The Burning Plain and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by Juan Rulfo
“Paso del Norte”
Except for a sliver of third person narration at the story’s center, “Paso del Norte” consists entirely of dialog. The story begins with a conversation between a son and his father: “I’m going a long way off, Father, that’s why I’ve come to let you know.” The father asks the son where he is headed and learns his destination is “up North.” The son’s pig-buying business has failed and his family is starving, in contrast with his father. The son says the father can’t understand his family’s suffering because he sells “skyrockets and firecrackers and gun powder” which are popular whenever there are holiday celebrations. The business in pigs is more seasonal and therefore less successful.
The father asks his son what he will do up North and the son responds that he doesn’t have an exact idea except that Carmelo came back from there rich and brought a phonograph that plays music. He charges money for each song and people line up to listen: “So you see, you just have to go and come back.”
The father asks what the son will do with his wife and children, and the son responds that he wants his father to look after them. The father responds that they are not his responsibility and that he is too old to raise children. Raising his own son and daughter — who has since passed away — was enough work. The son is angry upon hearing this and says he didn’t get anything out of being raised by his father: “you didn’t even teach me the fireworks trade, so I wouldn’t be in competition with you.” The son was almost thrown out on the street to live and learn, and now he and his family are starving to death.
To this the father replies that he never gave his son permission to marry, but the son then says his reason was that the father never liked his wife, Tránsito. The son explains that his father treated the girl badly when she came by, acting as if she was a prostitute the old man had met before on the streets. This is why he has not brought her by. The son repeats that he must go up North and that he wants his father to watch over his family.
The father says that hard work is all a man needs to get by in the world, but the son says that he never received any guidance from his father: “you should’ve got me started on the road, and not just turn me out like a horse to pasture.” To this the father replies that the son should be happy that he has managed to have a wife and family, “some others haven’t even had that in their life.”
The son explains that his father didn’t even teach him to recite verses: “If I’d just had that I might’ve earned something, amusing people the way you do.” Instead of teaching him, his father told him to sell eggs. Last week his family ate weeds, and this week they ate less. This is way he must go north.
His father tells him then that “in each new nest, one must leave an egg,” implying that children will only cost you money and end up abandoning you. The son replies that this is nonsense since he has not forgotten his father, but the father notes that his son only comes to see him when he needs something. The father has been lonely for a long time and “now you want to come and stir up my feelings, but you don’t know that it’s harder to revive a dead man than give life again.”
The son then asks his father if he is saying definitively that he won’t care for his family, and the father finally agrees to watch over the three boys, two girls and their mother. The son promises he will return with money to compensate his father for double his expenses: just feed them, that’s all I ask you.”
The narration then briefly changes to third person as the story shifts gears to the son’s voyage to the North: “From the ranches the people came down to the villages; the people of the villages went to the cities. In the cities the people got lost, vanished among the people.” What then follows is a short jumbled series of conversations where the speaker is not explicitly identified. It appears that the son is asking where work can be found so that he can earn the money to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. He learns Ciudad Juárez is the place to go in order to be “passed” for two hundred pesos. He hears that in Nonoalco men for unloading trains are needed, and says that he unloaded bananas in Merced Market but was subsequently accused of stealing so he was not paid. Working on the railroad is another option, but an unidentified speaker wonders if the son is brave enough for this kind of labor. The narration then jumps to the son offering two hundred pesos to the man who will arrange for him to be taken across the border. The man tells him who he should contact in Ciudad Juárez and explains that Oregon, not Texas, is the place to go for work. There a man can harvest apples or lay railroad ties. Working on the railroad pays the most and lasts the longest.
Rulfo jolts the reader forward in time to another conversation between the son and father. The son explains that when he and his fellow immigrants crossed the Río Grande at El Paso del Norte they were shot at until they were all dead. The son tells his father that Estanislado, someone his father knows, organized the plan. They were to head to Mexico City and then proceed from there to El Paso. But, when they reached the river they were shot at and he had to turn back because Estanislado was wounded and didn’t want to be left behind: “and then he was already on his back, his body all full of holes, and gone slack.” The son explains that he dragged the man, trying as best he could to stay out of the beam of the searchlights. Estanislado was still alive, but the son then realized his own arm had been smashed by a bullet. He tried to pull the man further, but he died shortly later on the Mexican side of the border. The son tried to revive Estanislado all night long, but to no avail.
