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.

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.

Spotlight on Middle Grade Authors Part 14: Ernesto Cisneros

 

By Cindy L. Rodriguez

This is the 14th in an occasional series about middle grade Latinx authors. We decided to shine a spotlight on middle grade writers and their novels because, often, they are “stuck in the middle”–sandwiched between and overlooked for picture books and young adult novels. The middle grades are a crucial time in child development socially, emotionally, and academically. The books that speak to these young readers tend to have lots of heart and great voices that capture all that is awkward and brilliant about that time.

Today, we highlight Ernesto Cisneros.

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.

 

Here is the publisher’s description:

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.

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Ernesto Cisneros

Q. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

A long, long time ago, during my senior year in high school, my teacher Sharon Saxton invited Helena Maria Miramontes to speak with our classroom about her anthology, The Moths and Other Short Stories. I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone else saw the world through a similar lens as me—same Latinx lens. Her story made me feel connected, grounded. This was the first time that the idea of being a writer ever entered my mind. It also served as my motivation for writing my first short story—which I am now turning into my very own YA novel, entitled: The Writing on the Wall.

Q. Why do you choose to write middle grade novels?

After giving up on a career writing screenplays, I decided to drop writing altogether and began teaching instead. The itch to write proved to be to powerful. I began writing short stories that served as prompts and writing samples for my students which they began to really enjoy. Before long, my students began pushing me to write. Eventually, I joined SCBWI and met a handful of individuals who helped me find my way.

Q. What are some of your favorite middle grade novels?

There so many fantastic middle grade novels out there, but the ones I turn to every time I need further encouragement are: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli because of they way it deals with serious issues of race, running away, and mental health in a way that’s accessible to young children. There’s also Operation Frog Effect by Sarah Scheerger. I love the way she captures the voices of such diverse characters in an entertaining fashion—makes it all seem so effortless, although I know better.

Q. If you could give your middle-grade self some advice, what would it be?

My advice is to believe in myself and to value my heart. It is easily my most important asset I have because it definitely seeps its way into everything I write.

Q: Please finish this sentence: Middle grade novels are important because…

…they reach children while they are still at work shaping their views of the world. I feel that books can serve as moral compasses that can help instill morals, characters, and empathy—all things the world really needs.

 

 

photo by Saryna A. JonesCindy L. Rodriguez was a newspaper reporter for The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school. Cindy is a U.S.-born Latina of Puerto Rican and Brazilian descent. She has degrees from UConn and CCSU. Her debut contemporary YA novel is When Reason Breaks (Bloomsbury 2015). She also has an essay in Life Inside My Mind (Simon Pulse 2018) and wrote the text for Volleyball Ace, a Jake Maddox book (Capstone 2020). She can be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads

Book Review: We Unleash the Merciless Storm by Tehlor Kay Mejia

 

Review by Cris Rhodes:

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Being a part of the resistance group La Voz is an act of devotion and desperation. On the other side of Medio’s border wall, the oppressed class fights for freedom and liberty, sacrificing what little they have to become defenders of the cause.

Carmen Santos is one of La Voz’s best soldiers. She spent years undercover, but now, with her identity exposed and the island on the brink of a civil war, Carmen returns to the only real home she’s ever known: La Voz’s headquarters.

There she must reckon with her beloved leader, who is under the influence of an aggressive new recruit, and with the devastating news that her true love might be the target of an assassination plot. Will Carmen break with her community and save the girl who stole her heart—or fully embrace the ruthless rebel she was always meant to be?

MY TWO CENTS: In this action-packed follow-up to her debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire, Tehlor Kay Mejia continues her revolutionary queer romance with a bang. Picking up moments after We Set the Dark on Fire ends, We Unleash the Merciless Storm shifts vantage points from Dani, the Primera wife whose secret identity as an undocumented immigrant from beyond Medio’s rigid borders complicates her life and causes her to tenatively join the resistance, to Carmen, who seemed to embody the social mores of Medio’s stratified and exclusive world, but is actually an undercover operative for the revolutionary group La Voz.

Readers will need to be familiar with We Set the Dark on Fire to fully grasp the extent of We Unleash the Merciless Storm. I found myself returning to the previous book to remember the intricacies of Medio’s social codes and to remind myself of character names and traits. This is not a stand alone book, and, I would wager, it’s a sequel best enjoyed immediately following reading (or rereading) the first novel.

