Out of the headlines and into “Prayers for the Stolen”

You don’t teach Spanish for thirty years in public high schools in Colorado without developing some strong opinions about the immigration issue.  While I don’t want this blog to turn into a political free-for-all, with the nasty (and I think unproductive) comments I read in so many other places, I feel like I have to introduce the astonishing book, Prayers for the Stolen, since it illuminates beautifully the reason why so many young people would choose to leave their homes for a chance at a better life in the United States.

Several months ago I was researching materials for a unit of study for my AP Spanish students about the drug trafficking “narcotraficante” culture in Mexico as part of the AP curriculum “World Challenges” topic.   I came across Prayers for the Stolen, a short novel by Jennifer Clement (Hogarth, 2014) which begins in the jungle outside of Acapulco, Mexico, moves to a mansion in Acapulco, then ends in a women’s prison in Mexico City.  Because it ended up not being something I could use with my class right away, I downloaded the book but only just now got a chance to read it.  All I can say is, WOW!

As with Southern Cross the Dog, I was unsure if the author had a trustworthy voice.  But it turns out that Clement, while American, grew up in Mexico and is actually a member of Mexico’s prestigious “Sistema Nacional de Creadores.”  I don’t like to read translations if I can avoid it, but in this case it looks like the book was written in English.  Beautiful English.  English that accomplishes the rare feat of feeling like Spanish.  As I read, I found myself thinking, “yes, that is how the young Mexican women I have known would speak!  That is how they might tell their story!”

The main character, Ladydi (the explanation of how she got her unusual name is part of the fabric of the novel), narrates her life growing up in an area of Mexico overrun by drug lords, where young girls pretend for as long as possible to be boys in order to avoid being “stolen”.  What happens when one of her friends is stolen, and when Ladydi herself is caught up quite by accident in the “narco” culture is a compelling story that will challenge all your assumptions.  The characters are not all sympathetic, in fact Ladydi’s mother can be quite frustrating, but they are all very human.  And as I’ve said, Clement’s language is a thing of beauty.

Often when I hear people complain about illegal immigrants they speak about the need to follow the law.  Which is a fair enough point.   But what if you had grown up in a place where the law did not protect you, where the police were just as dangerous as the criminals, where your education was hit or miss depending on the volunteer teacher sent to your tiny village that year, where families were split up because of economic hardship most of us frankly could not even begin to imagine?  Would you not maybe have a different perspective?  And, given the choice between any sort of life and almost guaranteed death, wouldn’t you do anything to avoid that fate?  Wouldn’t you encourage your children to do the same?

This novel challenges the reader to consider immigration and the drug trafficking culture through the eyes of one of its victims.  Since I’ve always felt that reading at its best moves us into other worlds, other viewpoints, and other realities, this book would be a good place to start for anyone interested in trying to gain a better understanding of the humanitarian crisis currently taking place at our border.  And I’ll end with one statistic, a statistic that my students find staggering, and that I find inexcusable:  in the Mexican Drug War (which has spilled over into Central America and is, I believe, at the core of the current crisis), more than 60,000 people have been killed from 2006 to 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. (CNN Library)

60,000.

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