Book Review: We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez

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Reviewed by Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez, PhD & Ingrid Campos

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Pulga has his dreams. Chico has his grief. Pequeña has her pride.

And these three teens have one another. But none of them have illusions about the town they’ve grown up in and the dangers that surround them. Even with the love of family, threats lurk around every corner. And when those threats become all too real, the trio knows they have no choice but to run: from their country, from their families, from their beloved home.

Crossing from Guatemala through Mexico, they follow the route of La Bestia, the perilous train system that might deliver them to a better life–if they are lucky enough to survive the journey. With nothing but the bags on their backs and desperation drumming through their hearts, Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña know there is no turning back, despite the unknown that awaits them. And the darkness that seems to follow wherever they go.

In this striking portrait of lives torn apart, the plight of migrants at the U.S. southern border is brought to light through poignant, vivid storytelling. An epic journey of danger, resilience, heartache, and hope.

OUR TWO CENTS: In We Are Not from Here (2020) Jenny Torres Sanchez tells the story of three Guatemalan teenagers Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña who, despite their loving families, are surrounded by danger in their pueblo, Puerto Barrios. The narrative voice switches between Pulga and Pequeña. At the beginning of the novel, Pequeña is about to give birth while also experiencing extreme rancor towards the baby and the baby’s father. Chico and Pulga are best friends, brought together by tragedy. After witnessing a horrific act of violence against a local store attendant, Chico and Pulga agree that it is best to risk the journey traveling to the United States than either work for or die at the hands of the local gang leader, Rey. Pequeña, who’s also afraid of Rey and desperate to escape, decides to join Chico and Pulga. The three flee wearing layers of clothes and their backpacks containing what’s left of their lives on what seems to be a never-ending and grappling journey aboard La Bestia, the fast-pace train known as the route most (im)migrants take to cross from Mexico to the United States. La Bestia is dangerous, and one wrong move may cost them their lives. The three of them travel from Guatemala to cities in Mexico like Ixtepec, Lecheria, and Guadalajara under extreme conditions. Their journey is full of new dangers and violence. Their commitment to one another and to a better life is what gives them hope and strength on their trek to the United States. 

With We are Not From Here, Torres Sanchez makes an important contribution to existing conversations around immigration through Mexico and into the United States. In the last decade, Central Americans have made up the majority of (im)migrants attempting to enter the U.S. through Mexico. In the U.S. popular imaginary, immigration at the U.S./Mexico border is often conflated with the Mexican experience. However, when we read and watch in the news about the babies, children, and parents in cages at the border, we cannot willfully ignore the fact that the majority of them are Central Americans fleeing the violence created by U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, it is also necessary to recognize the violence Central Americans experience at the hands of the Mexican state while journeying through Mexico. Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña experience these multiple levels of violence as they journey to the United States. 

One of the most significant aspects of this novel is the subtle critique of the violence Central American (im)migrants experience while traveling through Mexico. About half way through the novel, Pulga says, “‘Some don’t want us here […] We are to Mexico what Mexico is to the States” (Torres Sanchez 153). Later in the novel, Pulga adds, “Mexico doesn’t want us any more than the United States does. You’d be an immigrant here, Chico. If you try to work here, live here, whatever, Mexico will deport you right back, too” (Torres Sanchez 210). In both of these passages, Pulga points out the systemic violence they experience as Central Americans that is symptomatic of the U.S. empire. These young people in We Are Not From Here are very much aware that their subjectivity puts them at risk anywhere they go. All of this is not to say that Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña don’t experience kindness in Mexico–because they do. They stop at shelters who care for them, there are other Mexicans on La Bestia who try to guide them, and they make connections along the way that will help them further on. However, these individual acts of kindness do not erase the state-sanctioned violence against Central Americans in Mexico that needs to be addressed. Torres Sanchez touches on these topics with great care. There isn’t an overt, political critique but instead she allows her characters to make observations and share knowledge about the reality around them–which in and of itself is a political move. 

