A novel set on the US-Mexico border makes the politics of immigration personal.
In The Border, his first novel for young adults, Steven Schafer G’00 WG’00 uses the story of four Mexican teenagers forced by brutal circumstances to flee to the United States as a way of capturing the harsh reality faced by people who seek to enter the country every day—and to humanize the 11 million undocumented people living in the US.
The novel follows Pato, Arbo, Gladys, and Marcos as they cross the Sonoran Desert to escape La Frontera, a drug gang that has killed their families. In this unforgiving landscape, everything and everyone is an enemy: US Border Patrol agents and the Mexican Federales, rattlesnakes and cacti, American vigilantes and Mexican narcos, the merciless sun and sand, even their own bodies. Schafer paints a grim picture of the dangers stacked against these pollos (as they’re disparagingly dubbed by smugglers) who endure terrible hardships en route to a better life. But they also encounter allies on both sides of the border—reminders for young readers of their power to act and empathize.
Schafer, a graduate of the Lauder Institute of Management and International Relations, grew up in Texas and has “lived, worked, volunteered, and traveled” widely in Latin America. Fascinated for years by stories about US immigration, he was particularly taken with the route through the Sonoran Desert, often called the Devil’s Highway, that his characters traverse, and he drew on a variety of sources to make the landscape vivid and accurate. Not all survive the journey. He points out that, as of January 2013, Arizona authorities still held almost 800 unidentified bodies of would-be immigrants who died along the way. “For me, it’s impossible to hear about someone’s experience making this passage and not admire their determination and perseverance.”
Schafer also brings to life the complexities and nuances of his protagonists—and, by extension, other undocumented immigrants. (Empathy, he says, “begins with the recognition that everybody has a story.”) Even in the face of violence, they share love, friendship, romance, rivalries, humor, betrayal, and hope. Pato, Arbo, Gladys, and Marcos act and feel their age. As the adolescents trek the desert, they reveal their individual personalities, quirks, and aspirations.
Gazette contributor Syra Ortiz-Blanes C’17 spoke with Schafer soon after the book was published in September. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
What inspired you to start writing?
I had written novels before, but I didn’t have success with those. I was passionate about writing, but these stories didn’t really leverage that passion—they lacked it, if anything. And then, five years ago, a good friend of mine lost family to violence in Northern Mexico.
That was the spark. I started thinking about what his situation would look like if it were a story. I did want for it to move beyond the setup—which, admittedly, lives within a stereotype of narco violence in Latin America. I knew that was the catalyst, but I wanted it to transcend that and to be about a grueling, emotional, relatable story about humans and the human spirit. I realized that the real opportunity was to address our conversation about immigration and how we think about immigrants.
Why did you decide to write a YA novel?
I think Young Adult is a little bit of a misnomer. What often defines young adult novels is that the protagonist happens to be a young adult. I wrote [ The Border] to be that way, but [what] I like about it is that an event [that happens] when you’re 16, 17, or 18 years old can have such an impact on the total direction of your life and the way that you view it. I also think that if the goal is to paint an empathetic face on immigration it’s easier to do that with childhood immigrants, who are very much caught in the crossfire.
How do you hope that this story impacts conversation about immigration policy in the US?
The Border doesn’t advocate for any particular policy. It advocates a perspective. My hope is that once you take that conversation away from that lofty political idea of immigration, you dial it back to realize that these are legit human beings. Each with their own personalities, and each with their own stories. Once you get to the humanity of it, it forces you to talk about the situation in different terms.
The book includes Spanish and English. How did you navigate and utilize the bilingualism of the story?
Any time you write a novel there are a lot of rewrites along the way. I didn’t get the Spanish right the first time. It originally didn’t have any rhyme or reason to it. I had to go back and rethink it. I love Khaled Hosseini, who wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns. He uses other languages [in his writing], so I looked at the ways that he weaves them in. He does it in a way that contextually you understand it, or he gives a translation right after. He builds up your vocabulary through the story.
You can’t write about a different culture without including the language from that culture. Language is so much about what we are, and there is so much tied into the way that we actually speak. Even putting Spanish on the page every now and then is a helpful reminder that although you are reading this in English, this is actually happening in another language and culture.
What is your responsibility as an author in sharing a story that is not yours?
I don’t want to misrepresent who I am or my background. I am telling someone else’s story. I have traveled a lot, and I’ve been very fortunate and very deliberate about doing that. Part of it has been having conversations about how people and their families have moved from one place to another.
I’m not Latino, and I’m telling a Latino story. On one hand, I have spent a lot of time in Latin American countries, learned the language, and volunteered to empower Latinos. I also have a master’s degree in Latin American studies. But on the other hand, I’m not Latino. I don’t know if I’m the most effective person to drive this message forward.
I struggled with my role in telling this. I do think that Latino voices are the most important and the most impactful. So the place I kind of netted out for myself was that being non-Latino gives me a different angle of influence. To some degree, the people that most need to hear this message may listen to me.
I’m working towards what you could call a “thematic” sequel. The Border is about what drives somebody to come to the US, what that’s like, and how that shapes them as a person. I think there is also an interesting story to explore about someone who has come to the US and is now navigating inside the country. You don’t know the language or have family or friends to support you. Loosely speaking, that’s the idea I’m exploring in the next one.