The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
For those of us who live in comfortable surroundings in well-ordered towns such as Berkeley, the day-to-day realities of life as experienced by undocumented migrants may be impossible to understand. Most of what we know comes from news reports and occasional exposés about the efforts of the Trump Administration to expel what Right-Wing politicians have insisted we call “illegal immigrants.” In The Far Away Brothers, Berkeley journalist Lauren Markham brings the lived experience of two young Salvadoran migrants and their family under a spotlight. The picture she paints is nuanced and moving as well as sobering.
Identical twins Ernesto and Raúl Flores were seventeen years of age when, separately, they crossed the Rio Grande into Texas with the help of coyotes. Though in so many ways their experience is unique, they also stand in for the tens of thousands of young Central Americans who flooded across our southern borders earlier in this decade—and for many of the millions of Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans who now reside in the United States. Nearly all recent refugees from Central America were driven north by the gang violence and official corruption that are now endemic in the region. However, as Markham makes clear, economic motives also loomed large. Abject poverty conjures up visions of prosperity in “El Norte” among many Central Americans, as it does in many other people around the world.
As I read about the often horrific circumstances that confronted the Flores brothers over the three-year span described in the book, I couldn’t help but think about the sharply contrasting experience of my father’s parents, who emigrated from Russia early in the 20th century. Their lives in the shtetl where they had lived, plagued by repeated pogroms, were at least as difficult as those of the Flores twins in El Salvador. Also, it was no easy feat for them to make their way through the vastness of the European continent and then across the Atlantic in steerage. But the welcome they received at Ellis Island, though decidedly chilly, was in no way comparable to the repeated violence and official hostility that met the Flores brothers both on their way and after their arrival.
As the author makes clear, the massive migration of young Central Americans to the United States is, in a large sense, the consequence of US policy in the region throughout the 20th century, but especially in the 1980s. In El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala alike, our government actively supported local efforts to stamp out local insurgents in the name of anti-Communism—murdering tens of thousands of peasants in the process. Large numbers of young men fled to the US to escape that violence. Many succumbed to the lure of crime and were imprisoned in California. There, in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles, the most violent gangs that victimize Central America today were formed (Mara Salvatrucha, or MS13, and Barrio 18). Today, these gangs are enormous, multinational criminal enterprises. They’re responsible for an outsized body count in our cities and a major share of drug trafficking in the US today. In a real sense, then, we’re paying the price of our government’s intervention in Central America in the last century. And so are tens of thousands of migrants from the region.
The Far Away Brothers is Lauren Markham‘s first book, but the Berkeley author and journalist has been writing fiction, essays, and journalism for several years. The book is based in part on her work at Oakland International High School since 2011, where the Flores brothers attended classes on and off, and more generally on her “thirteen years of experience working with, interviewing, and reporting alongside thousands of refugees and migrants like the Flores twins.”
After reading The Far Away Brothers it’s difficult to see how today’s “illegal immigrants” are in any substantive way different from the Irish, Chinese, Italians, and Jews who made their way into the US in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
You might also be interested to see my list of 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.