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These days I find myself drawn to story after story about immigration policy, wondering about the faces behind the statistics. Yet Jenny Torres Sanchez’s We Are Not From Here, a young adult novel about three teenagers fighting through each mile from Guatemala to the United States, sat on my shelf for longer than I wanted. I knew the book would pull me in, and I was hesitant to immerse myself in the characters’ pain.

And reading this book did feel like bearing witness. The dangers that Pequeña, Pulga and Chico face as they decide to leave their families in Puerto Barrios and board the train called “La Bestia” (the Beast) are unflinching, unending, unabsorbable – and fictional in name only. Through Sanchez’s descriptions I felt my own lips chapped and bleeding as I huddled on top of a blazing cargo car, my own feet blistered and cracked as I walked for hours to the next bend in the tracks. 

What I didn’t expect were the touches of magical realism that allowed momentary escape. Spiders in a field at night, turned into unexpected accomplices to evade kidnappers and thieves. An old woman on a porch, her long hair “peppered with gray strands that seem to glow,” with people Pequeña vaguely loves inside. Even a glimpse of God: “He is a brown hand cupped to a child’s chin, where rainwater is gathering so she can drink from it.” 

Amid this novel’s searing reality, the power of kindness radiates. As much as I will remember the gang cruelty that led Chico and Pulga to leave their mothers and their town, I will also hold close the gestures that greeted them at shelters along the way, offered by people of faith or travelers ground down by the same journey. A shower. A clean shirt. A plate of beans with tomatillo salsa. Such people give the lie to Pulga’s reflection, at one point, that “we are specks that don’t matter to this world. Our lives, our dreams, our families don’t matter to this world. Our hearts, our souls, our bodies don’t matter to this world.” In Sanchez’s universe, despite the brutality she describes, these three – no longer children, not yet adults – matter deeply. 

Sarah Cooper

Sarah Cooper teaches history at an independent school just outside Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two sons. In her spare time, she runs, plays piano, listens to Broadway musicals and searches for good bakeries. She also loves young adult fiction.