The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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We Are Not from Here
We Are Not from Here
by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Paperback (18 May 2021), 336 pages.
Publisher: Philomel
ISBN-13: 9781984812285
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
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Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Award for Best Young Adult Novel

A poignant novel of desperation, escape, and survival across the U.S.-Mexico border, inspired by current events.


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.

PROLOGUE

When you live in a place like this, you're always planning your escape. Even if you don't know when you'll go. Even if you stare out your kitchen window, looking for reasons to stay—you stare at the red Coca-Cola sign on the faded turquoise wall of Don Felicio's store that serves the coldest Coca-Colas you've ever tasted. The gauzy orange of the earth—both on the ground and swirling in the air—that has seeped into every one of your happiest memories. The green palms of the tree you climbed one time to pick and crack the ripest coconut that held the sweetest water you gave your mother. And the deep blue of the sky you tell yourself is only this blue here.

You can look at all this and still be planning your escape.

Because you've also seen how blood turns brown as it seeps into concrete. As it mixes with dirt and the excrements and innards of leaking dead bodies. You've stared at those dark places with your friends on the way to school, the places people have died. The places they disappeared from. The places they reappeared one morning months later, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, but mostly in fragments. You've watched dogs piss in those places. On those bodies that once cried with life.

You plan your escape because no matter how much color there is or how much color you make yourself see, you've watched every beautiful thing disappear from here. Made murky by night and darkness and shadow.

You plan your escape because you've seen your world turn black.

You plan your escape.

But you're never really ready to go.

PULGA

We should run.

The words fill my mind as the priest throws holy water on Don Felicio's coffin. Neighbors slide it into its vault. Doña Agostina holds her rosary and wails.

Yesterday at his wake, she'd told me to run. Yesterday, Pequeña had told us to run, too. Today, my eyes scan the cemetery, looking for Rey or Nestor, and all I can think about is running.

The crowd disperses.

Another day.

Another death.

Another body.

When we get home, Mamá sinks into the couch, exhausted. My mind sees the red velvet cushions. Blood-red. So much blood.

We should run.

"You and Chico go rest," she says, pulling up her legs and lying down without bothering to change out of her black dress. "I'm going to stay here for just a little while. Close and lock the door."

Chico gets up from where he was sitting in the doorway and I do as Mamá says. He heads to our room and I follow. There is a heaviness in the air, pressing down on us. The thud of my own feet sounds terrible. But as I walk past Mamá, she reaches for my arm and grabs it.

"Pulga," she says. The force of her touch and her voice startles me. I look at her tired face and she says, "Te quiero mucho, Pulgita."

"I know, Mamá. I love you, too." But there is something else she wants to say, and doesn't. I can see it on her face. She just nods, lets go of my arm, and closes her eyes.

I stand there for just a moment, wondering if Doña Agostina told her about the dream she had. Or maybe Pequeña said something. Maybe Mamá is starting to believe in brujas and superstitions. Maybe I should, too.

Maybe Mamá will even tell me I should run, because it's the only way. That I have her blessing. That she understands broken promises.

Instead she takes a deep breath, lets it out.

And I go to my room.

Chico has the fan on the highest setting and it whirs loudly.

I close the door, even though it keeps the room hotter.

"Well?" Chico asks as I enter. He is fidgety and restless. The brown stripes on his shirt match his skin perfectly. I stare out the window.

"I don't know," I tell him. I haven't told him what Doña Agostina told me, but the strange things Pequeña said put him on edge. He hasn't been able to sit still since, and even here, he seems to be looking over his shoulder.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Torres Sanchez. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Three teenagers escape Guatemala and attempt a perilous journey to the U.S. atop Mexico's infamous La Bestia train in this urgent and evocative YA novel.