The switch to Carmen as the main character proves an interesting counterpoint to Dani’s narrative in the first novel. Whereas Dani is largely unaware of the mounting resistance to Medio’s restrictive government, Carmen is deeply involved in the resistance. Carmen seems superficial and catty in the first novel, but We Unleash the Merciless Storm unravels that narrative, posing Carmen as an astute and powerful member of La Voz. But, her relationship with Dani was an unforeseen complication to her mission to unravel Medio from the inside.

It would be a typical narrative maneuver to have Carmen torn between her love for Dani and her loyalty to La Voz, but Mejia resists that stale plot. Rather, Carmen sees her loyalties to both Dani and La Voz as intertwined. Mejia’s explorations of Carmen’s motives seem authentic and they reflect the complex and competing emotions of resistance and love. Those who are looking for nonstop action may be frustrated with Carmen’s frequent reflections on her relationship with Dani, but these thoughts don’t seem out of place for someone like Carmen who was undercover for the majority of her formative years. Not only is Carmen contending with the loss of her love, but she’s also relearning how to be a part of La Voz after years away. Carmen’s wondering also reveals important questions about revolution. Is a political uprising necessarily violent? Can change be made without pain? As Carmen grapples with these questions, her loyalties to La Voz are questioned and she must prove herself while also remaining true to her values.

As with my feelings toward We Set the Dark on Fire, I found We Unleash the Merciless Storm to be the kind of novel that I longed for as a teenager (and, frankly, enjoyed immensely as an adult). The romance is there, of course, but it’s not the entire focus–and it shouldn’t be! I love a good romance, especially a queer romance, but the complexities of Medio’s government and La Voz’s revolutionary ideals give contemporary teens an important counterpoint to our own global politics.

 

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo  Editing: Adrian King

Photo & Styling: Tia Reagan Photo

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Tehlor Kay Mejia is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult fantasy novel We Set the Dark on Fire and its sequel, We Unleash the Merciless Storm, and the forthcoming Miss Meteor (co-written with National Book Award nominee Anna-Marie McLemore). Her middle grade debut, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, releases from Rick Riordan Presents in 2020.

Her debut novel received six starred reviews, and was chosen as an Indie’s Next Pick and a Junior Library Guild selection, as well as being an Indiebound bestseller in the Pacific Northwest region. It has been featured in Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and O by Oprah Magazine’s best books of 2019 lists.

Tehlor lives in Oregon with her daughter, a dog that matches her hair, and several rescued houseplants. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tehlorkay.

 

 

 

Cris Rhodes is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She teaches courses of writing, culturally diverse literature, and ethnic literatures. In addition to teaching, Cris’s scholarship focuses on Latinx youth and their literature or related media. She also has a particular scholarly interest in activism and the ways that young Latinxs advocate for themselves and their communities.

Interview and Resource on Family Separation and Detention

 

Here at Latinxs in Kid Lit we are deeply concerned over the crisis at our southern border and the long-range effects that family separation will have on children. Today we are pleased and honored to share expert insights on this critical issue from three outstanding Latinas— children’s literature scholars Marilisa Jiménez García and Cristina Rhodes, and immigration-law expert Losmin Jiménez. In this article, you will also find resources for advocacy and a list of recommended books for the classroom. 

By Marilisa Jiménez, Losmin Jiménez, and Cristina Rhodes

The separation of families at the U.S. border and news coverage about family separation and detention has reached a pinnacle. However, those working with these communities know this dire situation was long in the making. As members of the children’s literature community, and those who advocate for the stories of young people and their families, we wanted to create a resource providing more information about the facts on family detention and separation.

For this post, we were able to interview a legal expert in the field of immigration law, Losmin Jiménez, the Project Director of Immigrant Justice for the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. Losmin is also Marilisa’s sister and brings with her years of experience advocating for immigrants in detention. We also assembled a list, undergirded by Cristina Rhodes’ research expertise on activism in Latinx children’s literature, for educators to consider when discussing these issues in the K-12 and higher education classroom.

Interview with Losmin Jiménez, Project Director of Immigrant Justice at the Advancement Project

  1. How long have you worked in this area of law? What have you seen change? What has not changed?

I have been practicing law for 10 years. I went to law school to represent children in foster care and started volunteering with Lawyers for Children America in Miami in 2004. During law school, I concentrated on children’s rights and family law. After law school, I worked in civil legal services in domestic violence, disability rights, family law, and conducted outreach to migrant workers in a rural part of Florida. I then started working in the field of immigration and have worked in the field of immigration for 6 years. From 2012-2015, I was appointed to the Legal Needs of Children Committee for the Florida Bar. Also, in 2012, I started volunteering on the American Bar Association (ABA) Right to Counsel Strategy Group, Children’s Rights Litigation Committee. Some of that time was spent working on immigration detention issues and representing unaccompanied minors. I have seen more erosions of due process and attacks on the independence of immigration judges. I have not seen detention of immigrants decrease, but only increase, much to my disappointment.

