Illegal

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

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. 

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

PROBLEMATIC DEPICTIONS OF RACE 

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.


DISABILITY TROPES AND FAT-SHAMING

• “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.”


CULTURAL INCONSISTENCIES / ANOMALIES

• “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.)


FAULTY SPANISH TRANSLATIONS IN TEXT AND GLOSSARY

• “¡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?”)


FIESTA MART
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,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24gCI3Ur7FM

(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.”

Vincent Ventura and the Mystery of the Chupacabras / Vincent Ventura y el misterio del chupacabras

author: Xavier Garza
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2018 
grades 3-6 
Mexican American

Lots of kids like scary stories, and the first volume in Xavier Garza’s bilingual series published by Texas-based Arte Público/Piñata Books, Vincent Ventura and the Mystery of the Chupacabras / Vincent Ventura y el misterio del chupacabras is sure to delight and satisfy middle grade fans of the horror genre. Vincent and his two best friends, Michelle and Bobby, notice strange things happening next door at 666 Duende Street after Mr. Calaveras moves in. For one thing, dogs are disappearing. Inside a foul-smelling drainage tunnel, Vincent finds Chato, a neighbor’s celebrity chihuahua, dead and its blood drained. This is not the work of a vampire but a chupacabras, a beast that sucks blood, known to inhabit both Mexico and Puerto Rico. Could Mr. Calaveras be transforming into the notorious chupacabras?

Against the advice of his friends, Vincent disguises himself and goes to Mr. Calaveras’s house to spy on him. The gruff neighbor sniffs out the ruse, and now Vincent is in danger. And so is his adorable beagle Kenny, who disappears soon after. Although the chupacabras is only supposed to kill non-human animals, there’s evidence that Mr. Calaveras, who was himself bitten on a university research trip to Puerto Rico, has killed humans in the past and will do it again.

Garza, who has authored middle grade tales of contemporary humor and horror, strikes a good balance of safe and scary for readers ages eight to 12. Yes, a dog dies, but not one to which the readers are attached. In fact, Chato the chihuahua’s celebrity status makes it a source of humor as much as horror. Garza’s vivid descriptions capture the sensory experience of entering the chupacabras’s lair. The author’s cartoon-like illustrations, one per chapter, juxtapose the ordinary-looking protagonist and his friends with the exaggeratedly fearsome beast of lore. Readers will learn basic facts about chupacabras without those facts slowing down a well-paced story. And all’s well that ends well, except that Mr. Calaveras has disappeared without a trace and 666 Duende Street has been fixed up to await its new tenant. Who will bring the next disaster to the neighborhood?

This bilingual flip book contains a smooth Spanish translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura that hews closely to the English original. Along with the short chapters and illustrations, the English and Spanish versions in the same book make this an especially good choice for young readers who are learning the other language.

An interesting bit of trivia is that Garza’s own son is named Vincent, and he wrote the series as a gift to his son. And now to all of us. Highly recommended to fans of light horror and those dipping into the genre for the first time.

—Lyn Miller-Lachmann
(published 3/20/19)

An earlier version of this review first appeared in The Pirate Tree (thepiratetree.com). We thank The Pirate Tree for permission.