Print Article

Voted 2020 Best Young Adult Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

Pulga and Chico are only dimly aware of the danger around them — the corruption, the drug dealing and the gang violence — as they grow up in a small town in Guatemala. But on the day their friend Pequeña has her baby, the three teenagers lose all semblance of innocence. The boys witness a murder, Pequeña wants nothing to do with the child of the man who holds her town hostage, and the friends realize that their lives depend on fleeing Puerto Barrios. Others from their village have made it to the United States on the back of the infamous train La Bestia; Pulga has been meticulously planning the trip north for as long as he can remember. And so, under cover of night, a teenage girl who gave birth days before, a gentle giant of a boy, and his best friend who feels the world too much, set off together on a journey many able-bodied men do not survive. Their story is told from two points of view — which is clear but heartbreaking foreshadowing.

The teens' harrowing trip north is full of chance encounters with the sorts of people who have made the plight of immigrants their business, some genuinely caring and helpful, others exploitative and opportunistic. Their ride through Mexico on La Bestia is depicted as a multisensory experience, sometimes nightmarish, sometimes triumphant. And the conclusion of that journey highlights the various ways a trip like this can end in these days of unaccompanied children waiting in cages on the border. The book avoids overtly politicizing the situation of these characters — an attorney volunteers to take their case, so they are safe from deportation, at least for a while — but it also makes clear that no sane person would repeatedly risk death in the desert or under the wheels of a train unless they had a desperate need to escape something terrible.

Pequeña, who disguises herself as a boy for her own safety, has a touch of second sight. Magical realism is not uncommon in books with Latinx characters, but it runs the risk of turning into a trope in the hands of a clumsy writer. Sanchez's hands are not clumsy; Pequeña believes in and trusts her visions, and they are described as vividly and beautifully as the horrors of La Bestia.

The ending of the journey is a bit too convenient to be fully believable, but it still feels right. And it is not a comfortable ending, though the most life-threatening moments may be behind these young people. It is also fitting that two characters who have frequently been called by somewhat juvenile, condescending nicknames finally come into their own, as if their ordeal has been a baptism.

Refugees have been traveling to what they hope will be a better life in the United States for generations, and the stream of undocumented immigrants continues. We Are Not from Here, with its young, sympathetic, genuinely desperate characters, is a heart-wrenchingly real novel to hand to any teen or adult who wonders how and why that journey can be so urgent and imperative for some.

Reviewed by Catherine M Andronik

New York Times
[A] novel precisely for this moment...Sanchez grounds herself in the reality of what it means to be a child fighting for one’s life under the most extreme circumstances. She makes us reckon with questions that break our hearts. She forces us to see how we each play a part in the plight of people who trek north to our southern border, and in what happens to them once they get there...And while Sanchez’ book was written for teenagers, adults should read it, too.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A brutally honest, not-to-be-missed narrative...gripping, heart-wrenching, and thrilling.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A devastating read that is difficult to put down, this unforgettable book unflinchingly illuminates the experiences of those leaving their homes to seek safety in the United States.

School Library Journal (starred review)
A candid, realistic story that will leave readers thinking about the characters—and about our own world—long after the last page.

Booklist (starred review)
Gripping, poignant...this soul-shaking narrative [recalls] the works of Gabriel García Márquez.

Author Blurb Guadalupe García McCall, Pura Belpré Award-winning author of Under the Mesquite
With poignant, exhausting lyricism and heart wrenching poetic prose, Jenny Torres Sanchez digs deep and shows us the throbbing, aching corazón—the hopeful, unbreakable spirit of the embattled immigrant. A book for the starving, lost soul.

Author Blurb Padma Venkatraman, award-winning author of The Bridge Home
An incredibly powerful, soul-searing YA. [I]mportant and necessary .... I could not put this book down.

Author Blurb Jennifer Mathieu, critically acclaimed author of The Liars of Mariposa Island and Moxie
We Are Not From Here is one of the most relevant and needed young adult novels of the year, a must-read.

Author Blurb Christina Diaz Gonzalez, award-winning author of The Red Umbrella
An achingly beautifully story...masterfully told...Jenny Torres Sanchez is a true leader within young adult fiction.