  1. What do you wish people knew about the border crisis?

The reasons why people flee to the United States are very complicated. Many of the individuals seeking protection in the United States are fleeing persecution, gender-based violence, human trafficking, and narco-traffickers. Many individuals seeking protection at the southern border are from the Northern Triangle Countries. The Northern Triangle is a term commonly used to refer to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Northern Triangle countries are some of the most dangerous countries in the world outside of a conflict zone, after years of U.S. funded government interventions in the 1980s. People know they could die on the journey to the U.S. as they travel through the desert with a guide that they do not know, but risk their life and leave their country because staying home is not an option, as staying home could mean sexual assault, death, or torture. If you are fleeing for your life, applying for a visa and waiting years for a visa is not an option.

Also, it is not just people from Central America seeking protection at the southern border, but immigrants from Africa, South Asia, and other regions of the world who are seeking protection. All individuals have a right to seek protection under international law and federal law, including the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. That is the law. Prosecuting individuals for seeking protection in the U.S. is an affront to human rights.

Something else that people new to this area may not know is that immigration detention is not new, it has been happening for decades. Over sixty percent of immigration detention centers are run by private prison corporations that are publicly traded on the stock exchange, thus these corporations have a profit motive. Family detention has existed under previous administrations, and most recently under the Obama administration there was an expansion of family detention with four detention centers, one of which closed after litigation because of the horrible conditions. At the moment, there are three family detention centers: Berks Family Residential Center in Berks County, Pennsylvania (Berks), Karnes Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas (Karnes), and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas (Dilley). To give you an idea of the size of these family detention centers, Dilley has 2,400 beds. It costs about $342.00 a day to detain a family. That is the financial cost, but the human costs are infinite.

The numbers of unaccompanied minors and families apprehended at the southern border has been very high for the last several years as the conditions in the Northern Triangle countries continues to worsen. Between 2014 and 2016, 168,203 unaccompanied minors were apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Regarding families, between 2014 and 2016, 185,957 family units were apprehended at the southern border by CBP. As of June 1, 2018, 58,113 family units were apprehended at the southern border. Please note that there are approximately 40,000 detention beds in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. ICE detention centers are meant for adults only. Under federal regulations and as a result of the Flores settlement, children are detained in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of U.S. Health and Human Services. However, families can be detained in a family detention center, but should only be detained for short period (20 days) to comply with Flores. The administration recently filed a motion asking a federal court for permission to detain children with their parents in ICE facilities while their criminal and/or immigration case is pending, and this could be years.  

When I heard that the administration wanted to prosecute adults entering without a visa or valid travel document under Operation Streamline, I was outraged, but I also thought it would be a horrific policy that could not be sustained given the numbers of people and families apprehended at the southern border. Just in May 2018, 9,485 family units were apprehended.

Given this information, you may understand that when some groups began making well-intentioned arguments for keeping families together, but not addressing the use of prosecution under Operation Streamline, I was very concerned that what the administration would do would be to expand family detention. The solutions we envision or solutions we want are not the solutions this administration provides. This is why decriminalizing migration is so important and necessary. I would suggest that the demand be to decriminalize migration, suspend all deportations, and end immigration detention. In addition, government policies should address the root causes of migration so people will not have to flee their countries and would be free and safe to thrive in their home country.

  1. What can those concerned with children being separated from their families do to help?

Call your Congressional Representatives, meet with them, and advocate for policies that decriminalize migration, donate to organizations working with impacted populations such as RAICES, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), Detention Watch Network, and Grassroots Leadership. There are so many more, these are just suggestions.

  1. What are some myths about the current crisis that you hope are dispelled?

One myth that I see is the myth that people are “breaking the law.” By choosing to prosecute individuals at the southern border under Operation Streamline, the government is criminalizing a multitude of asylum seekers; however, under U.S. law and international law, individuals can seek asylum and should be able to do so. They should also be afforded due process– that is also “the law.”  Another myth is that a “court order” is what is making the government separate the families. The reference to a court order is a reference to the Flores v. Reno settlement (1997) agreement. This settlement involves protections for children apprehended by immigration enforcement and concerns protections and conditions for all children in immigration, including unaccompanied minors and accompanied children. For more information, please look at materials on KIND’s website or WRC’s website about the Flores settlement. The Flores case was first filed in 1985 because of the egregious detention conditions unaccompanied minors endured in immigration detention.

