Book Review: Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros

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Review by Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Efrén Nava’s Amá is his Superwoman—or Soperwoman, named after the delicious Mexican sopes his mother often prepares. Both Amá and Apá work hard all day to provide for the family, making sure Efrén and his younger siblings Max and Mía feel safe and loved.

But Efrén worries about his parents; although he’s American-born, his parents are undocumented. His worst nightmare comes true one day when Amá doesn’t return from work and is deported across the border to Tijuana, México.

Now more than ever, Efrén must channel his inner Soperboy to help take care of and try to reunite his family.

A glossary of Spanish words is included in the back of the book. 

OUR TWO CENTS: Ernesto Cisneros’ Efrén Divided (2020) centers Efrén Nava, a young Mexican-American boy who lives with his parents and two siblings in Highland, California. In the novel, Amá works as well as takes care of household responsibilities and Apá goes off to work. Efrén refers to Amá as Soperwoman, after her Mexican sopes, for being able to whip up culinary miracles from the very little they have. While Efrén is a U.S Citizen, his parents are undocumented and the possibility of them being deported hangs over Efrén each night his Amá out late working–afraid she might not return. When Amá goes out to interview for a different job she is caught by ICE and is immediately deported to Tijuana, Mexico. Amá’s absence disrupts the family’s routine and Efrén finds himself responsible for his two younger siblings while Apá works countless, sleepless nights to send Amá money for her return. One day on their way to school, Efrén’s best friend, David, decides he wants to run for school president. After Amá gets deported, Efrén is unable to concentrate and unable to meet  his school responsibilities. Efrén embarks on a journey into Mexico where he meets a friendly taxi man, Lalo, who helps him find his way to his mother. While Amá’s return is uncertain, Efrén decides if running for class president against his best friend is the best thing for him. 

With Efrén Divided, Cisneros shines a spotlight on the emotional toll of having a  mixed-status family when the U.S. government is bent on separating families. Efrén hears about families getting separated at the U.S./Mexico border from the news, from his friends, and from people around his neighborhood. ICE has become an ominous presence in his personal life but also in his community: “He’d heard about ICE setting up checkpoints and literally taking people off the street. He’d heard about ICE helicopters scaring people out of their homes and hauling them away. He’d even heard of ICE making stops at Mexican-geared supermarkets and handcuffing anyone who couldn’t prove they belonged. Whether the rumors were true or not, they sounded real enough to worry him” (Cisneros 49). Constantly hearing about ICE coming and taking family members is psychologically taxing, and for children, this type of violence disrupts any sense of safety children may be trying  to create for themselves. Efrén doesn’t know if ICE is, in fact, arresting people, but he knows enough about ICE to be worried anyway. At 12 years old, he knows enough about systemic power and the ways it’s abused to know that he doesn’t need to see ICE separating families to believe it’s happening and to fear it could happen to his family. He is also aware that the issue with citizenship is one of belonging in some sort of American imaginary where only certain people belong. After his mother is deported, Efrén learns more about ICE, raids, and crossing the border from doing online research and from gossip at his local laundromat. There’s a sense that being more informed is empowering to Efrén, but there are moments when all of the information is debilitating because he feels helpless–not just to help his mother but powerless to tackle an entire system.   

After Amá is deported, Efrén undergoes an adultification process–readers will see him take on more adult responsibilities like taking care of his younger siblings, maintaining the household, and becoming his father’s confidant. It’s clear these responsibilities fall on him because he’s the oldest child. Through this process, Efrén has to learn to do everything Amá did for them and he develops greater  empathy  for all of this labor. One of the ways this adultification is evident is in Efrén’s concern over money for food. Apá gives him the little money he can, but when it’s not enough, Apá suggests he use Amá’s stash of quarters for laundry. As a way to stretch out the money as much as he can, he decides to also take food from school: “He leaned up against the closest trash bin and grabbed some of the unopened bags of celery and crackers students had thoughtlessly tossed away” (Cisneros 91). Efrén recognizes the act of taking the food as stealing and as a necessary risk to help his family. This moment is particularly interesting because he’s put in a position that forces him to question what he’s learned about “right and wrong.” It’s wrong to steal, but it would also be wrong to let his younger siblings go hungry. He resolves that “taking the food from the trash bin wasn’t really stealing” (93). He learns more about these adult “gray areas” throughout the novel including when he learns that what Amá plans to do to get back to her family is considered a crime and later when he witnesses families holding one another through a man-made border wall. 

