As part of my goal of reading more diversely, I want to focus, this year, on specifically trying to read more Latinx authors. According to my reading stats for last year, only 3% of the books I read were by Latinx authors. I feel like, with the current political focus on immigration in the US, the growing percentage of the population that is Latinx, and considering that I majored in Spanish and Spanish literature as an undergrad, I should definitely be making a greater effort in this area. Anyways, this was one of the first ones on my list to get to this year and, even though I’ve had a slow reading start this year and am only now getting to it, I’m glad I picked it to be towards the top.
“‘…what if you’re with friends or family, and you get separated? How do you find each other?’
‘Everyone knows you go home.’”
Isabel meets Omar, her father-in-law, for the first time the day she marries Martin. But it’s not the way one normally meets their father-in-law…because Isabel and Martin got married on the Day of the Dead, and Omar is visiting as a ghost. However, Martin, and his entire family, have still not forgiven Omar for abandoning them years ago. So every year after that, when Omar returns to visit on their anniversary, it’s only Isabel who can (is willing to) see him. Omar asks Isabel to try and convince the rest of the family to “see” him so he can explain to them what really happened. And as the years pass and Isabel tries to get more information about the past, she and Martin also are dealing with family complications in the present, in the form of Martin’s teenage nephew, Eduardo, who has crossed the border from Mexico and is staying with them.
“It seemed useless to pray. Who protects the invisible?”
This is a great “everyday life” story, written in smooth and expressive prose, and focusing on a slice of life that most of us have not experienced, have no frame of reference for, or cannot imagine. These types of stories are, in my opinion, some of the most important because they are the ones that truly allow us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathize with them. I loved the way that the past and present story lines allowed for multiple different perspectives and generations of the immigrant experience. With Omar and Elda’s (and Marisol’s, though to be honest I couldn’t really figure out the presence of her story-line – why it was added/what it did for the overall message that the rest of the perspectives didn’t already do in some way) journey over the border in the past, Sylvester shows how traumatic crossing the border can be and what sacrifices and challenges are faced/made upon arrival (and for every day after), with everything from finances to family. This is further elaborated through Eduardo’s present-day experiences with the same struggles, showing how the process repeats over and over from generation to generation, but expanding it to show how things are different for youth that make the journey. In addition, through Martin and Isabel’s present-day perspectives, we can see how their different backgrounds (one from an, originally, undocumented immigrant family and one from a family with longer established citizenship) affect the way they communicate with each other and handle certain issues, especially in regards to Eduardo. And through all of these points of view, we are able to see how there are so many reasons that people choose to enter the US without documentation – and I really appreciate the way that the author makes it clear that while each decides to do so, there is a clear difference between that decision and truly having a choice in making that decision. It is such an important distinction that, in real life, gets obscured so often by other points and arguments that we lose sight of the people behind them.
“What a fragile thing it was, to feel connected.”
Alongside the clear issues of immigration and the nearly impossible choices faced by many who are trying to make a better life for themselves, I also appreciated the “normal” drama faced by the characters in these books. Seeing the way they deal with things like teenage hormones, grief over illness/death of family members, how to keep communication, trust and respect alive within close relationships over the years, what we are willing to do/sacrifice those we love, forgiveness – these are more universal challenges that we can all relate to. It creates a bridge between the reader and the characters, encouraging connection on the topics we can all share. And it makes it so that when we, as readers, consider the added stress of being undocumented, constantly under that mental/emotional strain, on top of everything else, it’s much more poignant and impactful.
“Grief is never really gone; it is just a darkness you eventually adjust to.”
Although I struggled at times with Isabel and Martin’s relationship (it definitely lacked a little something, which made me less invested in them than I would have liked) and felt that Omar’s visits to Isabel were never quite wrapped up in a satisfying way (at least between the two of them), I overall felt that the characters individually were very well explored throughout the novel. And in particular, some of the “bonds between strangers with shared experiences” relationships were incredibly touching. Also, the women were all written with lovely strength and complexity. Last, I love the balance Sylvester strikes between optimism and realism in this plot. There are some wonderful and truly happy moments/outcomes and there are others than hurt so much, but they are juxtaposed in such a way that the presence of each makes the other seem that much more real.
“Patience is a process that births forgiveness.”
This timely novel is really special in the way it portrays a very secretive, un-talked-about, life experience (undocumented immigration from an immigrant POV) in a way that makes it seem completely ordinary and relatable. Sylvester’s message, how the trying is worth it even if it might be doomed to failure or if there isn’t anything better waiting at the end, is incredibly impactful. And, as I mentioned before, creating such ordinary lives for our characters, outside of that one aspect, really highlights for the reader that, at base, we are all the same (despite our places of birth or legal paperwork). That type of connection, on a human level, is exactly what is necessary for everyone to learn and internalize, as we work to fight for justice and humanity within our nation.