It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio

author: Luis J. Rodríguez 
illustrator: Daniel Galvez
translator: Francisco X. Alarcón
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 1999 
grades 4-up 
(Mexican American)

Poet, novelist, educator, and activist, Luis J. Rodríguez, has been writing from his own experiences for more than 30 years. His beautiful picture book, La llaman América // América Is Her Name (Curbstone, 1997) was one of the first to focus on racism, immigration and migration from the voices and hearts of the people themselves.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio is narrated by 10-year-old Monchi, who’s being recruited by a local gang. Monchi becomes enamored of Clever, who is both engaging and intimidating. Both Monchi’s insightful and supportive uncle, Rogelio, and the child’s slightly older cousin, Dreamer, advise him not to take this road, but Clever’s pull is stronger. 

Rodríguez knows firsthand why young people join gangs: “to belong, to be cared for, and to be embraced.” In an introduction that includes a photo of himself as a gang member at age 11, he writes,“I hope we can create a community that fulfills these longings, so young people won’t have to sacrifice their lives to be loved and valued in this world.”

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way is Rodriguez’s envisioning of what his own childhood could have been had he not been seduced into becoming part of this dysfunctional, violent world.

Renowned mural artist Daniel Galvez’s compelling watercolor paintings, on a palette of vibrant floral colors and tones, beautifully express the East LA barrio and the people who live there. On the copyright page, Galvez thanks the adults and fifth-grade students who appear as characters in this story. Tío Rojelio is iconic artist Juan Fuentes, who has a gallery named after him at Acción Latina on 24th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. The character who buys the bike that Monchi has stolen is René Yañez, who recently passed away. He was one of the founders of the Galería de la Raza and himself a Mission icon. 

Leading with the Spanish text on some pages and the English on others—along with some phrases in Mexican street Spanish woven into both the Spanish and English—reveals the community’s bilingualism.

Alarcón’s Spanish version is filled with his usual strong images and deep magical symbolism, as does Galvez’s art. 

Clever, the gang recruiter, brings to mind Edward James Olmos’ character, “El Pachuco,” in Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit. He is omnipresent, often lurking in the background. He is the evil who is there but not there, the one who follows the neighborhood, whispering in everyone’s ear. His presence is always there because he permeates the barrio, foreshadowing evil: watching Monchi from afar, giving him bad advice, inviting him to a jump-in, showing him how a gangsta dresses, encouraging him to steal a bike, noting his reaction to his cousin’s being shot, and observing his encounter with a cop. Practically the only scenes here that do not include Clever are when Monchi is with his family, especially with his uncle. The message is strong: Kids who live in the barrio must understand that they have to learn to be careful.

Monchi’s slightly older cousin, Dreamer, is Clever’s counterpoint—she’s the angel on Monchi’s shoulder. When we meet her, she’s fixing a loose board on the porch, and, mocking him as “medio tonto” after he’s tripped over a rock, pretends to hit her own head with the hammer. Although she appears to be joking with Monchi, she’s implying that he has the capacity to make the right choices, but he will still make mistakes along the way. Later, despite her being dissed by Clever, Dreamer tries to convince Monchi not to join the gang. When that doesn’t work, she takes a bullet for him. Kids who live in the barrio must understand that they have to learn to be careful.

Rodríguez’s story of the barrio brings in the same Chicano subtext that Luis Valdez captured in Zoot Suit—the strong history of rural East LA of the 1960s that goes back to Sleepy Lagoon and the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots” in 1943 which spawned the movie—to incorporate the neighborhood and the gangs.

Young Monchi is the poet Luis J. Rodríguez and, ultimately, his story is about resisting the strong pull of the gangs. In a particular illustration, Clever confronts Monchi, who is holding a notebook in which he’s been writing his poems. And Monchi, terrified, nonetheless is meeting Clever’s eyes. 

The rich symbolism continues throughout. In Monchi’s encounter with a cop after Dreamer has been shot, for instance, the illustration indicates that he is answering the cop’s questions reluctantly if at all. Readers see the policeman looming from behind, his arm close to the gun at his waist. Monchi, his arms at his side, looks directly up at him—while Clever stands a few feet away, but nobody sees him.

In another illustration, after Monchi has stolen and sold a bike, he purchases a knife. This knife comes from the outside world, and Monchi brings it inside and puts it on the table where Dreamer can see it. Mom is preparing food in the kitchen, her back turned to them, but her worried expression says that she, like everyone else, knows what’s going on. 

