In 2013, stories about unaccompanied minors started coming across our airwaves, feeds, and timelines.
These children, we learned, were fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras in record numbers. They were making the long, arduous trek to El Norte through the vast expanse of Mexico and the borderlands. And they were doing all of this, at great expense and risk of death, unaccompanied by their parents.
The words we kept hearing were “flood” and “surge,” conjuring images of a dark and stormy sea washing over our southern border – perhaps the violent waves of a tsunami crashing ashore.
Tsunamis may have names, but they are not people. They are not sons and daughters. They are unexplainable and deadly phenomena that threaten our existence. We pray to God that he would keep them far away from us.
These “flood” headlines stoked our fear. And, at times, they spurred us to compassionate action. But what the headlines were incapable of doing was making this humanitarian crisis personal. They were unable to pick us up and plop us down in the well-worn shoes of the boys and girls whose lives had been uprooted time and again by gang violence, economic desperation, and abuse of all kinds.
In her marvelous and meticulously reported book The Far Away Brothers, Lauren Markham introduces us to Ernesto and Raúl, identical twin brothers from a small town in rural El Salvador called La Colonia (some names of people and places have been changed in the book for the safety of those involved).
We meet them in the home where they have grown up. We get a feel for the life their parents have led – made challenging by economic hardship, and then nearly untenable because of the MS-13 gang’s tightening grip on the town. We get why so many of the town’s young people have sought to escape, including the twins’ older brother, Wilbur.
And then we meet their uncle, Agustín. With more and more people fleeing for their lives, coyotes (human smugglers who lead migrants north) were charging as much as $8,000 per person for the trek. So Agustín, the consummate hustler, begins financing these journeys at staggering interest rates. According to the terms of the deal, payments are to be made once migrants reach Houston or Phoenix or LA – anywhere, really, in the land flowing with milk and honey and well-paying jobs. If payments aren’t forthcoming, there is hell to pay for the family members who remain.
One day, a tree on Agustín’s property is mysteriously, provocatively chopped down. Agustín does not take this well. He makes his consternation known to the local gang leaders. What begin as suspicions and rumors quickly morph into accusations and threats.
Ernesto is forced to flee. Raúl, his identical twin, has no choice but to do likewise.
We follow the twins across the border to Guatemala and northward into Mexico. It’s a harrowing journey; safe passage is no sure thing. We learn about the tactics deployed by bandits along the way. We learn about institutional corruption at the highest levels. We learn about good Samaritans who run shelters where migrants can eat, sleep, and bathe.
The twins manage to cross the border into the United States. And then they are apprehended by border patrol agents. Because Ernesto and Raúl are minors, they’re not deported immediately, as they would be otherwise. Instead, they’re taken in for processing, which means they at least get a court date before deportation.
First they are confined for a few days in what is dubbed an “icebox” – an overcrowded warehouse-like facility with the A/C blasting at unnecessary levels. Then they are transferred to another facility run by a private contracting agency that has the good fortune of invoicing the federal government for $200 to $500 per night for every child detained. The twins remain there for two months.
As the story continues, the boys are reunited with Wilber, their older brother, and move in with him in his small apartment in Oakland, California while they await deportation hearings.
The twins enroll in high school. They get girlfriends. They get jobs. They lose jobs. They lose girlfriends. They live the lives, in other words, of American teenage boys.
Except for the fact that their future is still in question. They may be deported. Or they may not. As minors, they need to stay in school or their risk of deportation grows.
Meanwhile, their family in El Salvador pleads with them to send money, always more money, to pay off their creditors and to make up for the income lost due to a lingering drought that has ravaged their farm.
They’re in the Promised Land, but it is harder to finish school, harder to earn money, harder to send remittances to the family members they love, harder to feel at home in their own skin, than they ever could have imagined. There is no escaping this difficulty, so we sit with it for most of the book.
It’s important to note that as our narrator, Markham never crosses the line into hagiography. The twins make mistakes. They spend money they don’t have on the latest sneakers. They consume energy drinks and sometimes other kinds of drinks. They are susceptible to bad attitudes. At times, you might say, they leave what bootstraps they do have unpulled.
We are under no illusions Ernesto and Raúl are model citizens whose lives are moving straight up and to the right.
That’s because Markham is an honest storyteller who knows that none of our lives go that way, even those of us who were born in the right place, to the right parents, who have gone to all the right schools, who have learned to play by all the rules.
At certain points, The Far Away Brothers reminded me of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the award-winning book by Katherine Boo about life in a Mumbai slum. Both books are intimate portraits of otherwise invisible people whose lives are much more compelling than all the tired cliches from those on the left and the right could ever be. In the case of Ernesto and Raúl, Markham’s everyday presence as a program coordinator at Oakland International High School is what gives her a front row seat to the action, and why her occasional cameos in the story don’t feel forced.
Short interludes between chapters provide 30,000-foot macro snapshots of the complex, multifaceted story of poverty, gang wars, migration, courts, and politics that are reshaping Central America, Mexico, and the borderlands. These well-placed vignettes provide broader context for the micro story in which we find ourselves immersed.
In short, The Far Away Brothers is the rare book that is both endearing and riveting, hopeful and haunting. You won’t want to put it down. It’s a book about the search for an American life – one of so many searches these days for the meaning of America, a great idea still being formed.
This review was originally published in the Englewood Review of Books.