In the morning an immigration officer found him and asked him what he was doing with the dead man. The man interrogated the son about whether or not he killed Estanislado, but when he saw his broken arm he stopped. He asked what happened and the son said the group had been shot at while they were in the middle of the river. He and the dead man had been the only two to escape. The officer asked if the son had seen who was shooting at them and the son said no, they just turned the lights on and started firing.
The officer then noted that the shooters must have been Apaches. The son asked why they would be Apaches if Texans lived on the other side and the officer said: “but you have no idea how full of Apaches it is.” The officer then told the son to go home and gave him money for the trip home in addition to the money Estanislado was carrying: “If I see you here again, I’ll just let you look out for yourself. I don’t like to see the same face twice. Go on now, on your way!”
The father then told the son: “That’s what you get for being a sucker and a fool. And you’ll see when you go to your house, you’ll see what you gained by going.” He told the son that the children are with him sleeping in the back, but that Tránsito had run off with a mule driver: “And you can go look for some place to spend the night, because I sold your house to pay for the expenses. And you still owe me thirty pesos, which the title cost.”
The son responds that he will pay his father back, but asks him which way the mule driver went with Tránsito and the father points him in the general direction. The son says he will be right back, since he is going to track her down.
“Paso del Norte” deals with an issue as recognizable to contemporary readers as it was when the collection was published in 1953: Immigration. In fact, an examination of this story shows that little has changed for the immigrants since that time. Many of them today, much like the son in this story, make their way to Mexico City before continuing on to Ciudad Juárez where they make arrangements to pay a “coyote,” a guide, to conduct them across the border and give them a contact who will help them find work. Just like at the time of “Paso del Norte,” the border zone is still a dangerous place where many immigrants are killed before making it to the United States. The description of the how the son’s companions are shot after they have bright lights directed at them makes one wonder who killed them. The Mexican immigration officer leads the son to believe it was probably Apache Indians, but this is likely an ironic barb Rulfo has directed at the way indigenous communities are poorly treated in both Mexico and in the United States and are easy scapegoats for “uncivilized” incidents. “Paso del Norte” is especially resonant in this day and age where private citizen groups patrol the border in addition to the United States Border Patrol.
The location of the murder of the son’s companions is also significant. The Rio Grande was designated as the border between the United States and Mexico a little over a century before 1953 in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (indeed, 1953 was the centenary the subsequent “Gadsden Purchase”). This treaty ended the Mexican-American War and made what used to be nearly half of Mexico’s territory part of the southwestern United States. This story is hereby interesting for its portrayal of the border as a site of much historical and cultural frustration for Mexicans.
In addition to the social issue of immigration, this story also gives us a glimpse of the contemporary Mexican demography. Suffering significant economic hardship, those who live in rural areas are beginning to gravitate to the cities. The only two sentences narrated in third person — and therefore significant ones — indicate that “from the ranches the people came down to the villages; the people of the villages went to the cities. In the cities the people got lost, vanished among the people.” This movement is precisely what the son experiences as he goes to Mexico City. It is significant that this is the only time in the whole book that the capital is mentioned, and it has strongly negative connotations.
This story also tells us a great deal about the county’s economy. The agricultural situation has become so desperate that only certain types of work are well remunerated, and none of them can serve as the base of a strong national economy. Notably, the son speaks jealously of his father’s knowledge of fireworks. One would not think this to be a particularly lucrative occupation, but the son observes that his father’s work is in high demand any time there is a religious “fiesta.” For this same reason he wishes his father would have taught him how to recite poetry: “If I’d just had that I might’ve earned something, amusing people the way you do.” Entertainment and “amusement” appear to be the only jobs that pay well in the countryside, and we learn that even this is not an exclusively domestic product, since the son’s friend Carmelo brought back a phonograph from the North “and he charges five centavos to listen to the music.” Even the songs are not Mexican, but rather Cuban, or by “that Anderson woman who sings sad songs.” The only jobs that pay are the furthest from being “modern”: they deal only in idle pleasures capable of distracting the farm laborer from his or her troubles.
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