Much of the rhetoric around immigration from Central America across the southern United States border discusses persons wanting to enter the U.S. in abstract and dehumanizing terms: as caravans, illegal aliens, vectors of disease, even as an invasion. We spend so much time talking about Central American refugees and what they represent, yet we rarely hear their stories—the reasons for their departures from their home countries, their journeys across multiple national borders, and their hopes for their new lives in the United States.
In The Other Side: Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border, Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos turns to nonfiction to present the stories of eleven immigrant children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Compiled and adapted from interviews conducted in June 2016 in Los Angeles and New York, the stories included in this slim volume are short (the longest one is 12 pages long), but their length belies their power. By putting the voices of teenagers who make the journey to the US. front and center, Villalobos has given readers a book that is harrowing, haunting, and filled with hope.
The settings of the stories in the book are various, and depict different stages of the journey between Central America and the contiguous United States. Some children recount their travels from their home countries on foot, by bus, or on La Bestia, the network of cargo trains running through Mexico. Others travel with family members, such as a sibling or a cousin, and resort to the services of coyotes, who for hefty fees promise to smooth the way north. They cross into the U.S. through the desert, or as in one particularly tense story, by fording a fast moving river with only a rope to guide them. Once in the United States, the children tell of sleepless days spent in the infamous detention centers known as hieleras, holidays spent in group homes with other unaccompanied minor children, and even long awaited reunions with parents and family members stateside.
The teenagers’ reasons for traveling north to the United States are various, but for many of them, their lives in their home countries were marked by violence they could no longer keep at bay. Eventually the gangs came, or the extortionists asked for too much money. In one story, a young woman is gang raped and is sent for her safety to live with her father in New York. The descriptions of violence are never graphic, but because of the many instances of violence depicted, this book is best suited for older teenagers. It would work well in the social studies classroom, or in an unit dedicated to writing first-person narratives.
While this book is only 147 pages (including a glossary and suggestions for further reading), it is not what I would call an easy read. There were times I had to put the book away and come back to it. The stories in the book are truth-telling stories, and as such, they are unsettling. Nevertheless, Rosalind Harvey‘s translation is highly readable, and true to the voice of teenagers. For readers looking to go beyond xenophobic fearmongering and instead listen to Central American refugees themselves, this is an ideal book.
Written by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Farrar Straus Giroux BYR, 2019
Originally published as Yo tuve un sueño: El viaje de los niños centroamericanos a los Estados Unidos, Anagrama, 2018
Awards: 2021 Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize Shortlist; 2019 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers Literature Finalist; 2019 Kirkus Best Books of the Year; 2020 NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book Pick; 2020 ILA Notable Book for a Global Society
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Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.