Torres Sanchez’s attention to language and voice captures the emotional turmoil of making this journey. The repetition of certain words or phrases helps emphasize the uncertainty and extremity of situations. For example, when the trio begin their journey, they have trouble with their sense of direction. Despite having had collected as much information as possible about the route, Pulga feels helpless: “And Pequeña and Chico are looking to me for answers. But I don’t know. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I don’t know” (Torres 126.) Here the repetition reveals the anxiety Pulga feels at having been named the leader of the group without having a real sense of how to make the journey safely–never having done it before. The repetition also reminds the reader that the characters are young people making this journey on their own–there are no guides, just children risking their lives for a better one. The repetition of phrases, images, and memories are constant throughout the novel.

Additionally, the emphasis Torres Sanchez places on the characters’ internal thoughts allows readers to experience the roller coaster of emotions these young characters feel as they travel. In one instance, for example, Pulga and his friends are emotionally and physically exhausted as he narrates his thoughts: “I imagine I am an animal. Skulking through the darkness. Keen. Instinctive. Alert. Alive. Some don’t make it. But some do. Why not me? Why not us? I hold on to this thought as we walk. Why not me? my feet say with each pound to the ground. Why not us?” (Torres Sanchez 159). Pulga’s determination to continue walking, to push past exhaustion, demonstrates the inner strength needed to survive this journey. There are several, powerful moments like this throughout the novel where the characters must find individual strength and where they need to remind one another of that courage. That Pulga asks, “Why not me? Why not us?” is another example of Torres Sanchez’s talent with language because not only is Pulga trying to convince himself to keep going but these questions also force readers to question the value (or lack thereof) our society places on (im)migrant lives.

We Are Not From Here is a multi-layered story and Torres Sanchez tries to give space, not just to tell the story of the trio, but to also tell the story of a community and of many more unaccompanied minors. However, the character who stood out to us the most is Pequeña. Only the reader and the ghost bruja that appears to Pequeña every once in a while are witness to the sexual violence she endures in her hometown in Guatemala. When readying to join Pulga and Chico on their journey north, Pequeña chops off her long hair to pass for a boy because she knows of the violence women experience on this journey. After buying supplies at the market, she reflects:

I wonder if it’s coincidence that the razors and the switchblades are in the same area of the pharmacy as the birth control and morning after pills. At night, I go to sleep thinking of ways to be deadly. How to cover my body in razors. I imagine them covering my body like scales. I imagine anyone who touches me being cut and sliced and pierced. A warning. Nobody come near me.

(Torres Sanchez 87)

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The razors, the blades, and the contraceptives serve as ways for Pequeña, and young women like her, to protect her body because she knows that the world won’t–she knows from experience. This scene shows Pequeña’s pain and agency. She reveals to the reader the cruel reality of violence against women in different settings–at home and while (im)migrating. She indicates that this has happened to her. But by imagining herself covered in razor blades, she arms herself against patriarchal domination. She is readying herself to fight and survive at all costs. That she needs to live this way in the first place is terrible, but that she won’t surrender is a form of empowerment. 

There’s no denying that the trek on La Bestia through Mexico is traumatizing on various levels. But it’s also important to point out that this novel is also full of hope. One passage that stands out happens between Soledad, a woman in charge of a shelter in Mexico, and Pequeña. Soledad says, “You must always remember your name. Say it to yourself. You cannot forget who you are. La Bestia, the wind, a lot of people on the other side, they will try to make you forget. They will try to erase you. But you must always remember” (Torres Sanchez 208). Soledad ends this affirmation by repeating Pequeña’s given name. The act of remembering one’s name is also tied to family history, to culture, and to a sense of self. Soledad reassures Pequeña that what she knows about being an outsider is true–there will be those who “will try to erase you.” But she also encourages Pequeña that as long as she knows who she is, erasure is not an option. This naming scene is in contrast to an earlier scene in the novel, part of Torres Sanchez’s magic with repetition, where Pequeña comments on how the world tries to make her small, even her name is small (Torres Sanchez 12). Having Pequeña declare her given name and leave her nickname behind is an act of defiance to society’s attempt to make her small or to erase her entirely. 

Torres Sanchez has created tender and vulnerable characters with Chico, Pulga, and Pequeña. The authentic and harsh reality of this story is one of i(m)migrants fleeing violence and enduring violence for the sheer hope of a different possibility. We Are Not From Here is a beautiful and powerful must-read. Torres Sanchez tackles the story of three Guatemalan unaccompanied minors with compassion and fortitude.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: (From her website) Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.

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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.

