THE OTHER SIDE: Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Pablo Villalobos, with translation by Rosalind Harvey, is necessary reading. And for those with a functioning conscience and awareness of how some of the societal dangers and corruption were promoted, it will be difficult and guilt-ridden. It’s aimed at a 12+ audience, which is appropriate considering allusions to violence, including murder and sexual assault. There are few explicit episodes of violence, but many stories include tales of threats, intimidation, and fear caused by losing family members and friends to gang violence. While the narration style is inconsistent at times, the stories are both compelling and accessible to readers of many ability levels.
Each of the children and teens included in the narratives are from Central American countries, mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. The stories, few longer than several pages, are intense in that they clearly share the fear that created the need to leave home for a dangerous journey towards the USA. The uncertainty and dangers of the journey north are less frightening than the surety of being maimed or being murdered at home. Because each of the narrators is the same age as the targeted readers, it will be easy to “walk in their shoes.” Perhaps disturbingly easy.
Juan Pablo Villalobos calls this collection nonfiction because the stories were collected via first-person interviews. The name of each “character” has been changed, and they each seem intentionally white-washed, which promotes a level of safety for those willing to share their stories. While the narration can feel stilted at times, the deep emotion and pure humanity of each story will keep readers’ interest and hopefully help us all better understand the motivations of refugees and asylum-seekers.