Card-Hyatts give and receive a lot of books every Christmas. This year, as I’ve celebrated Christmas in Berlin, far from my southern California home, my mom sent me a book written by a long time Los Angeles Times columnist, Héctor Tobar. The Barbarian Nurseries, published in 2011, is the story of a Mexican housekeeper, Araceli Ramirez and her employers, the Torres-Thomson family.
Tobar describes places and people with the precision of a well-trained journalist, playfully pointing out the humorous details of landscapes that we are likely to overlook. The story opens in the gated community of Laguna Rancho Estates somewhere in Orange County where the inflated spending of young success is beginning to reveal deep tensions in the Torres-Thomson marriage. Two of their three Mexican domestic workers have been fired, leaving Araceli to pick up the childcare slack, in addition to her normal work of keeping the house clean and organized and the family fed.
A marital fight results in a mutual, through uncommunicated, flight of the parents, and Araceli finds herself with two boys, absent employers and no way to communicate to responsible adults. She makes a poor through understandable decision to head to Los Angeles with the boys in search of the only remaining relative she knows, the Torres grandfather. When Maureen and Scott finally return to an empty house, criminal accusations and a media circus inflamed by competing activist organizations overtake their lives.
Tobar carefully draws his main characters, equally inhabiting the emotions and voices of Araceli, Maureen Thomson, Scott Torres and even, briefly, their eleven and eight year old boys, Brandon and Keenan. The host of side characters, neighbors, prosecutors, social workers and strangers, reveal Tobar’s ability to sketch believable personalities with few lines. We see the struggles and misunderstandings of the novel from multiple perspectives; Tobar seems less interested in blame throwing and cheap digs than in trying to understand how we’ve ended up with the social, cultural and political divides that we have.
Tobar argues throughout the novel that cultural and social divisions run deeply; it is difficult to actually see people who are different from us. Our physical landscape is segregated enough that we are able to go about our lives without interacting with the bits we’d rather not. Brandon considers the difference between their bus trip and their past trips to see the Dodgers or the Lakers:
On those trips they had glided over the heart of Los Angeles, traveling near the tops of its palm trees, driving to museums and parks that were somewhere on the other side of a vast grid of stucco buildings and asphalt strips that stretched as far as one could see into the haze.
Tobar is able to capture the oddity of Los Angeles ghettos in the eyes of the Torres-Thomson boys. The excitement, wonder and fears of their actual experiences are contrasted with the media’s paranoid treatment of their multiple day adventure in the city’s Latino communities. This difference forces us to reconsider our own misconceptions about the parts of our cities and communities that we ignore.
The Barbarian Nurseries offers a diverse glimpse of individuals from Los Angeles neighborhoods in downtown and Huntington Park to Santa Ana and gated south Orange County communities with stops in the Whittier suburbs and wealthy Pasadena. Isolation (from family, history and neighbors) is, perhaps, the only clear antagonist of the novel. This, as well as the problematic place of sheltering and prolonged innocence, is developed throughout, as Maureen and Scott realize they’ve never really known the woman who has lived among and cared for them for years. By the end of the novel, Tobar leaves us wondering how much of Araceli’s self-isolation is forced or chosen. Maureen and Scott’s growing isolation from each other is addressed throughout the novel but never particularly resolved, leaving the reader caught in an only semi-conclusive ending.
Brandon and Keenan, despite being given the best cultural and educational opportunities are scared to cross the street by themselves, and struggle to break out of the world of fantasy and imagination. Both of the Torres-Thomson boys are affected by the immediacy of poverty, labor and voicelessness they see in Los Angeles, in contrast to their prior gated community isolation. Keenan realizes:
… the poignancy of poor people clutching their valuables in plastic bags close to their weary bodies was not lost on him and for the first time in his young life he felt an abstract sense of compassion for the strangers in his midst. “There are a lot of needy, hungry people in this world,” his mother would say, usually when he wouldn’t finish his dinner, but it was like hearing about Santa Claus, because one saw them only fleetingly. He believed “the poor” and “the hungry” were gnomelike creatures who lived on the fringes of mini-malls and other public places, sorting through the trash. Now he understood what his mother meant, and thought that next time he was presented with a plate of fish sticks, he would eat every last one of them.
For those of us who have grown up in California suburbs, or perhaps American suburbs in general, a story like The Barbarian Nurseries fights against a tempting self-deception that assumes that our version of the landscape, of political priorities and of social dangers is the only possible one, and therefore the only right one.
It might be a simple theoretical point to acknowledge that there isn’t one right answer to complex social justice issues, but it’s the job of a well-told story to remind us that these answers and complex social issues find their breath in the lives of real people. As Araceli enters court, near the end of the story, she watches the crowds lining the path:
There were a few more students in the group of people who had come to support her, people in their twenties it seemed, their lithe frames inside bright and seductive cottons. Their expressions were wounded and aggrieved, like children who’ve been betrayed by alcoholic parents. Araceli thought they looked handsome and dignified next to the older and less lithe red-white-and-blue crowd, who all seemed to share the outrage and embittered superiority of good people who’ve been victimized by slum-born criminals.
Suddenly, the woman in the light green nurse’s uniform crossed the invisible line and rushed toward her … “Tell the truth!” Janet Bryson screamed a few inches from Araceli’s face, and then she uttered the first complete sentence she had ever spoken in Spanish, a four-word phrase she had manufactured herself with the aid of an Internet translation programs: “¡Diga la verdad, usted! ¡Diga la verdad, usted!”
Tobar asks us, in the characters of Maureen, Scott, Araceli, Brandon and Keenan, to do just this: to speak truthfully of our own failings and disappointments and to listen to the truth of another’s experience. He asks us to resist simple solutions based in mere propaganda, and instead to look into the lives of the people who live in our cities. He presents us with a larger view of a city and asks us, as the gospel story does, who is my neighbor?