To say that 12 year old Santiago has had a rough life would be putting it mildly. His father out of the picture, his loving mom dead since he was 5, Santiago has bounced between the houses of his malicious and abusive relatives. His abuela, la malvada, is the worst. After being banished once again to her house, Santiago decides he would rather run away than return to her.
Lonely and starving, he is stunned and suspicious when a young woman, María, offers him food and kindness expecting nothing in return. Santiago learns María is on her way North to el otro lado with her young daughter Alegría. She plans to meet up with her sister who has made the journey already. Santi, so dubbed by Alegría, makes an impulsive decision to join them on their journey El Norte.
After a brief stop at a border town, the three hire a coyote to ferry them across the treacherous desert. The journey is harrowing with a guide, but proves almost impossible when their coyote dies in a car crash. Instead of turning back, the three decide to navigate the journey by themselves.
All through this ordeal, Santi, María, and Alegría start creating bonds that Santi never had with his family. They become the closest to real family Santi has ever had.
So it is absolutely devastating when they are picked up, dehydrated and on the brink of death, by ICE officials who separate all three of them. It is here that the book takes the bleakest turn. The juvenile detention center, not the worst out there as we are reminded a few times, is staffed by uncaring, unqualified guards who treat the children more like hardened criminals rather than scared, traumatized children. At a cost to American taxpayers $700 a day per child, the facilities are kept severely underfunded. Things like toothbrushes and soap are considered unnecessary luxuries.
What I could do with $246,400 a year per kid. What could be done with that money to fix the root issues that compel people to leave their communities, families, and homes to make these devastating journeys. But I digress.
Separated from the only family he has known, Santi learns to navigate his bleak surroundings. It’s not easy. Reading about a lawyer having to shuttle breast milk from a new mom to her newborn from whom she has been separated was a gut punch to me, an adult reader. Diaz skillfully brings the reader in to imagine the effects of this reality, with family separation as the norm, on the characters. Santi’s industriousness and wit serve him well, but he is under constant threat of being returned to his abusive family in México. His story continues, you’ll have to read the book to find out where it goes.
And read it you should. If I could put this book in the hands of every American I would. It is compassionately written, and will challenge the reader to think deeply about the issues at hand. Without delving into the political quagmire that is immigration politics, Diaz humanizes the thousands of people, especially the children, who make this journey everyday, at risk of death, to come to America. It is a timely look at one of the most distressing policies in these disturbing times.
This book has mentions of domestic violence, and, of course, the violence of family separation and child detention. Sensitive or younger readers may need to be supported while reading this book.
Educators should note that this could be triggering for certain students, and if you are to read this in a classroom setting, caution should be taken in discussing the material. I do hope you assign this book.
Testimony given by Clara Long on behalf of Human Rights Watch, to the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties about the conditions faced by children in the detention centers.
If you would like to donate, consider a donation to RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to promote justice for all by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees.
Santiago’s Road Home
Simon & Schuster
More books for this Age Group can be found here.
My thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a Review Copy of this book. All opinions provided herein are my own.
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