“Hempstead is a s***hole full of pandilleros [gang members], just like Tegucigalpa,” says teenager Manu, in what is one of the most striking statements recorded in Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.
Manu fled his hometown in Tegucigalpa, Honduras when months of gang harassment culminated in watching his best friend be gunned down before his eyes one day after school. Making the dangerous trek north, Manu arrived in the U.S. in 2015 and went to live with his aunt in the town of Hempstead, Long Island, NY. After encountering similar threats at his local high school and being forced to move, again, to avoid gang-related violence, Manu’s statement encompasses the kind of paradoxes of the Central American migrant crisis that are too often overlooked and oversimplified in mass media. Manu’s story is also one of the most representative of the impossibility of answering the title’s demand; the difficulty in parsing and packaging the reality of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America struggling to cross the border of the U.S. , driven first and foremost by the gang violence that has fractured communities, homes, families, and lives across the region.
In this slim, but precise and profound volume, Luiselli shows us the breadth and depth of these inextricably connected realities, outlining the social and political history that gives a context to what she describes as a hemispheric story of Central American refugees. She makes clear to the reader that these realities extend far beyond the scope of the point-blank questions U.S. immigration uses to draw the lines of each child’s narratives, determining whether or not those narratives align with the legal story that will allow them to remain in the country or not, generally via special immigrant juvenile (SIJ) status, or asylum status.
“I hear words, spoken in the mouths of children, threaded in complex narratives. They are delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear. I have to transform them into written words, succinct sentences, and barren terms. The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end,” Luiselli writes.
But it is up to the readers, it is up to the U.S. as a country and those who work internationally, to seek out those beginnings, middles, and ends – to make some sense of what is too often glossed over by the media as some sort of one-sided nuisance that has been thrust upon the U.S.; an overflow of issues entirely belonging to and originating in the countries of the Northern Triangle.
And yet, these questions from U.S. immigration, limited as they are, are what Luiselli uses to guide the reader through this vast history, and the complex individual stories of each child and teen who make the difficult choice to leave their homes and entrust their lives to the hands of a coyote, or throw themselves onto La Bestia, the train that traverses Mexico on which thousands of migrants have ridden, or died trying, in order to reach a better life across the border in the U.S. By recounting her experience as a translator in New York City federal immigration court, serving as a volunteer interpreter for children and young people from Central America who have crossed the border without documentation, while also reflecting on her own identity as a Mexican U.S. resident awaiting her green card, Luiselli dissects the vague, dehumanizing terms used to describe the “refugee crisis.” Through her powerful storytelling, Luiselli is able to inject the broad, transnational issue with the most personal of details and the widest of perspectives in an effort to make clearer the recent past and the present realities.
After all, Luiselli tells us, this is not a story that we know the ending to, and it is not a story that the general U.S. or international audience necessarily understands, mostly perhaps due to a willful, embedded ignorance that denies our own complicity.And to even begin to understand how it would end, we have to have some sense of where it begins. The actual journey of the many migrants fleeing to the U.S. may have its most immediate origins in the gritty basement of a gang base in San Salvador, but in many ways the story of the Central American diaspora originates in the carpeted halls of power in the U.S., going back to the 1980s and 1990s, when the U.S. government supported military death squads in the civil wars . The result of these conflicts were thousands of Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. In cities like L.A., some of the recently-arrived refugees in El Salvador and Guatemala banded together to fend for themselves among existing gangs, and thus were born, on U.S. soil, the two transnational gangs with the most power in Central America: Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18. These gangs became entrenched in Salvadoran society, in particular once anti-immigration legislation was passed in the late 90s, resulting in the deportation of many of the admitted Central American refugees who had criminal records. Members of the two rival gangs deported back to their countries of origin then expanded their networks, and began taking advantage of a weak government and dire economic situation to gain control as the pandillas.
“The devastation of the social fabric in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other countries is often thought of as a Central American ‘gang violence’ problem that must be kept on the far side of the border. There is little said, for example, of arms being trafficked from the United States into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the United States is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent,” Luiselli tells us.
Now, rampant violence and social disintegration, coupled with climate-related droughts and other disasters, is forcing children and young people to flee their countries and make the dangerous trek to the U.S. Just as there are no clear origins, there are no clear answers, no obvious paths to a future solution that addresses the roots as well as the immediate results of these issues.
Despite this ambiguity in how to address the situation with political and legislative action, Luiselli suggests that the most important and unequivocally necessary action is seeking out and understanding the stories of Central American youth.
“Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for 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,” she writes.
There is a moment Luiselli describes in Tell Me How It Ends that, both for her and for the reader, is at once one of the most heartbreaking scenes, and the one that most clearly transitions into a true call to action for the reader, an expression of the importance of the awareness and active participation of U.S. citizens in forming a better understanding of the Central American diaspora. Two young girls, sisters, both from Guatemala, sit side by side, the youngest one coloring. Neither is old enough to articulate the experiences they’ve lived through: the dangers they faced on their journey to the U.S., the probable work and poverty that they confronted while still living with with their grandmother in Guatemala, who carefully sewed their mother’s phone number into the collars of their dresses before handing them over to the coyote on the long trip north.
They have no words to describe the social and political forces that envelop them, and without those words, their narrative can’t be fit within the definitions of adequate need on a U.S. immigration form, which in turn means they have little to no chance of making a case to stay in the country that they and their family risked so much for them to come to in the first place.
This is the story that needs to be told, needs to be heard, but we can’t access it unless we try, Luiselli tells her audience. And try we must, because it is our duty, as she later describes:
“These are things that can only be understood retrospectively, when many years have passed and the story has ended. In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself. And it must be told, because before anything can be understood it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.”
Tell Me How It Ends is an essential read not just for those working in or involved with Central America and immigration issues at the local, regional, and international levels, but for every U.S. and global citizen.
-by Emily Neil, SERES communications officer