The Power of Story: Immigrant Experiences

I hope this story will expose Betita’s humanity, because her yearnings for happiness and love are universal, but further still, I hope it teaches children how one child was able to use her voice, her art and poetry, to not only endure but to rise above and change a horrific and harmful circumstance.

 




Land of the Cranes is a story written in March 2018, months before the world’s eyes turned their attention to the horrors of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S. Mexican border where 3500+ migrant children (mostly from Central American countries) were separated from their parents. This story was informed by my own experience as an undocumented child who lived, along with my family, in fear of being deported until we received our green cards when I was twelve years old. But also, because my communities were experiencing real persecution. That January, the Trump administration began to retaliate against sanctuary states and cities across the country. Sanctuary cities are those that will not criminalize migrants for being here without authorization. The mayor of Oakland alerted the community that ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) would be conducting raids in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. Despite the mayor’s warnings, and the fact many migrants hid that day, ICE detained nearly three hundred undocumented people. They took them while they worked in factories, as they picked up their children from school, or while they vended on the street. During that time, I also learned of the death of two undocumented migrant farmworkers, a husband and wife, who were on their way to work one morning and were followed and chased by ICE. The couple died in a car crash as a result of the chase leaving behind six orphans. This, for being in the country without authorization which is only a misdemeanor offense. It is as big a crime as when we don’t use the crosswalk while crossing the street. My life as an undocumented child and my understanding of the long-standing criminalization of migration made these stories have a deeper meaning for me. They were very alive in my broken heart when I wrote Betita’s story.

Now, how Betita actually came to me is an entirely different story. She came on the whispering wings of her very words. I was studying and taking notes on a picture book about losing a grandparent and before I knew it, my pen wrote the word “deportation” onto the page in front of me. All of a sudden, a little girl was telling me her story and I did everything I could to listen carefully and write it down as if I were her personal secretary. She appeared in the spirit of my imagination day and night. She did not leave for a week. She came as a full person, with a past, present, and future and with a story so urgent she came to tell it to me, someone who had known what it was to be undocumented, but also someone who happened to be sitting and holding a pen and paper in her hand. By the end of the week, I learned how Betita came to lose her father, land in a detention center with her mother, what she experienced in detention, and how she eventually was reunited with her family. The metaphor for migratory freedom, the flight of cranes, was as clear as the sky. When I came up for air, my face was awash in tears, one third of her story was written in her voice and the entire plot was outlined. I am still unable to understand the magic of what happened. I’m not sure I ever will, as the muse is a great mystery, but I am grateful to have been ready and willing to bring Betita’s story to life.

I did not imagine and it pains me that Land of the Cranes’ resonance grew as we later witnessed in shock and in horror as asylum-seeking families were torn apart in the summer of 2018. The justification as to why it was okay for our government to commit such atrocious human rights violations on U.S. soil were tied to a larger negative narrative that deemed it acceptable to criminalize migrants. That story about migrants was fueled by hate and fear. That story did not include compassion nor understanding for why people must flee their homes and endure the nightmarish journey and risk incarceration. The power of that story was and continues to be destructive. Asylum-seeking children and families continue to be treated with indignity. It was brutally unjust then to hold children in detention or separate them from their families, and it is equally unjust now.

This is why it is urgent to use the power of this story, Land of the Cranes, to combat that negativity, that fear and hate. My hope is that this story will bring readers close to one family and how they feel as they experience the unimaginable. I hope this story will expose Betita’s humanity, because her yearnings for happiness and love are universal, but further still, I hope it teaches children how one child was able to use her voice, her art and poetry, to not only endure but to rise above and change a horrific and harmful circumstance. Beyond a window, beyond a mirror, I hope Betita’s story inspires agency and action in readers to do the same.



Aida Salazar is an award-winning author and arts activist whose writings for adults and children explore issues of identity and social justice. She is the author of the middle grade verse novels, The Moon Within (International Latino Book Award Winner), Land of the Cranes, and the biography picture book Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Revolutionary Fighter. She is slated to co-edit with Yamile Saied Méndez, Calling the Moon, a middle grade anthology on menstruation by writers of color. She is a founding member of Las Musas, a Latinx kidlit debut author collective. Her short story, "By the Light of the Moon", was adapted into a ballet production by the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance and is the first Xicana-themed ballet in history. She lives with her family of artists in a teal house in Oakland, CA.

This article is part of the Scholastic Power of Story series. Scholastic’s Power of Story highlights books for all ages that tell the stories of historically underrepresented groups specifically related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental abilities, religion, and culture. Hear from other speakers on this topic and download the Power of Story catalog at Scholastic.com/PowerofStory. Check back on School Library Journal to discover new Power of Story articles from guest authors, including Bill Konigsberg, Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright, Kelly Yang, and more.

 

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