Last year I read Valeria Luiselli’s strange but enjoyable novel The Story of My Teeth so when I learned she had a new book out I was excited. What absurdity would she be up to this time? But it turns out her new book is nonfiction. Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is an intense, heartbreaking, eye-opening, long essay on immigration, specifically immigration from Latin America to the United States, that made me so very angry at myself for being so naive and at my country for its cruelty.
Luiselli knows US immigration well. While she was working on this book she and her husband were applying for green cards so they could work. While she waited, she got involved with a nonprofit organization in New York City where she volunteered as a translator. Her duties involved interviewing unaccompanied children who entered the country illegally, had family in New York, and who were trying to not be deported. The essay is organized around the questions she had to ask the children.
The horrors and dangers the children face to get to the US are sickening: kidnapping, slavery or prostitution, torture, murder, travel on the top of trains where one wrong move means death, and for women and girls almost certain rape (80% are raped on the way and most of them know this will happen and take birth control precautions before they start their journey). Yet in spite of the hazards, remaining at home is often more dangerous. Many of the children face physical and sexual abuse, gang threats and harassment, rape, murder, you name it.
One boy Luiselli interviewed carried with him the entire way a copy of a police report he made to the local police where he lived with his grandmother. He was being threatened by two gangs, gangs that originated in the United States and are still active here as well as in Mexico, that were trying to force him to run drugs for them. He made a report to the police but the police did nothing. His aunt in New York took out a loan for $4,000 to pay a coyote to bring him across the border. This police report saved him from being deported. Because most children, except for a lucky few, are deported under a procedure absurdly named “voluntary return.”
If you want to learn a lot about US/Mexico immigration policy, read this book. Luiselli wraps loads of detailed information into the stories of the children she interviews. She does it in such an expert way that it is never an information dump, never boring, and always clear about the whats and whys — uncomfortably clear.
For those who think Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or other Central American countries should be responsible to “fix their problems,” Luiselli makes it clear that the problems do not solely belong to those countries. The United States had, and continues to have, a large role in creating and perpetuating them. The American government refuses to acknowledge this, however, and institutes increasingly draconian policies from raids and round ups to the grand idea of building a fucking wall and making Mexico pay for it. No one makes the dangerous journey across the border on a lark or for the hell of it. Truly the immigration “problem” is less about immigration and more of a refugee crisis. But no one in the government wants to recognize it as a refugee situation because that would mean actually doing something to help people and finding a place for them in this country. It is easier to turn a blind eye and not accept responsibility.
But as Luiselli writes,
Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps for those which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice — were that even possible — is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.