Author Blurb Lauren Gibaldi, author of This Tiny Perfect World
We Are Not From Here is absolutely stunning. It's raw and real, gritty and gorgeously told. A story that's painfully relevant today, and told with such precision and beauty, you can feel it. It's breathtaking and left me absolutely breathless.

Author Blurb Alexandra Villasante, critically acclaimed author of The Grief Keeper
We Are Not From Here is a book that will mark your heart. Jenny Torres Sanchez challenges us to feel, empathize and understand. A searing, necessary and ultimately beautiful book.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by BeckyH
A terrifying escape to the US
Three young teenagers are forced to flee their Guatemala home when they are targeted by the local drug dealer. They travel through Mexico to the United States where they hope to find safety with relatives.

This novel is a searing look at the hardships and dangers of all those who travel illegally from Central America to reach the “Promised Land” and relative safety of the US. Honest and heart wrenching. If you refused – for whatever reason – to read AMERICAN DIRT, this book gives the same point of view from the pen of a Latinx writer.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Tanu Panwar
Young Adult Literature
We Are Not From Here astonishes even as it conveys harsh realities. Torres Sanchez’s prose alternately chills and sings as it brings primal human experiences—life and death, despair and hunger, fear and hope—to the page in brilliant relief. The choice to employ first-person narration, commonplace in young adult literature, is particularly effective here and adds immediacy to the threats that seem to lie in wait around every corner. Elements of magical realism elevate the teens’ journey to epic, mythic heights. It all makes for a stunning, visceral and deeply moving read.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Aeron
The bittersweet
Its good, actually this is a masterpiece. The only problem is the character development. On how other characters didn't get a chance to be shown more.

Print Article

La Bestia: A Perilous Journey for Migrants

Migrants riding atop La Bestia in VeracruzIn Jenny Torres Sanchez's young adult novel We Are Not from Here, three Guatemalan teenagers embark on a dangerous journey to the United States, part of which takes place on top of La Bestia (The Beast). This is the commonly used name for the train that spans the length of Mexico frequently boarded by migrants seeking to bypass immigration checkpoints en route to the U.S. Its other common name is perhaps less lyrical but more descriptive: El tren de la muerta, the train of death. In the novel, the characters switch from train to train, revealing that there is no single La Bestia; this is a beast made of many parts.

Migrants have been riding La Bestia for decades, though the popularity of this method of travel waned considerably in 2014 and for a few years after, as Mexican authorities began raiding the trains and detaining migrants. However, ridership surged in recent years; Mexican immigration agents detained 43,258 migrants from April to May of 2019. It's estimated that up to half a million Central American migrants ride the train every year.

One of the characters in We Are Not From Here, Pequeña, disguises herself as a boy for the journey, and with good reason. A social worker reports that 80 percent of the women who ride La Bestia are raped at some point along the way. Death is never far from El tren de la muerte: it is estimated that over 120,000 travelers have disappeared or died on the journey since 2006, many killed under the wheels of the train as they run alongside to hop aboard. Many more have lost limbs or suffered other catastrophic injuries. In 2011, the Red Cross opened a facility at a midpoint on the train route in order to attend to the wounded. They reported treating five to eight individuals requiring amputations each month in 2018.

La Bestia has been immortalized in music by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. In an effort to discourage migrants from risking their lives on the train, they produced the song "La Bestia," describing in detail its dangers ("Migrants go as cattle/ To the slaughterhouse/ Taking hell's route/ Within a cloud of pain.") It's got a catchy tune, and is sung by popular jingle artist Eddie Ganz. It flooded the airwaves in Central America five years ago, but has apparently not served to deter migrants.

For readers who wish to see what the journey on La Bestia is like, there is a documentary called Mexico: La Bestia available on YouTube. It was produced by Arte, a French/German company, and features German narration with English subtitles.

Photograph of La Bestia in Veracruz by Alberto Bautista

Filed under Society and Politics

By Catherine M Andronik

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