In El Salvador, “hermanos lejanos,” aka “the far away brothers,” are the children who have left the country of their birth behind and sought to start new lives in the United States.
When twins Ernesto and Raul Flores became far away brothers, leaving their parents and other siblings behind, it was out of desperation. They were fleeing gang violence and threats on their lives. After a treacherous journey through Mexico to the United States, author Lauren Markham met the twins while she was working as a school administrator. She tried to help them navigate life as undocumented teens in California.
After the twins turned 18, she turned their story into her debut book, “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life,” a narrative non-fiction account that places the Flores family into the wider context of the migrant crisis in the United States.
“I ended up centering the book on them for several reasons. I became quite close to them, but the reason I thought their story was incredibly important to write about was they had a very real fear that if they returned (to El Salvador), they would die,” Markham said.
The book, published in 2017, is this year’s Iowa City “One Community, One Book” selection, and Markham will give a reading and discussion at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of Iowa’s Art Building West during the Iowa City Book Festival. In addition to Markham’s appearance at the festival, there will be a community book discussion of “The Far Away Brothers” at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Coralville Public Library, 1401 Fifth St., Coralville.
Markham had been reporting as a freelance journalist on immigration issues, specifically the surge in unaccompanied minors at the Southern border. But until she met students such as the Flores brothers at her own school, she didn’t realize how close to home the story had become.
“While I’d been reporting on this increase in young people all over the country, under our noses a number of young people who had enrolled in our school were unaccompanied minors and were under deportation proceedings,” she said. “Because we don’t inquire about immigration status when students enroll, we weren’t aware they were in these very precarious situations. ... At that point, about 40 students of a school of 400 were unaccompanied minors; the next year, it was about 100. Now, it’s over a third.”
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Ernesto and Raul Flores are not the twins’ real names; Markham changed them in the book to protect their privacy and that of their family still in El Salvador. In her role as a school administrator, she helped the twins find a lawyer; without legal representation, immigrants seeking asylum or other legal protections to stay in the United States are far more likely to be deported. The twins ended up securing Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, but it was a difficult process with no guarantees of success. One twin who had been threatened by the gangs more directly had a much clearer asylum case than his brother, but he wasn’t willing to leave his twin behind.
“Their story showed the gap in protection,” Markham said. “It was exceedingly difficult to be a 17-year-old in fear for your life with a good chance of getting sent back, because of how the immigration system works.”
She also wanted to write about the brothers because, even as identical twins, their experiences were very different. One twin witnessed a murder when they were being smuggled to the United States. He hid it from his brother for months, but it surfaced in nightmares.
“They are identical, and yet they related to their experiences of immigration, of their home country, of the United States, in very different ways.
“We tend to flatten who an immigrant is and tend to look to typify people, to reduce them to tropes and stereotypes,” Markham said.
In the years since she first met the Flores twins, immigration has taken a much more central role in the American political discussion, with Central American migrants a frequent rhetorical and policy target of President Donald Trump’s administration. Markham said that made it even more important to tell this story now.
“I hope people take away that the criminalizing of immigration and immigrants, particularly poor, young, brown immigrants, is an urgent question, an urgent human rights priority and emergency,” she said. “It’s a travesty that we have to fight and that we can’t allow.”
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If You Go
• What: One Community, One Book: Lauren Markham
• When: 7 p.m. Friday
• Where: 240 Art Building West, 141 N. Riverside Dr., Iowa City
• What: “We the Interwoven” immigration panel discussion
• When: 10 a.m. Saturday
• Where: Masonic Building, 312 E. College St., Iowa City