Book Review: Somos Como Las Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta

 

Reviewed by Sanjuana C. Rodriguez, PhD

28957208DESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: An eloquent and moving account of the tragic migrations of thousands upon thousands of children who are leaving their homes in Central America, often alone, to seek refuge in the United States. Why are they going and how does it feel to be one of them? What is this terrible trip like? What do their hopes and dreams for safety, a new life and a loving reception mean to them?

A refugee from El Salvador’s war in the eighties, Jorge Argueta was born to explain the distressing choice confronting young Central Americans today who are saying goodbye to everything they know because they fear for their lives.

This book is beautifully illustrated by master artist Alfonso Ruano.

MY TWO CENTS: Somos Como Las Nubes/ We are Like the Clouds is a moving collection of bilingual free verse poems. This is one of the few books that I have encountered about the heartbreaking experiences of children who leave their homes to embark on their journey to the United States. This collection of poetry begins with poetry depicting the experiences and sights of the children’s home countries. The poetry then shifts to the journey that children take to get to the United States. The author includes poems that describe the fears of traveling on La Bestia (a fast moving moving train that many migrants use to travel), discuss being accompanied by “coyotes,” and describe children’s feelings as they cross the deserts.  I’ll share one of the most powerful poems about the journey titled “Las Chinamas”. The word Chinamas refers to the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.

When we crossed

the border at Las Chinamas

I saw the river Paz.

Its water runs smiling

between the rocks.

Here the cenzontles (mockingbirds)

never stop singing.

 

I remembered

our schoolyard,

the gualcalchillas, (small songbirds)

and my teacher

Miss Celia.

 

I remembered my mother,

my brothers,

my sisters.

Who knows

when I will see them again.

I look at the sky

and think,

we are like the clouds.

 

What I loved about this book is that there is message of hope in knowing that children are resilient, but the author does not hold back in depicting the heartbreak that goes along with leaving a home country. The book allows the reader to the experience the treacherous journey to the United States through the eyes and wonder of a child. The pictures in this book are also stunningly beautiful. The pictures depict the children’s home countries, families crossing borders, and children laying on the soft sand in the desert. The final poems in the book offer hope. In the poem “Fear,” a mother tells her child in his dream, “This is not a dream, you are in my arms.” The child has arrived to his destination in Los Angeles.

I shed tears when I read this book. It is heartbreaking and it is a poignant reminder that children are children and that there are difficult decisions that children should not have to make. In my opinion, what makes this book even more powerful is that it is written by Jorge Argueta. The author’s note at the beginning of the book shares Jorge’s own experience of fleeing El Salvador and coming to the United States. He shares his inspiration for writing the book by stating, “Like the clouds, our children come and go. Nothing and no one can stop them”.

TEACHING TIPS: This book is an invitation to learn about the harsh realities that children face when they leave their homes and embark on the difficult journey to the United States. It would be a great addition to any classroom library. It would be an excellent book to add to text sets about immigration or refugees. Teachers can also use this book to teach children about writing through difficult situations. It can also be used to show students how illustrations can enhance poetry as this book is beautifully illustrated.

To find Somos Como Los Nubes / We Are Like the Clouds, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Image result for jorge arguetaABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jorge Tetl Argueta is a celebrated Salvadoran poet and writer whose bi-lingual children’s books have received numerous awards. His poetry has appeared in anthologies and textbooks. He won the America’s Book Award, among other awards for his first collection of poems for children, A Movie in My Pillow. He was the Gold Medal Award winner in the 2005 National Parenting Publications Awards (NAPPA) for Moony Luna/Luna, Lunita Lunera. His other works for children include Xochitl and the Flowers, 2003 America’s Award Commended Title, Trees are Hanging from the SkyZipitioTalking with Mother EarthThe Little Hen in the City and The Fiesta of the Tortillas.

 

Alfonso RuanoABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR: Alfonso Ruano was born in 1949 in Toledo, Spain. He studied painting at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid. He has published about 20 books for children and has received multiple awards for his work.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Sanjuana C. Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Literacy and Reading Education in the Elementary and Early Childhood Department at Kennesaw State University. Her research interests include the early literacy development of culturally and linguistically diverse students, early writing development, literacy development of students who are emergent bilinguals, and Latinx children’s literature. She has published in journals such as Journal of Language and Literacy Education, Language Arts, and Language Arts Journal of Michigan.