Ultimately, it’s the violent event that almost takes Dreamer’s life—rather than anyone’s pleading with him—that convinces Monchi to get out before it’s too late. 

In the hospital, Monchi is filled with grief and guilt, And the boy’s uncle is there to support him: “Esto no tiene que ser así, m’ijo,” he says. “Sé que quieres ser un hombre, pero tienes que decidir qué clase de hombre quieres ser.” (“It doesn’t have to be this way, my son. I know you want to be a man, but you have to decide what kind of man you want to be.”)

Rogelio is proud of Monchi's decision, and tells him that “nosotros podemos mejorar las cosas, m’ijo, si todos trabajamos juntos” (“we can make things better, my son, if we all work together”).

My comadre, Judy Zalazar Drummond, told me that she used Monchi’s story in San Francisco middle schools for many years in discussions about making positive and negative choices. It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: A Barrio Story / No tiene que ser así: Una historia del barrio is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin

Gracias a mis colegas for their helpful input: David Bowles, María Cárdenas, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Juan Camilo Prado, Noam Szoke, and Lila Quintero Weaver.


Although this story is highly recommended, the Spanish text is more nuanced and subtly different from the English. The result is, that in English, it tends to diminish Monchi’s autonomy and sense of self. I suspect that this flattening in the English language was an editorial choice, and I’d like to see an updated edition with the subtlety and message of the language restored.

A few examples:

• Describing an encounter with Clever, Monchi tells readers (in English) “I tried to sound cool, but I was scared.” And in Spanish, Monchi says that he was “trying to look calm, but the truth is that this vato scared me.” In the English, Monchi is blaming himself for being scared, while in the Spanish, he acknowledges the source of his fear.

• After Dreamer’s near encounter with death, Monchi tells his tío that he has decided not to join the gang. Rogelio responds: “Ésa fue uno decisión valiente…. Y te respeto mucho por eso.” Monchi’s uncle uses the empowering term, “decisión,” acknowledging both the decision itself and that the youngster is learning to make positive choices. In the English text, however, Rogelio tells Monchi that he did “a brave thing,” which implies that it may have been something he was compelled to do, rather than his choice. Here, the use of the word “thing” rather than “decision” deemphasizes Monchi’s developing self-awareness.

• In the end, Rogelio tells Monchi that: “Nosotros podemos mejorar las cosas, m’ijo, si todos trabajamos juntos.” (
“We can make things better, my son, if we all work together.”) Spanish readers see advice that comes from Rogelio’s experience and strugglewhile English readers see Rogelio telling Monchi that “we can make good things happen, m’ijo, if we all work together.” Using the passive term here—“happen”—minimizes the community’s task ahead and Monchi’s role in it. 

We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults

Author / Photographer: Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press, 2019 
grades 5-up 
(Colombian, Mexican, Ghanaian, South Korean, Samoan)

The original title of Kuklin’s book of interviews with undocumented young people was to be Out of the Shadows: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. This was during the time of the Obama administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which allowed individuals who were brought to the US as babies or children without documentation—US passports, green cards, or visas—to receive renewable two-year periods of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for Social Security, work permits, driver’s licenses and other necessary documentation. The book was to feature Kuklin’s stunning portraits of the young tellers who were, indeed, out of the shadows. 

However, after the book was imagined and planned and accepted by Candlewick Press for a 2017 release, the interviews accomplished, the portraiture shot and developed, and the book laid out and ready to go to print—the incoming Trump administration moved to repeal DACA, spreading hateful, divisive messages about immigrants, migrants, and refugee and asylum seekers. And the young people, among some 700,000, were forced back into the shadows.

A painful decision had to be made, and everyone decided to stop the presses. But after some two years, during which this volume of young people’s important, truth-telling stories sat in a drawer somewhere, all agreed—Kuklin, Candlewick, and the courageous young people themselves—to bring the book into publication. This was too important, they all said in their own ways, to leave it unpublished. At the same time, it was decided that changes had to be made for the protection of these young people. Here, they are referred to only by their first initials, empty frames replace their portraits, and all other identifying information has been redacted. As Kuklin told me (see interview below), their safety was everyone’s first priority.

