Renowned author speaks on hardships of Central American immigrant children

Emily O'Toole

Torn from their homes and surrounded by strangers, many migrant children have relied on Mexican-born author Valeria Luiselli for a chance at a new life. 

Luiselli spoke Thursday at the Belo Center for New Media about her experiences as a translator working with child migrants, which she documented in her book, “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions.” 

Reasons children cross the border vary, Luiselli said, but it goes beyond trying to reunite with family in the U.S.

“The answers point to push factors, the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment,” Luiselli read from in excerpt from her book. “It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.”

Luiselli began working as an interpreter for migrant children in New York City in 2015, where she translated the children’s responses that determined if they would receive a pro bono lawyer. The book’s title references questions the children were asked on an intake questionnaire.

The rhetoric used in reference to undocumented people is perpetuating the violence and discrimination against them, Luiselli said. 

“People can do something illegal, but they cannot be illegal,” Luiselli said.

Denise Fernandez, Mexican American and Latina/o studies graduate student, said she agreed with Luiselli’s point about the possibility of the immigration problem not existing if the children had lighter skin.

“You come here and you can have access to so many things, but only if you look a certain way or are able to speak certain languages,” Fernandez said.

One of the questions on the questionnaire asked if anything happened to the child during his or her transit, such as danger or assault, but their responses provided no legal benefit, Luiselli said.

“This is the question that I feel most ashamed of,” Luiselli said. “Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.”

Alhelí Harvey, Mexican American and Latina/o studies graduate student, said this is not an issue specific to today’s political climate.

“It’s dangerous for us to think that this is only relevant in Trump’s America,” Harvey said. “The rhetoric we’re seeing isn’t something new. It’s just more explicit.”