Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Title: The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life
Author: Lauren Markham
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 320
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham attempts to humanize the stories of undocumented minors against the political backdrop of US President Donald Trump announcing a war on undocumented migrants.  

The author does this by highlighting the efforts of teenage twins, Ernesto and Raul Flores of El Salvador, to enter the US. She has written this book after hours of research and investigation into the lives of undocumented minors coming in from El Salvador via Mexico.

The names of the family members have been changed to protect their identity, but the struggles faced by the brothers and their family members is very real.

Most illegal immigrants come to the US in the hope of securing a better life, but for many, says the author, that means a life where they are not afraid of being killed.

That’s what it is like for Ernesto and Raul, seventeen-years-old when they make the perilous journey up North.  Their older brother, Wilber Jr, had already gone to America, because there was no future in their country. 

There are six other siblings, older and younger at home; their parents have lost four babies. Of these, the author also gives us glimpses of Ricardo, who has a drinking problem and flirts dangerously with joining the gangs, and Maricela, who becomes an abandoned single mum, and looks after the family.

Meanwhile, Ernesto and Raul plod on at school, watching as their friends join gangs and snitch on those who won’t join. Ernesto, more aggressive than his twin, wants to follow in Wilber Jr’s footsteps and build a better future for himself; Raul wants to work as a banker in another city in El Salvador.

Their dreams fall by the wayside as El Salvador succumbs to waves of violence and gangster unrest. Conditions worsen and it becomes a place where the threat of death…was just as powerful as death itself.

When Ernesto gets into trouble on account of a jealous uncle, the family borrows $7000 to send Ernesto up North, and then another $7000 for Raul, when gangsters mistake him for Ernesto and almost try to kill him. Both boys suffer and witness harrowing sights on their way, and suffer depression and nightmares even months after reaching the US.

The family believes that they will be able to pay off the debt once the boys reach the US. But that is not what happens. 

In the US, the twins get caught up in the struggle to seek documentation. They miss their court hearing, and need a lawyer to fight their case pro bono. They enroll in a school and get part-time jobs, working in shifts, but the meagre amounts they earn don’t make a dent in the mounting debt.

They face other challenges. Besides the lack of language skills, the low wages, they are also plagued by their desire to fit in, to want the lifestyle that they see others enjoying. They don’t seem capable of taking advantage of the American Dream. They keep getting caught in its trappings, wanting to spend their money on iPhones, Nike sneakers, smoking, and girlfriends. Ernesto’s teenage girlfriend gets pregnant, and gives birth to their daughter.

It is only when their father, Wilber Sr, sells off a parcel of land, their inheritance, that the debt can be wiped off, and the twins can begin to dream of a fresh beginning.

The title comes from the phrase, hermano lejano, faraway brother in Spanish. Hermano lejano is the Salvadorean term for a person who has crossed over into the US.

The narrative of the Flores twins is interspersed with the history of the resettlement of refugees, how various administrations have dealt with the issue, the amount of money involved and the corruption that prevails, the deplorable conditions that exist.

We also come to know of what those left behind in El Salvador go through. The fear of the gangs, the inability to make money to fend for themselves and their families. Theirs is a sorry lot, justifying why so many people undertake the journey El Norte.

In giving us the overall picture about the twins as well as the family back home, the author tells us of the magnitude of the problem. In giving us a deeper understanding of the situation of the twins, she helps us see that each case matters.

The author tells us about the extent of migration that has taken place in a decade – 7% of the population of El Salvador went to the US, compelled to escape the violence and instability back home. She describes the geography of the terrain that separates the US and Mexico, in the form of the Rio Grande. 

We get an idea of the hazards, physical and mental, that migrants allow themselves to be subjected to, in order to enter the US.

She does a spot of hard talk, insisting that while Trump believes that border protection is the central issue, it is important to see why people are seeking to leave. We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America, and we must play a major part in solving it.

She adds, The United States can build a wall, dig a two-thousand-mile trench, patrol with drones and military-grade vehicles and machine guns, and put thousand more guards at the border. Desperate migrants will still find another way.

As a reader, I felt a strong sense of anger at the twins who continued to make the wrong choices, trying to enjoy the fruits of the American Dream, even before they had earned a right to the rewards. They are unable to pay off the debt, but they don’t seem overtly worked up about it.

Through the writing, the author maintained a neutral tone. There was not the faintest trace of judgement or censure on her part as she set down the facts, helping us to understand just why someone would choose to uproot themselves from their homes and countries and make the perilous journey to the Land of Opportunity that is America.

(I received a copy of The Far Away Brothers from WaterBrook Multnomah.)

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