Nayeli and her friends encounter racism on both sides of the Mexican-American border. Tía Irma's campaign policies are exceedingly nationalistic in favor of Mexico and racist towards Central Americans, and Nayeli is shocked to see how awful some Americans act towards her and other Mexican people. This establishes racism as a central concern as Nayeli navigates along her journey, especially when she begins to see firsthand that racism isn't as benign as it initially seems when it's not directed towards her. Rather, as she moves north through Tijuana and the United States, Nayeli learns that racism has real consequences for everyone—and even though it often takes forms that seem relatively harmless and meaningless upon first glance, that appearance is what makes racism insidious and even more damaging.
The novel overwhelmingly uses humor and irony to suggest that, at its heart, racism is absurd, senseless, and unfortunately all too common. It does this by illustrating the same kinds of racist ideas happening in both Mexico and the United States, showing that neither country is innocent when it comes to fostering racism. Tía Irma speaks about Honduran and Guatemalan immigrants in Mexico in much the same way that Nayeli hears people on American talk radio speaking about Mexican immigrants. In both cases, immigrants are considered a scourge and the undoing of their host countries. Similarly, Irma also cautions Nayeli to not have sex with Matt, so as to not bring home any "American babies." Fifty years earlier, Chava's American girlfriend left him after she became pregnant, because "nobody wants to stay with a Mexican." By calling attention to the way in which racism takes root on both sides of the border, the novel highlights the absurdity and counter-productivity of such racist beliefs.
Though it's often humorous when Nayeli and Tacho are mistaken for being Middle Eastern during their travels, the Americans' recurring mistake points to the underlying anxieties of the post-9/11 era. Border Patrol officers state outright that they don't care much about prosecuting Mexicans, as the US is focused on catching Middle Eastern terrorists. This highlights the ways in which racism is rooted in fear of the unknown "other." Similarly, when Irma gripes about the Central American immigrants getting free educations in Mexico, it is clear that racism also takes root when the “other” is seen as a strain on resources.
When Nayeli gets to the United States, she's shocked by the racism and anti-Mexican sentiment she encounters. This shock is heightened by the fact that, as far as she's concerned, she's doing the US a favor by taking illegal Mexican immigrants back to their country of origin. To those who believe that all Mexicans who cross the border must only want to remain in the US, Nayeli's story of coming to the US to find seven Mexican men to take back to Tres Camarones so they can fight off the narcos and bandidos is absurdly fantastical and entirely unbelievable. For example, Arnie, the Border Patrol agent who process Nayeli, doesn't believe her when she shares her story the first time. However, when he later encounters Nayeli and Tacho on a bus to San Diego from Kankakee, Illinois—proof that Nayeli was telling the truth, and that staying in the US is not her end goal—Arnie is moved to humanize Nayeli and help her and Tacho achieve their goal rather than deporting them outright. Though it's important to keep in mind that Arnie comes to this decision in part because he's extremely fed up with his job and with the government's obsession with policing the border, his decision to help Nayeli makes the case that humanizing someone previously thought of only as an "other" can lead to positive outcomes for all parties.
Though the novel doesn't offer a quick fix for the racism and animosity between Mexico and the United States, the small kindnesses Nayeli experiences throughout the novel suggest that humanizing people and moving away from the idea of the "other" is a simple way to combat racism. Overall, the humanity and very simple desires of the characters insist that no matter what kinds of divisions people draw, people are human and deserve to be treated as such.
Racism Quotes in Into the Beautiful North
A man like Tacho had to learn to survive in Mexico, and he had learned to re-create himself in bright colors, in large attitudes, thus becoming a cherished character. If you wanted to achieve immortality, or at least acceptance, in Tres Camarones, the best thing to do was become an amazing fixture. It was very macho to be a ne'er-do-well, even if you were gay.
"We are Mexicans," Irma informed the fruit seller—needlessly, he felt. "Mexicans eat corn and beans. Did you notice? The Aztec culture gave corn to the world, you little man. We invented it! Mexicans grow beans. How is it, then, that Mexicans cannot afford to buy and eat the corn and beans they grow?"
"These illegals come to Mexico expecting a free ride! Don't tell me you don't have Salvadorans and Hondurans in your school, getting the best education in the world! They take our jobs too [...] What we need is a wall on our southern border."
"You will see," Irma said. "The Americanos are kind. Friendly people. Generous people. They have quaint customs—they aren't really, shall we say, sophisticated like we are. You can't drink the water—it will give you diarrhea. But it's very clean there. Good food. You'll see."
Nayeli looked at the migra agents through the iron mesh. Big men. Happy, bright-faced men. Shiny and crisp. Green uniforms. Short hair. Mustaches.
What made them different from her?
She could not tell.
Nobody but Nayeli's gang was on a quest to protect and repopulate their villages. They were there for food, to send money home. These invaders, so infamous on American talk radio, were hopeless and frantic with starving compulsion.
"Welcome to the United States," Velma shouted at them as if they were deaf.
Everyone smiled warmly, wondering if she was mad at them.
On the radio, they heard many angry Americans with loud voices saying Mexicans were unwanted, and immigrants carried disease and harbored terrorists. English only, the AM shouters boomed; English was the official language of America.
"Where are you from, por favor?" Nayeli asked.
"Colorado," she replied.
"But...qué es la palabra...original?"