In We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, nine young people from Colombia, Mexico, Ghana, Independent Samoa, and South Korea—now living under the constant threat of deportation to their countries of birth—narrate their “American” lives and, for those who remember, what their lives were like in their countries of birth and what circumstances brought them here. Each chapter is narrated by one or more of the young people. Their narrations are raw and honest. 

Kuklin’s stark, black-and-white photos in Chapter 3 are foreboding images that complement the young people’s stories. They include a sign that warns travelers about encountering “smuggling and illegal immigration,” a heavily-armed Border Patrol officer, a barbed-wire-topped enclosure, surveillance towers, footprints and empty water jugs. 

From G—, who came here from Mexico:

When I say good morning to my parents, I’m never sure that I will be able to say good night to them. I’m afraid to go to school, because it could be the last time I see them for a while. My dad’s got to go to work. He’s got to drive to get there. Because he does not have a US license, if a police officer pulls him over, he could end up in jail. Once he’s in jail, he could go through deportation proceedings. It’s happened to some of my friends—their parents get deported, and they are left alone.

And from Y—, who arrived from Colombia:

A lot of people grow up with shame and anxiety about being undocumented. It’s not something you want to share with people. On the news you hear about “the illegals,” and about all the resources they take from Americans. I don’t think people have a particularly nice image of us. So when I say, “I’m undocumented,” it’s hard to tell how people are going to react….

Maybe next time they hear someone railing about how terrible immigrants are, they’ll think about me. I’m a real person. I go to school with their kids. I have a wonderful family. Maybe after listening to me they will feel differently about immigrants.

Rather than being told (and interpreted) by outsiders, the voices in We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Young Undocumented Adults are authentic and impassioned and moving. This volume is highly recommended; and I look forward to holding an edition in which readers can feel the voices and see the faces of these courageous young people.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/1/19; revised 5/2/19, last sentence above.)

Note: Susan Kuklin is an award-winning author and photographer whose main interest in her more than 30 books for children and young adults is to address important social issues. Her photographs have been shown in the Museum of the City of New York and in documentary films, as well as published in Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She cares very much about young people and getting the story right and, as I found out, she is generous with her time as well. 


Beverly Slapin: How did you originally envision this book? How has this project evolved? How and why have you and the young people you interviewed had to change your plans since the election of Trump?

Susan Kuklin: The book depended upon who came forward and volunteered to do an interview. One person led to another person. For example, Y told me that she felt really safe in New York but had she lived in Arizona, she probably would not have felt safe. P, a young woman from Mexico, really wanted her story to be in the book, but she was shy. Very, very shy. We met four or five times, but I was unable to get the details and introspection necessary for a narrative. Oh, how she wanted to do this. At one point in between our interviews, I went to Arizona, into the desert, and took photographs for an essay that appears in the book. When I returned, P— and I attempted another interview. I just happened to show her the photographs. “That’s exactly where I was!!!” All of a sudden, her experiences came rushing out. It was a magical moment. And by the way, she’s not shy any more. In fact, P’s arms are on the cover of the book and in the video on my Website.

So these interviews are organic—they’re flashes of memories, with one memory opening to another deeper memory.

How have the young people you interviewed reacted to Trump’s election? How have their lives changed since the election?

Their emotions range from scared to angry to defiant. And those emotions changed from day to day—from hour to hour. Can you imagine what it’s like to wake up one morning and learn that all your documentation—all your hopes and dreams—are down the drain? And also a new government hostile to immigrants has your address and telephone number and all your personal information?

The election was scary for me, so I can only imagine how it was for them. But still, the participants wanted the book to come out.

I felt responsible for their safety and well-being. I didn’t want to do anything to put them in jeopardy. I also realized that I was in effect sending them back into the shadows, the very shadows we saw the book as obliterating. They were much braver than I was. They kept texting me to stop worrying so much!

How has the book been received? How have the tours been received?

Very, very positively. People have been so compassionate about these kids and want to know how they’re doing now. Since the book came out, I’ve gone to border states and have met a number of DREAMers there who appreciate that the book was published.

The full-page frames with no photos in them are jarring; especially since they are all captioned as if they in fact contain portraits. They remind me of so many of the “disappeared” in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and other fascist regimes of the time, whose families and communities still struggle to obtain the remains of their “disappeared” relatives. Who arrived at this decision to focus on the young people by “disappearing” their faces and names? Was it a collaborative decision? What do the young people think of it now?

Although it was not my intention to write a political book, the young people’s stories make a statement about what is going on now. 