Apá’s decision to let Efrén cross into Tijuana by himself is another example in the novel of  the ways that the current immigration system in the U.S. forces children to grow up. Efrén and his dad need to get Amá the money to live in TIjuana and eventually make her way back to the U.S. Apá is ready to take the risk of crossing the border to deliver the money, knowing full well that, if he gets caught, he will also be separated from his children. Efrén convinces him that another separation will not help, so Efrén is then tasked with taking a large amount of money over the border to give to his mother. The entire section that takes place in Tijuana is both nerve-wracking and tender. Cisneros does an excellent job at building tension and at rewarding the reader with a heartfelt mother/son reunion. But again, Tijuana is a reminder of how Efrén has been forced to act as an adult because the system is set up against his family. What he witnesses in Tijuana also allows for a moment of introspection on what it means to be a U.S. citizen. Readers also see the ways that Efrén’s parents have been disempowered because of the lack of citizenship; even though Efrén sees his parents as superheroes, there’s a system in place created to dehumanize them, and people like them.

Parallel to the storyline of Amá getting deported is also the storyline of the 7th grade class elections. Efrén volunteers as campaign manager for David, who is running against  their classmate, Jennifer. David is white and from a broken family, and he thinks winning the election will give him enough clout to change how his peers view him. On the other hand, Jennifer is running to help children and parents who are undocumented like her. After confiding in one another that they both have mixed-status families Jennifer says, “‘Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas […] My mom likes to remind me of this every day. She’s right though. That’s why I’m running. Figured I could make a difference, even if just at school” Cisneros 31). The Mexican saying indeed plants itself in Efrén’s mind and grows as the novel progresses, later informing his decision to also run against his best friend for president and to help keep his community informed on immigration issues and their rights. For both Jennifer and Efrén, the school elections become a way to effect changes where they can. The elections and Efrén’s participation show readers that even the smallest form of governing, like class elections, can serve as forms of empowerment for students and for the community at large. Additionally, school elections are an excellent way to discuss power and governing bodies with young people. Jennifer and Efrén demonstrate that power can be used for good rather than using it to exploit those without it. 

We recommend everyone read Efrén Divided. With Efrén, Cisneros has created a sensitive and caring young boy—of which we need more and more representations. Efrén is an intelligent 12-year-old, but what helps him understand his family’s circumstances and the political climate around him is his kindness. While the story focuses on immigration, it’s also about finding self-empowerment while living in a system determined to disenfranchise people. We also particularly liked the focus on the emotional toll that children with citizenship in mixed-status families experience. Cisneros makes clear that the emotional burden is due to a broken immigration system and not, in this case, because of any decisions made by the parents. Throughout the novel, it’s also evident that ICE is terrorizing  communities and, ultimately, traumatizing people. And one of the ways this happens is by not allowing parents to parent their children by forcefully removing the parent from the picture because of citizenship status. With everything impacting his mental health, Efrén still lets hope guide him to fight for a more just system for all. Efrén Divided is a powerful and heartwarming read about a young boy’s desire to bring his family together after being separated by ICE and learning that he has more power than he realized. Cisneros reminds readers that at the end “somos semillitas.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. Efrén Divided is his first book. He holds an English degree from the University of California, Irvine; a teaching credential from California State University, Long Beach; as well as a master of fine arts in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that. You can visit him online at www.ernestocisneros.com.

Click here for a Q&A we did with Ernesto Cisneros.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWERSSonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on decolonial healing in Latinx children’s and young adult literature. Sonia is a Mellon Emerging Faculty Leader.

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Ingrid Campos is a 19-year-old college student interested in Latinx Literature. After graduating from LaGuardia Community College (CUNY) this year with an associates in Writing and Literature, she will continue her studies at Queens College to earn her Bachelors in English Education 7-12 . Ingrid was born and raised in Queens, New York. As a Mexican-American living in Queens and graduating from the public school system, Ingrid is inspired to become a high school teacher. One of her main goals is to center academic curriculums around more diversity and inclusivity towards Black and Brown students.

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