How Our Stories Won’t Save Us: Teaching Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive”




THERE IS A SCENE in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive that makes me reckon with the limits of my sympathy in the age of child detention centers. The main characters, Ma, Pa, Girl, and Boy, arrive at an airport. Ma is a sound archivist. She’s there to document the sounds of migrant children just moments before they board a plane to be deported. Peering at the tarmac, Ma narrates:

I slowly walk my eyes on […] the line of small figures now stepping out of the hangar and onto the runway. They are all children. Girls, boys: one behind another, no backpacks, nothing. They march in single file, looking like they’ve surrendered, silent prisoners of some war they didn’t even get to fight. […] If they hadn’t gotten caught, they probably would have gone to live with family, gone to school, playgrounds, parks. But instead, they’ll be removed, relocated, erased, because there’s no place for them in this vast empty country.

The scene haunts me because I am an immigrant, because I can’t imagine what being deported feels like or what it could mean to a child. I was six and my brother four when we arrived in this country. I still remember that day. It was December. And I felt the warm safety of arriving with my parents. I saw snow for the first time, and all I could think about was that snow was just frío frío (shaved ice). We were finally a family, here, “ready to build a better life,” like my father always said. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if my brother and I had arrived unaccompanied in a place that didn’t want us. Yet this is the reality for thousands of migrant children at the US-Mexico border. Many are younger than my brother and I were when we arrived.

Lost Children Archive is an evocative novel about displacement, migration, family, and the cartography of parenthood in the age of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities. Published in February 2019, the novel interlocks parental angst with contemporaneous news about the migrant crisis at the US Southern border, histories of Apachería, and stories of lost children. So much of this book is about dreams of futures put off and put out, worlds that were prayed for but that will never come to fruition for migrant children.

Ma’s words raise the question: What does it mean for a child to surrender? And what can we do about it?

When a novel makes me question the limits of my sympathy, I must read it twice: one time for the story and the other to figure out how the author did it. As much as Lost Children Archive is about the child migrant crisis at the US-Mexico border, it is also about how we write, teach, and engage issues that we have not personally experienced. This is where I sit. I am a teacher, a scholar, and a creative. I am an immigrant with papers who writes about migrants without papers. I teach books about their experiences and lives. I often ask myself what gives me the right to tell and teach their stories, to translate experiences, emotions, and lessons that to me are like distant relatives.

What is a book about migrant children if not a book that teaches us to convert sympathy to action, into doing something — anything? In other words, how do we motivate our reading of such texts beyond aesthetic analysis and reasoning?

In the spring of 2021, I taught a course on migrant literatures. It was my first time teaching a class on migrants. My students and I read Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans, and Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive to debate and develop questions and arguments about (im)migration, the border, citizenship, colonization, and language.

The week we read Lost Children Archive, an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children arrived at the US-Mexico border. We read the novel alongside reports about their arrival and the living conditions in Border Patrol facilities. Like the characters in the novel, who collect histories, sounds, materials, and photographs, my class and I archived reports and images of the unfolding crisis.

On April 1, the United States Border Patrol released footage of two Ecuadorian girls, three and five years old, being hoisted and dropped over a 14-foot border wall by coyotes near Santa Teresa, New Mexico. The girls were slow to get up from the desert floor as the camera moved toward the smugglers running away and out of the frame. The two girls were taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation. They will join a caravan of lost children at various points of the US-Mexico border, awaiting a fate as obscure as the desert floors. They wait to become refugees — waiting, as Ma tells her own children, “for an indefinite time before actually, fully having arrived.”

More than 3,200 migrant children have been detained at a South Texas Border Patrol facility. They are in a “large tent complex designed to detain unaccompanied minors and families with children for short periods of time.” Customs and Border Protection (CBP) requires that minors must be transferred to shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of custody. But no one will move these children because shelters are unavailable. CBP lacks resources, space, and even food. Afraid and alone, without their parents, many children go hungry. In interviews, minors say they’ve only showered once in seven days. A pair of boys say that “conditions were so overcrowded that they had to take turns sleeping on the floor.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended “enhanced” mitigation measures requiring migrant children two years and older to wear masks 24/7 while at the same time allowing shelters to return to maximum capacity. No one seems to think about why these children came here: what cruelty, war, poverty, pain were they escaping?

Luiselli’s narrator contemplates this exact question:

No one thinks of the children arriving here now as refugees of a hemispheric war that extends, at least, from these very mountains, down across the country into the southern US and northern Mexico deserts, sweeping across the Mexican sierras, forests, and southern rain forests into Guatemala, into El Salvador, and all the way to the Celaque Mountains in Honduras. No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades. Everyone keeps asking: Which war, where? Why are they here? Why did they come to the United States? What will we do with them? No one is asking: Why did they flee their homes?

Luiselli tells us that these are our children, this is our crisis to deal with, and this is real. The child refugee crisis isn’t an intertext, a metaphorical archive, or a literary device that we can track on the page. This is the lived reality of thousands of migrants today as I type these words. Luiselli tells us that these children “wait for their dignity to be restored.” As an educator and immigrant, the least I can do through my teaching is to try to restore some of their dignity.

In our class discussions, we move away from metaphors to think about the border as a physical and conceptual place. We turn to the theoretical architect Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who famously illustrated la frontera (the border) as “una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country — a border culture.” This is where migrant children are held — a place of alterity, of inbetweenness, neither here nor there, a state-sanctioned purgatory between fleeing and arriving. It is a liminal space of transformation, which Anzaldúa argues is,

set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.

Over the course of the semester, the border as a physical and conceptual structure becomes central to our engagement with migration. We discuss the US-Mexico border but also other, less tangible types of borders. We turn to the borders of language and how they shape the way we see ourselves. I tell my students that language can be a barrier for many migrants. I tell them that when I first arrived in the United States I did not speak English, that from the first to the seventh grade I was in bilingual classes. I did not understand the crossing guard’s commands to go and stop nor my gym teacher’s instructions to run, climb, and jump. I was bullied before I knew the word for it. I grew silent over the years and taught myself to hide my English, my accent, my legal status, and anything else that marked me as an outsider. I did this not for acceptance, which I thought unattainable, but for safety and peace.

I don’t know if my stories are relatable or if they work pedagogically. I draw from my personal experiences in an attempt to build a bridge between me and the migrant children. I don’t know if this bridge will support a path toward sympathy or action in my classroom or elsewhere. But I do know that there’s something powerful in witnessing my students engage with the child migrant crisis, question the ethics of detention facilities, and connect their own youths to the ones of migrant children.

We read reports and watch news segments about the migrant children at the border. We consume what others document about them. And in doing so, we see these children from the perspective of an immigration system designed to dehumanize the migrant. Without action, their stories become clichés. We must move beyond the negating rhetoric of undocumented, non-status, without papers, and begin to actually see these children as children in need of our protection and aid.

Children, Ma tells us, “force parents to go out looking for a specific pulse, a gaze, a rhythm, the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything or save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable.” What are we learning from the stories we tell, from the ones we teach, from the real lives of migrant children at the US-Mexico border? What do these stories say about us, the things we value, the things we tolerate? In one form or another, we are answering these questions right now.

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Ayendy Bonifacio (he/him/his) was born in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He is an assistant professor of US ethnic literary studies at the University of Toledo and the author of Dique Dominican (2017) and To the River, We Are Migrants (2020).

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Banner image: “Border Patrol in Action” by John is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.

 

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