There’s a scene at the end of the first chapter of The Far Away Brothers where the title characters — identical twins from a small town in El Salvador, at the time in their early teens — walk up to the doorstep of a good friend. Maybe he wants to hang out. But Edgar’s not there. As his mom succinctly explains: “He went to the North.”
It’s a refrain that will occur over and over in this new book by investigative journalist Lauren Markham. She’s covered immigration issues for publications as far ranging as Vice and The New Yorker, but it was in her capacity as a school administrator in Oakland that she first met the Flores brothers. She witnessed firsthand the influx of unaccompanied minors filling the halls of California schools (25 percent of students in California are English-language learners) and sought to understand what was bringing these young men and women across the border in droves. In a mix of journalism and literary nonfiction, Markham tells Ernesto and Raul Flores’s tale, as well as giving some critical context to the unaccompanied minors crisis.
As one might guess, the Flores brothers, like their friend in chapter one, become hermanos lejanos (“faraway brothers”), a term that’s come to represent Salvadorans who leave the country — usually for the United States but sometimes for their relatively safe neighbor, Mexico. Ernesto and Raul make the trip at age 17, and by then, they’ve already seen their friend, their sister’s boyfriend, and their older brother Wilber depart for el norte. When Ernesto’s life is threatened (in 2015, El Salvador’s murder rate reached 103 per 100,000 people), the Flores family must make a very difficult decision: Is it best if Ernesto and Raul, too, go north?
Taking an intimate look at the challenges these two youth faced and the difficult decision they had to make gives some much-needed humanity to the immigration debate, but Markham is not short on research. The debate on immigration, in the US at least, focuses on after effects: Are these immigrants positively or negatively impacting the economy? Should immigrants be eligible for government entitlements? And more recently in the case of DACA, what do we do when it wasn’t even the immigrant’s choice that they came? Do we still deport?
The Far Away Brothers, however, focuses more on cause than effect. Yes, a good portion of the book is based in Northern California, where the twins find safety living on again/off again with their older brother, but its true heart lies in what led Ernesto and Raul to leave their family and home country. The narrative starts around the time Wilber leaves for America when the twins were ten, and gradually shows the encroachment of violence and gang influence on their lives. By high school, the twins have had several terrifying encounters with MS-13, the largest Salvadoran gang. At times their father even keeps them home from school for their own safety.
Theirs is not an unusual story. Thirty-nine percent of surveyed migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America left their homes as a result of violent attacks or threats — a narrative that seldom breaks through in heated debated about immigration.
The book doesn’t read like a government report or case study, however. Markham, a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ with an MFA from the fiction writing program has crafted a work of literary nonfiction that has all the tension and emotional impact of a serial TV show or documentary, without ever feeling manipulative or intrusive. It’s a hard task as Markham herself is a character in the story, albeit only a tertiary one. Indeed, it’s her intervention that probably made it possible for the twins to stay in the US (the earlier chapters catalogue a myriad of red tape issues — from legal fees to language barriers — that prevent young people from putting up a strong fight for residency). But she doesn’t get overly sentimental, either. Ernesto and Raul are 17, after all, and they make mistakes.
They make a lot of mistakes. They post photos of $100 Nikes on Facebook while their sister at home begs them to send more money during a poor crop season. They suffer internally too. Ernesto, traumatized by an event on the journey north, suffers from nightmares and PTSD, while Raul deals with the pressure of balancing work, school, and paying off a $14k fee (having a coyote guide you north isn’t cheap). Markham takes great care to always ask why. Why is Ernesto constantly drinking down his feelings? Why did the twins miss an important deportation meeting when it was so important? Why did 60,000 minors cross into the US in 2016 alone? Her scope is large, and for the most part, she nails it.
The Far Away Brothers deserves a place alongside the strongest in the genre, such as previous explorations on race and class like Sonia Nazario Enrique’s Journey. A lot of the pathos is similar to that found in Random Family, a 2003 book by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, that examines the life of an impoverished Latina family in the Bronx. Like the tale of Jessica, a single mother trying to make it as she spends time in and out of jail while caring for a mother in an abusive relationship and a growing family, Ernesto and Raul Flores seem to always take two steps forward and one step back. They aren’t immediately deported — but a condition of them staying is attending high school, and if they attend high school, how will they pay off the astronomical interest on their growing debt? They get jobs, but when working seven days a week, how do you pass your classes? They find an apartment together and make a budget to send money back to El Salvador, but as soon as they do, one of the twins gets his girlfriend pregnant. Is this the American Dream?
Within the book’s 320 pages, the Flores brothers never find steady ground for long, but by the book’s end, it’s impossible to not be rooting for them. The book’s true victory, however, is in its insights into how the gang crisis in El Salvador and neighboring countries is impacting individual lives — and what lengths these individuals will go to, in chillingly descriptive detail, to persevere.