For the year-and-a-half the manuscript and photos were in a drawer somewhere, I thought the book would never be published. But the participants had made it clear that they wanted their stories told, and those stories needed to be told. I gave them options to help me make the final decision: publish the book as is, publish it using names but not photographs, publish it using photographs but not names, or publish it without names or photographs. They also had the option of dropping out of the project. Everybody had a different idea of what they wanted to do. I decided—based on their views and based on their safety—that we should omit both the photos and names. I told them that I wanted to protect the most vulnerable people in the book. Basically, everyone agreed to protect each other.

I see these empty frames as telling people who look at them that we live in an unfree country and that many people who live here are in real danger. 

Yes, this is our reality. 

Despite the fact that these are all narratives, the book reads like an authentic collaboration. None of the young people who entrusted you with their stories have been named. How were they involved in the editing process? How were they involved in the decision-making process? 

While I was working with my editor, the young people had the opportunity to read the drafts for accuracy, authenticity, and voice. It was back and forth almost until the book went to print. Everything is in their voices, their syntaxes, their rhythms. Their stories are intimate. It was a true collaboration. 

Where are they now?

On one hand, they are in limbo and, on the other hand, their lives go on. Five have graduated from college, four are in graduate school, two are teachers, one’s becoming a journalist, one’s married, another has been able to bring his whole family here. They were raised as typical American kids. They know how to organize. They don’t take fools lightly. At the book launch that most of the New York participants attended, they immediately felt comfortable with each other——it was like they’d been friends forever.

All the participants are looking forward to the time when we can republish the book with their names and photographs—when they can actually come out of the shadows. 

La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa

author: Deborah Mills 
author: Alfredo Alva
illustrator: Claudia Navarro
translator: María A. Pérez 
Barefoot Books, 2018
grade 2-up 

For more than 100 years, Alfredito’s family has lived in the small pueblo of La Ceja in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, working in the pinyon forest and the corn fields in the valley. Both forest and valley are far from their home and, now, Abuelo can no longer walk the distance. The children are always hungry, and Papá, unhappy about splitting up his family, takes Abuelo’s advice and, with young Alfredito (Papá’s first-born son), sets off for a place he can bring his family: somewhere “donde haya abundancia de trabajo y donde tu familia prospere.” 

La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa is a powerful and compelling narration of a father and his young son’s difficult journey, and it’s also the story of the many thousands who are forced for many different reasons and in many different ways to leave their homes and relocate to the US. 

Alfredito thinks about all the people and things he will miss: his home, his family, his friends, and his beloved donkey, Fernando, who was born in the same year. He can’t even imagine leaving his mother; indeed, he’d prefer being hungry to changing his life.

After his papá purchases the services of a coyote (in US dollars, of course) to assist them across the border, and after a huge going-away celebration with all the villagers, Alfredito’s sorrowful mother reminds him to be strong and that she will always love him. What she doesn’t tell him is that they will not see each other for many years.

Father and son’s harrowing journey includes floating across the Río Bravo / Río Grande on an old inner tube, only to find that the coyote has disappeared—and taken all of Papá’s money with him. (This is not an unusual occurrence.) Alone, the two walk for five days, through a desert, over a mountain, and across a valley—stopping only to take a quick nap on the top of a train that had stopped and to grab a jug of water left for the migrants by a train crew. Finally they get to a place known as the “Embassy” where others are resting—a metal-and-plywood shack, a few broken-down trailers and an old well. 

A few weeks later, Alfredito is able to begin school. Here, he meets another Spanish-speaker and learns to navigate his new environs, while watching out for men in uniforms. Things are changing for the better and, four years later, after President Ronald Reagan grants amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants, Alfredito and Papá travel to El Paso, where they reunite with the rest of their family.

Alfredo Alva’s journey began some 30 years ago—before the current US administration that demonizes immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and before the current US administration that breaks up families and imprisons terrified youngsters.

For immigrants such as Alfredito and his Papá, stealthily crossing the border to find work so that their families can survive is a desperate and heroic act. One of the things that makes La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa special is that it’s a true story of a hazardous journey, written at a level that will appeal to younger readers and listeners—both hablantes and English-speakers alike.