Another myth is that detention is the solution when in fact it is not. Detention is inhumane, exacerbates trauma, and negatively impacts child development. In addition, it is incredibly expensive. There are humane ways to ensure the government processes individuals and families seeking protection. One method could be to move away from a law enforcement model to working with humanitarian personnel or social workers who are trained in dealing with survivors of trauma and are familiar with best practices in child welfare in a home-like setting or by placement with family in the home country. Lastly, there is no right to counsel in immigration proceedings, so there is no public defender who will be getting appointed to represent indigent clients in immigration court. Immigrants facing prosecution will be appointed a federal public defender in their criminal court case, but immigrants will not be appointed counsel in their immigration case. So you could have a 7-year-old unaccompanied minor who is facing court by himself or herself or a mother with two children facing court alone.

Further resources recommended by Losmin and Marilisa Jiménez:

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Relief for Unaccompanied Minors by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/06/immigration-relief-unaccompanied-minors/

National Institute of Trial Advocacy Blog, Immigration Court and Due Process–NITA’s Official Position by Losmin Jiménez, http://blog.nita.org/2017/11/immigration-court-due-process-nitas-official-position/

Raices: https://www.raicestexas.org/

Kids In Need of Defense: https://supportkind.org/

Teaching Central America: http://www.teachingcentralamerica.org

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights: https://www.theyoungcenter.org/

Detention Watch Network, https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/

Mijente: https://mijente.net/home/

Grassroots Leadership: http://grassrootsleadership.org/

Reading Recommendations by Cristina Rhodes

The following is not an exhaustive list of children’s books, websites, and academic sources, but each reveals, examines, and meditates on undocumented immigration, deportation, and childhood. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that children are disproportionately affected by geopolitics, and recent events more than solidify that fact. But children’s literature takes up that trauma, molds it and reshapes it into something new, something transformative. Children’s literature offers perspectives not just of hope (though hope is certainly there in those pages), but of the harsh reality of border crossing and children’s resiliency in the face of peril. In times when we’re left wondering what to do, what to think, I believe that turning to the pages of books for young readers allows us to mediate our feelings of hopeless and helplessness and allows our children to understand that they are not alone.

Children’s Books:

Picture Books

  • Somos como las nubes / We Are Like the Clouds by Jorge Argueta
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos del otro lado by Gloria Anzaldúa
  • Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago
  • Super Cilantro Girl by Juan Felipe Herrera
  • Mamá The Alien/ Mamá La Extraterrestre by Rene Colato Laínez
  • Waiting for Papa by René Colato Laínez & Anthony Accardo
  • My Diary from Here to There by Amada Irma Pérez
  • Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh

 

 

 

 

Middle Grade

  • Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes
  • Us, in Progress: Short Stories About Young Latinos by Lulu Delacre
  • The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz
  • The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
  • My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
  • The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiménez
  • Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

 

 

YA

  • La Línea by Ann Jaramillo
  • Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario
  • Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

Further Reading:

Websites

Articles

Peer-Reviewed Articles

  • Benuto, Lorraine T., Jena B. Casas Frances R. Gonzalez, and Rory T. Newlands. “Being an undocumented child immigrant.” Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 89, 2018, pp. 198-204. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.04.036
  • de Cortes, Oralia Garza. “Behind the Golden Door: The Latino Immigrant Child in Literature and Films for Children.” Multicultural Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 1995, pp. 24–27, 59–62.
  • Gonzales, Roberto G. “On the Rights of Undocumented Children.” Society, vol. 46, no. 5, 2009, pp. 419-22. doi: 10.1007/s12115-009-9240-7

We are deeply grateful to the authors of this article for exemplary work in their respective fields.

Marilisa Jiménez García is an interdisciplinary scholar specializing in Latino/a literature and culture.  She is particularly interested in the intersections of race, gender, nationalism, and youth culture in Puerto Rican literature of the diaspora.  Marilisa also specializes in literature for youth and how marginalized communities have used children’s and young adult texts as a platform for artistic expression, collective memory, and community advocacy. She is an assistant professor of English at Lehigh University. Her Twitter handle is @MarilisaJimenez.

 

 

Losmin Jiménez is Project Director and Senior Attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project. She has practiced law in numerous areas affecting children, families and immigrants. Losmin received her law degree with honors from the University of Florida College of Law. Learn more about her work here. Follow her on Twitter via @LosminJimenez.

 

 

 

Cristina Rhodes, a frequent and valued reviewer on this blog, is a Ph.D. candidate in children’s literature at Texas A&M University. Her thesis is entitled “Embodying la Resistencia: Activist Praxis in Latinx Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” Follow Cristina on Twitter at @_crisRhodes. 

