works to keep this arrangement a secret, not just from the authorities, but also from her mother and younger brother, Beto, who has no sympathy for those whom he derisively refers to as mojados.
When the coyotes are arrested, the influx of shelter-seeking immigrants comes to a halt. But then, two nights later, seemingly out of nowhere, a boy appears: twelve-year-old Daniel, alone, separated from the last group that had taken shelter there. Nina can’t help but take pity on him, because the boy reminds her of Orly—her godson and great-nephew, who himself is about to visit Brownsville from Houston. Orly’s arrival sets in motion a new series of events. Following some initial tentativeness, the two boys start to become close. It’s through their developing relationship that Cásares begins to plumb more deeply the themes of his novel. How do radically different backgrounds affect the dynamics of relationships? How does place of origin result in differing applications of justice? Yet these ideas are dramatized through moments that feel true to a child’s way of thinking: Why, Orly wonders, must Daniel be hidden in the guesthouse, eating alone, where no one can see him? Why, he asks himself, is Nina so worried that Beto, her own brother, would report Daniel?