Most bilingual (Spanish-English) books for children (published in this country, at least) automatically privilege the English title and written text by their positions and layouts, so it’s refreshing to see the Spanish in the forefront here. As well, Pérez’s flawless idiomatic Spanish reads as beautifully and thoughtfully as the English text. For instance, the English has our young narrator saying, “I did not even want to think about leaving Mama. I was hungry, yes, but I did not want life to change.” And the Spanish reads, “Y no quería ni imaginarme cómo sería dejar a mamá. Tenía hambre, sí, pero no quería que cambiara mi vida.” (“And I did not even want to imagine what it would be to leave mom. I was hungry, yes, but I did not want my life to change.”)

In Navarro’s brightly saturated acrylic, graphite, and digital collage artwork, all of the characters’ expressions are clear: Papá’s sorrow as Abuelo tells him that he is no longer able to walk the distance to and from the pine forest; Alfredito’s initial disbelief as he hears from Mamá that they may not see each other for awhile and that he has to be strong; Papá’s and Alfredito’s sadness as they wait for the bus to take them to Acuña; Alfredito’s wonder as he makes friends with classmates who teach him English words; and, on the last spread, the family’s joy as they reunite in El Paso four years later. The illustrations also carry symbolism to which younger readers will easily relate. In one, Alfredito sadly caresses the family donkey, Fernando, who appears to be wondering what’s going on. In another, the youngster listens behind a wall as his father talks quietly with a coyote. Readers will not see the image of the human smuggler, but they will note the pencilled-in shadow of a coyote (the animal) on the floor. And on several pages, younger readers will note the appearance of at least one swallow—“a little bird,” Alfredito’s mamá tells him, “who does not need much to eat or drink to keep flying north.”

Most of the stylized art consists of full-bleed double-page spreads, with the text superimposed on or complementing the sky, the grass, or the adobe walls in the illustrations. Throughout the story, Alfredito wears blue pants, red sneakers and a blue-green shirt with yellow stripes; Papá wears dark blue pants and a light blue shirt, Mamá almost always wears a red dress with embroidered trim, and Abuelo wears un vestido de paisano con huaraches, typically worn by gente de campo. That most of the characters wear a “signature outfit” provides a cue for younger readers who otherwise might have difficulty in differentiating some of them.

Although all of the art is appealing, one illustration in particular stands out. At Alfredito’s and Papá’s going-away celebration (for which Uncle Tomás had announced that he would roast the family pig), bright lights and papel picado are strung between trees. The table is loaded with food, and it appears that the whole town has shown up. Yes, the family is hungry and must be split apart. But for now, as the multigenerational, multiethnic Mexican family, friends and community—desde el más viejo hasta el más joven—gather for what may be their last party together, there is dancing and laughter and flirting and love y abrazos y besos. And as they sing their favorite song, “Amor eterno,” there is joy. Younger readers may discover here that, while an individual family may be hungry, in this moment, together, in community, they are all wealthy.

The back matter contains black-and-white family photos (one of which shows Alfredo Alva and his large, smiling, extended family in Texas in 2016) and presents notes in Spanish and English that extend Alva’s narrative: a short history of his journey to Texas in the 1980s, a brief illustrated discussion of the changing frontier between Mexico and the US, and a short “objective” explanation of the hows and whys of immigration.

Story, art, translation and design beautifully come together in La Frontera, el viaje con papá—My Journey with Papa. For younger readers and listeners—and everyone else—it’s highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin 
(posted 4/16/19)

Gracias a mis colegas, Oralia Garza de Cortés and Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

P.S. A few more words: 

(1) Although Alfredo Alva worked with his neighbor, author Deborah Mills, to write this story, La Frontera is essentially his narrative, his story—and, rather than presenting Mills’ name first on the cover and title page, the publisher should have placed Alfredo Alva’s name in the primary position.

(2) Creating an authentic bilingual children’s book requires the equal participation of author, illustrator, and translator. In La Frontera, the publisher failed to include the translator as a legitimate member of the team by listing her name only on the CIP page, in tiny type.

I hope that these two errors will be corrected in the next printing.


author: Bettina Restrepo
Kathryn Tegen Books / HarperCollins, 2011 
grades 7-up 

The Cover
A teenage girl stands on dirt mixed with brambles, pieces of ragweed, and burned-out remnants of cypress roots. Nothing will ever grow where she stands. The girl faces away from the reader and away from her home. Her eyes are focused ahead, at tall buildings in what appears to be Houston, across the Mexican-US border. The blue sky on the “American” side frames her face and neck, and a breeze blows back her hair. She wears a white Mexican peasant blusa with embroidered trim, which reveals skin at her back and part of her face, offsetting her brown complexion and high cheekbones. Above her head, in large purple italics—with a barbed-wire design running across it—is the title: “Illegal.” This young person’s immigration status is all that defines her.