Author Marie Marquardt On Immigration, Research, & Writing Fiction From A Broken Heart

 

By Marie Marquardt

A few years ago, I made a rather unusual decision for a sociologist of religion. I decided to write a romance for young adults – one that is, in many ways, linked to my academic research. I’m going to be honest: it wasn’t exactly a decision. It was something I sat down before dawn one November morning and started doing, despite the constant nagging feeling that this was a huge waste of time and energy because the story would never, ever be finished — much less published.

23848212The words I wrote in those pre-dawn hours eventually became my debut YA novel, Dream Things True. It tells of one Mexican-American family’s journey through immigration, settlement, adaptation, detention, and deportation. It’s told from the perspective Alma Garcia, an ambitious Latina on the verge of adulthood, and Evan Roland, the privileged Southern boy who falls in love with Alma, and who tries with all his might to help Alma preserve her humanity, her extraordinary individuality, andher dreams.

When I began to write Alma and Evan’s story, I was a published author of two non-fiction books on Latin American immigration to the United States, a full-time college professor, and a mother pregnant with my fourth child.  So, clearly, the decision was not one that I made because I needed a new project! I had plenty of projects.

What was I thinking?

Looking back, I see two reasons that I needed to write this story. I work as a researcher, advocate, and service provider with undocumented immigrants in the U.S. South, and because of that work, I often get asked to speak to groups about the contentious topic of undocumented immigration. After several years of standing in front of crowds and sharing great quantities of data and information, I came to a realization: It’s important to know the facts, particularly when so much misinformation is floating around about the causes and consequences of undocumented immigration. But what people long for is the personal connection, the human story.

I have come to believe that, in our polarized, fragmented society, we do not need more information.  Our lives are saturated with information (and misinformation). What we need – what humans long for – is connection. I have been granted the privilege of building friendships with undocumented immigrants, of being a part of their lives, and of caring deeply for them. I have seen the struggles they face not through media sound bites and political rhetoric, but instead through the eyes of love. I wanted to give others, who may not have these opportunities, a chance to enter intimately into the experiences of undocumented immigrants and the people who love them.

I wanted to build connection.

That’s the first reason I wrote Dream Things True. The second reason was one I would only grasp in hindsight. I started writing this book during a very difficult time for undocumented immigrants in the South – when families I knew and loved were being torn apart by detention and deportation. I joined several friends and colleagues to develop a non-profit that works with immigrants in detention and their families. This work is, I believe, the most important work that I do, but it also breaks my heart wide open almost every day. Writing fictional stories about immigrants in crisis allows me to affirm and celebrate their resilience. It also helps me to process the emotion of accompanying these families through very hard times.

I write fiction from a broken heart.

Along the way, I have discovered some surprising similarities between writing fiction and writing academic non-fiction. Both are very hard work. Whether we want to do it or not, authors have to sit down and put words on a page. The professional practice of most good fiction authors I know is much like the practice of good academics: they are inquisitive and creative, and also structured and disciplined. They exist not in solitude, but in a community of people who share their passion and who support their efforts.

Another shared quality is the need for rigorous research. When I began writing Dream Things True, I already had more than a dozen years of experience researching undocumented immigration and working with undocumented immigrants. Nevertheless, I had a great deal of additional work to do, if I wanted to get the story right. Perhaps it’s a sign of how profoundly complex immigration law is, but I consulted with several immigration attorneys and paralegals to ensure that the details of Alma’s story were correct. The story is “true” – not in the sense of reflecting one person’s actual experience, but in the sense of accurately characterizing the journey that Alma’s family would make through the labyrinth that is the U.S. immigration system.

It’s not easy to write a scene at a lawyer’s office or in a courtroom that is both emotionally compelling and accurate, but I do my very best. One of the most amazing compliments I have received was from a colleague who worked for thirty years as the head of immigration legal services for a large non-profit in Atlanta. She told me that the story was, indeed, accurate (yay!) and that she wanted to make it required reading for every incoming attorney at her agency. She believed that reading the story would help them to remember the full, complicated, and profound humanity of each of their clients.

This is the power of fiction.

So I will continue my work as a scholar, advocate, and service provider with undocumented immigrants. And I also will keep writing love stories, because I firmly believe that love is more powerful than fear, and that thorny issues are best solved not from a place of fear but from a place of love.

 

Below are six short videos of Marie Marquardt talking about her debut novel Dream Things True and her work with undocumented immigrants.

 

 

Headshot-OfficialMarie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction.  She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015) is her first work of fiction.  She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.