Where We Came From by Oscar Cesares

Orly is feeling a bit resentful. His older brother gets to go to camp and his best friend gets to travel to Europe, while Orly finds himself being driven to his godmother’s home in her small town of Brownsville, TX for 3 long weeks. Not that he has anything against his godmother, Nina, but it isn’t exactly his first choice for a summer vacation plan. And for her part, Nina feels badly for the boy, having to spend his time with her, especially given her current situation. She would love to take him to places he’d enjoy, but on top of caring for her mother, which already is a burden, she has the added weight of the current secret hiding in the little house in her backyard, which she cannot share with him, nor with anyone else, for that matter. It’s just too dangerous. But how long can she really keep this secret from a curious, intelligent, and adolescent-brained boy?

This novel tackles the very complex and tragic issue of immigration over our shared border with Mexico, where on one side there are drug cartels openly wreaking havoc on their streets and on the other are either coyotes who prey on desperate refugees or border patrol agents hunting them down just to send them back all over again. Nina suddenly finds herself trapped in the middle, embroiled inadvertently in this dangerous, messy business. While trying to be compassionate and humane, she also must consider the safety and security of her own family as well – and it is complicated. Added to the mix a young boy whose life is on the line – it becomes that much more complex.

This is such an incredibly important book to bring to the attention of the world – and to bring down to a human level. These refugees are human beings, not numbers or statistics. No one leaves their home, their family, their communities, or those who share their native customs and celebrations unless they are utterly desperate and feel that their lives are truly threatened. We are morally obligated to show these individuals compassion and understanding – especially since most of us here in the US are descendants of those who were in similar circumstances at one time or another.

On the other hand, where I felt this book fell short was in bringing sufficient warmth, humor, and fire to these characters. We care but we are not dependent on what happens to them. While we understand that Orly is lonely, it does not become our loneliness. While we understand that he is grieving for his mother, it does not become our grief. The characters all remain one step outside, even as we want to know them more intimately. We are granted glimpses of Nina and her more glamorous past, but we still are not let inside, not really. And this keeping us at arm’s length keeps the story just that side of attachment to it.

This is a story I wanted to love, to be awakened by, to be energized by.  It is important, timely, and relevant. But I did not, was not –  not as I could have been.

 

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