American Tumbleweeds – Book Review

American Tumbleweeds by Marta Elva tells the story of the Ramirez family who reside in El Paso, Texas during the 1960’s. They split time between Texas and their patria, Juarez, Mexico. The story revolves around the coming of age of Inez, the border towns, and how adult decisions influence children. That’s the simplified way to describe the book, as it’s hard to encapsulate all the intricacies that are involved in growing up bi-cultural and in Inez’s case, empathetic.


The family dynamic is changed when the father Ramón goes to jail. We see how his wife Katalina and daughter Inez deal with their emotions in the situation and how they got where they are. Elva did a great job of including how outside ignorance can rob the world of brilliant minds and ruin tender hearts by stripping them of opportunities and belittling them based on their race, gender and/or culture. It also exemplifies the need to be defined that comes from outsiders and some of the external and internal struggles that causes.

The mom Katalina has never attended University but loves books. She’s a thinker and a doer. She works hard in and out of the home to her mother-in-law’s dismay. Katalina’s life is heavily directed by her gender. She was kicked out of her home by her father after staying out late one-time. This “unlady” like behavior forces her into marriage and leads to the United States. Her love of knowledge would have you thinking she could excel beyond what’s expected of her. Unfortunately, when she tries to learn English she gets disillusioned when she is ridiculed for having an accent.

“After attending several classes, I decided my free time was better spent with my children. It didn’t help when people laugh at my accent. How come people don’t make fun of French or British accents? Now, I speak English only if it’s an emergency”

On the other hand, Ramón is educated and is known around town for his intelligence. However, this intelligence is not welcomed in the United States. When they hear his accent and see his skin he’s immediately dismissed and can only find menial jobs. This leads him to the life of crime that eventually turns his family upside down. His mother Amalia doesn’t think he’s the sole person to blame for his choices.

“Yet the land of opportunity, like most fraternities in the world, carefully selects the recipients of its rewards. Perhaps JFK would have changed this, but even he paid a price for his aspiration.”

The significance of these moments, the dual culture, racism, and sexism boil down to Inez and how she navigates herself from childhood to teenager. She was raised partially by her father’s mother in Juarez until she was able to attend school in the United States. This causes another riff as she sees her role to Inez as more mother than grandmother. Inez is an observer who absorbs all her experiences with ease without realizing how they’re changing her. The micro-aggressions directed towards her race, gender, and believed vulnerability leaves her with questions she’s still not sure how to deal with. For instance, she’s too scared to tell her teacher how her name is supposed to be pronounced. In a small but significant moment in the book we see that she realizes that she can also be a cause of this type of hurt, “I remember the time my friends Linda and Sylvia asked Beverly, one of the Negro girls at school, if we could touch her hair. Beverly looked sad when we acted like we were touching something strange. I promise never, ever to ask to touch anyone’s hair again.”

“What’s creepy is men gawking at my body, saying stupid things. I don’t even know what they’re talking about”.

The themes in the book are based in the 1960’s but could easily be told today. The complexities that are added to Inez’s life due to her family’s decisions come at a cost. She’s forced to grow up fast but has the freedom to dream beyond her small town upbringing; in the United States feminism is blooming. After meeting Inez you’ll want to know where life took her. Did she get disillusioned, empowered, or end up craving the simple life like she experienced in Juarez, Mexico. The beauty of how Elva tells the story is that you’ll find yourself relating to Inez and at the same time learning about an experience that is so often ignored yet, extremley vital to the history of the United States.

Photo credit: Gail Berreitter


About the Author:

Marta Elva was born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and raised in El Paso, Texas. Her career as a writer, producer, editor, and camera operator in television and independent film spans over three decades and includes several Emmy-nominated shows, notably PBS WNET New York’s Setting the Stage. She and her husband live on Florida’s Gulf Coast.






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