Originally published by The NY Times
In June, at a Families Belong Together march protesting the separation of migrant parents from their children at the border, the actress Diane Guerrero gave an impassioned speech. Four years ago, she revealed that her parents had been deported when she was 14; she’d come home after school to an empty house, and could stay in the United States only because family friends took her in. “In the Country We Love: My Family Divided,” the book she wrote about her experience, was released in 2016. It’s now been adapted for middle grade readers, with help from Erica Moroz, as MY FAMILY DIVIDED (Holt, 249 pp., $18.99; ages 10 and up).
Guerrero’s story is a variation on what we’ve been reading in the news. She was not caged, and her parents were already long-term residents in the United States when they were arrested. But she, too, is a casualty of American immigration policy. As her speech reached its climax, she screamed into the microphone, about the effects of her family’s separation: “It is not temporary. It is forever. It is for life!” In “My Family Divided,” she shows us where that anger comes from.
The book starts on the day of Guerrero’s parents’ arrest. At school, she’s practicing for a duet she’ll perform at a spring concert. Her father had, improbably, won $10,000 in the Powerball lottery the day before, and had given her a “shiny $50 bill.” That afternoon, she went to Foot Locker. “I’d had my eye on this pair of classic Adidas shell-toes for weeks,” she writes. She tried calling her parents afterward to let them know she was running late. No one answered. She sprinted home and “prayed with every step. God, please — let them be there.” They weren’t, and she hid under the bed until her parents’ friend came to get her.
I had heard the gist of Guerrero’s story before, but I was shocked by the details. Readers who think they know her story may be surprised by the extent to which she lived on edge.
It turns out that her mother had already been deported twice before. By the time she turned 15, Guerrero had seen her dad swindled by a fraudulent immigration attorney and her brother deported. She’d had to pack her parents’ bags for Colombia after they were arrested, had visited her mother while separated behind a “giant plastic barrier” and witnessed the indignity of her father covering his mouth, embarrassed because he was not given toothpaste in jail. Her mother was arrested while she was making dinner; her father “pulled into the driveway to discover that the immigration officers had surrounded the house” and were “waiting to put him in handcuffs.” It felt like a SWAT team being brought in to break up a rowdy pool party.
Even when she depicts these situations using platitudes — “I was too distraught to answer,” or it “scared me straight” — these moments have a powerful sting because of the way they pile on one another in quick succession. Their effect on Guerrero becomes clear only in later years, when she falls into a deep depression and begins to self-harm in her 20s.
A small pleasure of reading this book is how Guerrero places herself within her neighborhood. Her ethnically specific descriptions, for instance, of the “black kid with a ‘fro” with whom she sang a duet, or the “Dominican-looking guard,” demonstrate her comfort seeing color. Guerrero is also adept at portraying the duality of her existence. She was joyful at school, where she was able to practice singing, and “teachers talked about college as if they assumed we’d each enroll.” But the pressures at home still weighed on her: at first, the threat of her parents’ removal and then, their absence.
This memoir’s greatest strength is that it captures how life moves on even after a great loss; Guerrero got her first period, started a job and began dating. She coped by avoiding phone calls with her parents and expressed annoyance with her circumstances; she blamed her mother for what had happened. Her account of these conflicting feelings depicts well this “strangest kind of heartache.” I was separated from my mother, too, for more than 10 years, and I can attest to the ways in which longing can turn to routine can turn to forgetting. Life can feel normal, in other words — or, as Guerrero writes, “whatever normal is in a story like mine.” But to read this book is to understand why Guerrero was compelled to shout that she will feel the weight of her family’s separation “for life.” It is to understand how a child’s resilience can be as heartbreaking as it is inspirational.