The CIP page lists the word “illegal,” and the phrases, “illegal immigrant” and “illegal aliens,” but not “undocumented.” The epigraph states (in caps): WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS. 

This is all a set-up for younger YA readers, documented and not.

People who cross without documents do not not refer to themselves as “illegal.” They use the term “indocumentado” (undocumented) or “sin papeles” (without papers). In truth, ¡Ningún ser humano es ilegal!—To be human is never illegal.

The Story
In this first-person narrative, 14-year-old Nora and her mother, searching for Nora’s father, make the harrowing journey from their small Mexican town of Cedula, to Houston, Texas. He had left three years before, seeking work to support his small impoverished family.

In attempting to describe the difficulties faced by undocumented young people, Restrepo exploits the story with stereotypical shortcuts. Everything that could possibly be wrong is wrong—from faulty Spanish (including Espanglish and code-switching) to inappropriate Black English to thoughtless cultural symbolism to common tropes about Mexican people to statements of misplaced ideological positions in characters’ mouths—it’s all problematic, to say the least. 

Faulty character development aside, Illegal is culturally, factually and historically illogical.

The Narration and Dialogue
According to Daniel José Older, “The function of language is to communicate things clearly. The function of grammar and rules around language are to facilitate that communication.” (1)

Both Nora’s narration and her dialogue, which are assumed to be in Spanish, are presented in English with a few Spanish words tossed in. Sometimes the italicized Spanish follows the English as a translation, and sometimes a few italicized Spanish words or phrases are tossed into an otherwise English narration.

When she’s speaking to the reader—or when she’s communicating with Spanish-speaking characters—Nora’s narration and dialogue are presented in faultless grammatical English. But when she’s attempting to communicate with an English-speaker, Nora struggles for words and speaks in broken English. (2) For instance, when Nora tries to explain to her friend, Keisha, why she can’t go to school, she says, “I need to English.” This is immediately followed by Nora’s telling the reader, “If I was smarter and spoke better, it would help me.” And “I school. No money. Papers” is a culturally incoherent word salad.

Had the author written the narration in the third person, the story would have been easier for the reader to understand. But because the author chose to narrate the story in the first person, there’s a jarring contrast between the grammatical English she uses to communicate with the reader and the broken English she uses in dialogues. This broken English doesn’t reflect the actual rhythms and syntax in Spanish that one would expect to find in someone who is struggling with English. 

Poor self-image aside for now, if Nora were narrating in English while processing in Spanish—as she certainly would be—it’s without question that her grammatical English in the narration would have contained Spanish metaphors and a comfortable Spanish rhythm. And her English in the dialogue would have followed her Spanish thought patterns. So, rather than “I need to English,” she would have said, “I need English” (“Necesito inglés”) or “I need the English” (“Necesito el inglés”). This technique would have served to connect the reader to Nora’s thoughts rather than having them try to figure out what’s going on. But rather than facilitating the communication, the author chose to craft the narration and internal discourse in a way that turns out to be super-awkward and can be confusing to the reader.

Money and the Crossing
Nora receives a “stack of money” that her father has wired to the family. Eight weeks later, the money is gone—the family is broke—and Nora worries how they will pay for groceries or the taxes. The family has old bills to pay and cannot get any more credit at the grocery store. Everyone is in a panic, and they scream at each other. (Note: In reality, a 14-year-old Mexican girl would not be whiny and argumentative, and would certainly not scream at her grandmother. Rather, she would be deferential to the rest of her family.)

Later, Nora looks inside the “money jar”—“We had enough to buy our way across the border, but then what?” Turns out, it’s a “stack of money”—a “stack of pesos.” Nora tells Grandma that “Mama went into town to buy bus tickets to the border.” We don’t know if she exchanged the pesos for dollars. The two take a bus to Matamoras, and Mama takes the address of the coyote out of her purse. “I guess we should find a taxi,” she says. The two meet the coyote, who demands “two thousand each,” and Nora bargains for “fifteen hundred (for both, it’s assumed). Nothing else.” The coyote grabs the money and mother and daughter climb inside the fruit truck that will take them across the border. 

