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When literature reflects reality: The caravans at the San Ysidro border crossing

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People walk over the pedestrian bridge to the U.S. border at the San Ysidro crossing in San Diego. (Courtesy photo)

At about the time a caravan of migrants from Central Mexico converged at San Diego’s San Ysidro crossing, I was sitting inside Osher Theater in Berkeley attending to three literary writers talk about their work in chronicling imagined and lived journeys across America’s borders.

It was Sunday, and I was at the Bay Area Book Festival at a panel discussion, titled “Beyond Borders: Powerful Writers on Immigration,” with panelists Francisco Cantu, Hernan Diaz and Lauren Markham, moderated by Ian Gordon, managing editor of Mother Jones.

The migrants had made their way from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border. They walked, used freight trains and buses in their quest for asylum. Young children, men and women made the perilous trek across borders, seeking refuge from the violence they face in their homes, neighborhoods, states and countries.

“Two young men come of age with the rise of gangs in El Salvador,” says Markham, launching into the description of her book “The Faraway Brothers.” The book tells the story of the Flores twins, who make their harrowing journey across the Rio Grande and the Texas desert to Oakland. Markham is a teacher at Oakland International High School, where she encounters the Flores twins.

“We really need to do something about these kids with court dates.” Markham recalls this remark made to her by a fellow educator about young migrant children at her school. “That was the weird moment of convergence,” she says. It was pivotal in launching her on her path to telling the twins’ story.

From left, Mother Jones Managing Editor Ian Gordon moderated a panel discussion with Francisco Cantu, Lauren Markham and Hernan Diaz at the Osher Theater in Berkeley for the Bay Area Book Festival. (Jaya Padmanabhan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Markham describes a shorter journey the two brothers undertake to attend their court hearing at Montgomery Street in San Francisco. The two young men travel from Oakland but get lost in The City and are unable to ask for help, since that will reveal their vulnerabilities as immigrants.

The migrants waited on a pedestrian bridge leading to the U.S. border. “At this time, we have reached capacity at the San Ysidro port of entry for CBP officers to be able to bring additional persons traveling without appropriate entry documentation into the port of entry for processing,” Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Kevin McAleenan announced in a statement.

The border is being represented as a landscape of violence, says Francisco Cantu, author of “The Line Becomes a River.” The president is sending the National Guard to the border at a time when border crossings are at their lowest, but the number of deaths due to border crossings has remained or increased, Cantu states. According to the International Organization for Migration, there were 412 migrant deaths in 2017, up from 398 a year earlier.

Cantu draws on his own experiences as a border patrol agent in writing about the border, a line that Cantu interiorizes. “After doing that work, you’re made to put away questions and graft this new identity onto you,” he claims. Cantu believes his participation in perpetuating the federal policies of entrapment of humans served to normalize violence and see it in all its ugliness. It doesn’t help that stories about other people and other cultures are simplified, generalized and reduced to a cartoonish element, he remarks.

“We are immigrants, we are not criminals,” the migrants chanted on the Mexican side. “Together, we are the dream of the future,” protesters chanted on the American side. But the Mexican side and the American side stayed unbridgeable. Deploring the actions of the migrants, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Despite the Democrat inspired laws on Sanctuary Cities and the Border being so bad and one sided, I have instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security not to let these large Caravans of people into our Country. It is a disgrace. We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL.”

Hernan Diaz’s book, “In the Distance,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, uses the lens of a western genre to convey ideas about immigration. The protagonist, Hakan, is a Swedish immigrant who lands in San Francisco and walks across the country to New York to find his brother.

Diaz was born in Argentina, left for Sweden when he was 2 years old and has lived in America for most of his life. “The story conjugates these three narratives into one strand” says Diaz, an associate director of the Hispanic Institute at Columbia University. “I’ve always been a foreigner everywhere.”

Diaz places the protagonist in an alien world, where Hakan doesn’t speak the language and the reader experiences spoken English the way Hakan does, limited only and merely to the dialog that Hakan grasps. It’s a novel literary device.

Attorney Jeff Sessions called the migrants’ attempt at obtaining asylum, “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws, and overwhelm our system.” Homeland Security officials have said they are considering separating children from their parents as a deterrent to further migrant arrivals.

“These books are less interested in telling a reader a truth than asking a reader to inhabit the story,” Cantu summarizes.

It is necessary for us to inhabit the stories at the San Ysidro border crossing, as well as those of Diaz, Cantu and Markham. These are different versions being recorded with the rewind and replay buttons. The harshness of the rocky hills, deep valleys and roiling rivers is being reflected in the words from the federal administration.

We are re-crafting a new unflinching definition of American nationalism. This one includes a scenario in which immigrants debate saving the lives of their children by losing them.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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