There is no context for the family’s grinding poverty. (3) That they have barely enough money to survive, then they don’t, then they find enough in the “money jar” to buy their way across the border is confusing and inconsistent with reality. We don’t know if this money is in pesos or dollars. Either way, it’s far from enough. Coyotes—human smugglers—accept only US dollars and they don’t stand around and bargain because they don’t have to. Coyotes often charge thousands for the trip across the Mexican-US border; it would take $2,000-$3,000 just to get their attention. And a fourteen-year-old girl—or anyone else—would not dare to attempt to negotiate with a coyote anyway. They’re connected with the cartels. And there is no way that a coyote’s address would be written down.

That a destitute farm family turns out to have enough saved in their “money jar” to pay bus fare and a coyote and support themselves until they find work, and have money to send home—strains the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Families who can’t afford to pay a coyote look for other ways of crossing the border—risking life and limb by riding atop La Bestia, the Mexican death trains; risking drowning by trying to navigate the treacherous Río Grande using old tires; or risking dehydration and death by walking hundreds of miles through the arid desert.

Further, once they get across, Mexican families do not have to struggle to survive gang violence, do not have to struggle to exist in a filthy room or apartment, and do not have to struggle to find work that is, for the most part, nonexistent. That they do is a common trope. Rather, there are internal social networks in the community that outsiders do not know about. An undocumented family showing up in Houston would immediately be taken in by an underground network of people who would be on the lookout for them. There are jobs ready and a place to stay. The family would be taken care of. 

In Illegal, however, there are pretty much only horrors and the gangs, and filth and poverty. In her search for her father, Nora deals with anger, desperation and loss of faith. She stands up to a brutal coyote, fights off an attempted gang rape, confronts the “mean girls,” obtains food and shelter for her mother and herself, gets a job for herself and obtains fake work papers for her mother, and makes some friends who have issues of their own. Her dreams include learning English, going to school, and owning a pair of shoes that fit her. As she passes her fifteenth birthday, she pines, “I want to live in a place that doesn’t smell like garbage. I want my quinceañera. I want to be fifteen again.”

Throughout, Nora and all of the undocumented people she encounters refer to themselves as “illegals,” and in discovering that her father has been killed in a construction accident, she is told this:

Several of the men who stayed in the area saw the accident. They think the company dumped him by the work hall…. The company worried the construction site would be shut down because of the illegals. All of the other men left the site because they were afraid. The owner threatened that he would turn them in to immigration.

A year later, there’s a surprise party for Nora: not a belated quinceañera to honor her as a Mexican woman, but a “sweet sixteen party for my American girl,” her mother says. The family is together in Houston, Nora is becoming more fluent in English, she and her mother are working, Grandma has moved in with them, and they have “the cleanest alley on Quitman Street.” In the epilogue, Nora says,“I hope we can buy a real tombstone for Papa one day. I spend less of my time thinking about Cedula, and more on my homework.”

If there are any issues in Illegal, they are personal rather than political, and, in the end, all is neatly resolved. Like a long-running telenovela at the end of the series. 

Illegal is dripping with incongruous similes and metaphors (“Mama melted stomach first into a box of mangoes”), internal contradictions, and cultural inconsistencies and anomalies. It also contains descriptions of self-loathing (“I could just keep on being a stupid fruit picker and never think again”), problematic depictions of race, and disability tropes and fat-shaming. A few examples are below.

In this time of physical, social and political attacks on immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, this bears repeating: ¡Ningún ser humano es ilegal!—To be human is never illegal. Restrepo’s book is not recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 3/30/19)

Muchísimas gracias a David Bowles, María Cárdenas, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Guadalupe García McCall, and Noam Szoke. 

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~


African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a recognized group of dialects of standard English, with regional grammatical patterns and general rules and meanings. It’s clear that Restrepo does not know AAVE. She just doesn’t get it right. Keisha’s “Black” speech is not only inappropriate—it’s a sloppy mess. Both her dialect and rhythm change within the same thought. 

Keisha’s shoulders slumped. “I’ve been telling everyone about you. Like hows we been good friends to each other, even though you a Mexican and all.”

“I once ran around the neighborhood and my momma switched me so bad. I learned my lesson. I stay at the pool or the library.” She paused. “And now that you’ve pissed them off, ain’t no way we going running around.”

This, from Flora to Nora:

• “I don’t swim with Negros. Go play with your little friend.” Flora mouthed the word “nigger” at Keisha. “I know what she’s saying.” Keisha looked hurt but raised her chin. “You ain’t like that, right?…. You ain’t gonna be friends with her, right?”

And this (from Keisha), while not actually about welfare, is reminiscent of Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” trope:

• “Don’t worry, my mama don’t like charity either. But she says if the government is giving it out like candy, you might as well use some of it. She knows how all of this works.”

Other racist tropes include these, from Nora:

• The blond girl sitting high up in the chair looked like an angel. Highlights in her hair twinkled like it had a lightbulb glowing through it.

• Keisha’s skin intrigued me, because I didn’t know much about black people. Most people I knew were different shades of brown. Some like tea, others like coffee with milk. Never black. I hoped to touch her hair one day.


• “Are you okay?” Keisha asked me. “Do you even know what I’m saying?” She said it louder, like I was deaf. “She doesn’t speak English, dummy,” Flora said to Keisha.

• “But the still, humid air of Houston sat on me like a gordita waiting for the buffet.”


• “You can’t let (grapefruit) decay on the branch. Bad karma,” lectured Grandma inside our concrete house. 
(Note: Nora’s Mexican family is Catholic. Karma is central to Hindu and Buddhist belief. Grandma would more likely have told Nora that letting grapefruit decay on the branch is “mala suerte.”)

“I punted the grapefruit like a fútbol and ruby red juice sprayed into the air like droplets of sangre.” 
(Note: Fútbol is soccer, not “football.” Punting is a play in football, not “fútbol.” And the juice of a red grapefruit is pink, not red.)

“When I passed by the door of the old church, I took a rock and threw it against the old wooden door…. I spit on the steps of the church and walked home.” 
(Note: Unless she had been raped by a priest, no matter how angry she was, a Mexican Catholic girl would not desecrate—or even disrespect—a church. This behavior is more like what a whiny white girl would do.)


• “¡Bollios, ten para un dollar! He mixed English and Spanish. I understood the Spanglish.” 
(Note: It’s not Spanglish. It’s code-switching. (4)  And it’s the wrong preposition: should be por, not para.)

gordita—fat lady (slang) 
(Note: “Gordita” is an endearing term for one’s chubby daughter or granddaughter. And it’s also the name for a small, thick corn tortilla stuffed with cheese, meat or other fillings. The Spanish word for “fat lady” is “gorda.”)

Hola, mami.—Hey, sweet lady. 
(Note: “Hola, mami” means “hi, mom.” This is sometimes called out on the streets to someone who is not the person’s mother. “Hey, sweet lady” may be implied, but that’s not its meaning.)

Que onda guero—a reference to a song by Beck, meaning “What’s up, dude?” (slang) 
(Note: In addition to the missing interrogatories and accents, “¿Qué onda, güero?” is a chapter heading that references a popular Tejano song. It does not mean, “What’s up, dude?” It means “What’s up, whitey?” or “What’s up, blondie?” or “What’s up, gringo?” The Spanish for “What’s up, dude?” is “¿Qué onda, güey?”)

Restrepo acknowledges her agent and editor and family and friends and colleagues and organizations. Then, there’s this: “And to the employees, families, and customers of Fiesta Mart—thank you for sharing your lives and stories. I am humbled.” 

Her bio reads: “She worked as an internal auditor in the Hispanic supermarket Fiesta Mart, which is portrayed in this book. There she examined firsthand the challenges in the nuances of life for illegal immigrants.”

Her dedication reads: “For Manuela and Mimi—and the roots you have given me.” If Manuela and Mimi worked at Fiesta Mart, the author’s research was probably not about root vegetables. 

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

(1) “Why We Don’t Italicize Spanish,”

(2) What’s commonly referred to as “broken English” is the use of English words and phrases filtered through the thought processes of a fluent speaker of another language.

(3) Due to US economic policies (specifically NAFTA) and the Mexican government’s complicity, the US diversion of water from the Río Bravo has led to one of the greatest droughts in history. Suffering Mexican farm families have insufficient water and many have had to abandon their farms and come to El Norte. It’s a matter of survival.

(4) The author, through Nora, confuses Spanglish (Espanglish) for code-switching. Espanglish is the use of English-Spanish hybrid words, such as “restarán” (restaurant) or “washatería” (laundromat) or “Nuyorican” (Puerto Rican New Yorker). Code-switching is the combination of words or phrases from two different languages in a thought or sentence, such as “Hágame un favor y clean your room.”