When Nora Mirales' father promises to be home for her fifteenth birthday, her Quinceanera, Nora cannot wait. A period of drought and the diversion of the river by southern Texas, has resulted in crop failure for farmers in Cedula, Mexico. Nora's family are no longer able to make a living selling grapefruit from their orchard at the local market and there are no local jobs. So her father decides to enter the United States illegally to find work to support his family.
At first things go well and he sends money and calls home. He tells the family that there is plenty of work but that they work long days. Nora's mother tells him that the crops are bad, the taxes are late and that she wants to come to America. However, soon the calls stop and so does the money. Unable to pay their taxes on the land, Nora and her mother decide to follow him to Texas in the hope of finding out what has happened.
Nora and her mother arrange to be driven into Texas in the back of a truck carrying crates of mangoes. Stuffed in the back of a stiffling metal container, they travel to Houston. The journey is a long, uncomfortable one full of uncertainty and fear. Nora's mother prays the rosary and tries to comfort her terrified daughter. When they arrive in Houston, the driver is shocked to see that Nora is in the trailer; Nora's mother had only paid for herself. Also Nora's mother is now ill. Demanding payment for Nora, the driver threatens to turn them into the police, but Nora and her mother manage to escape.
The find their way to a restaurant,a taqueria, where they order breakfast. They are dirty, hungry and thirsty but the waitress is very kind to them. The waitress, Cecilia, warns Nora not to get involved in the local gangs as many of the young girls have done here. Cecilia also directs them to her cousin, Yolanda's home where she has rooms to rent. But when they arrive at the home they find that the room is dirty and smelly. Desperate for a place to live, they decide to take it. They exchange their pesos for American dollars and also arrange to have false work papers done up. Now the struggle to find work begins, but soon Nora and her mother find work with couple, Manuela and her husband, Jorge, who run fruit stands at Quitman Park. Jorge hires Nora who bears an uncanny resemblance to their missing daughter, Tessa. Nora also makes a good friend with a younger girl named Keisha who is black and who is looked down upon by the local Mexicans.
With a place to stay and jobs, Nora and her mother now set out to find out what has happened to their father and husband, Arturo Mirales. They follow a trail of leads that suggests illegal immigrants are treated poorly, working in unsafe conditions and poorly paid. Along the way Nora and her mother must cope with discrimination, fear of discovery that they are illegal immigrants and the gangs that plague the city.
This short novel effectively portrays life for illegal immigrants in America, demonstrating that life is generally not what they thought it would be. Illegal immigrants face loneliness and isolation in a strange culture they do not understand and they are often at risk for abuse by employers and involvement in crime including gangs, prostitution and drug trafficking.
Restrepo also suggests that illegal immigration in America is also partly due to American policies and decisions and inaction by the Mexican government. There are hints that the Morales life was a good one until the river supplying their village with water was dammed on the American side. This combined with drier summers caused crop failure and poverty, resulting in the villagers seeing illegal immigration as the only option available to them.
Nora is a strong character, who believes that with hard work she can succeed - an attitude typical of many immigrants to both America and Canada. Her faith in God and the support of her family, her mother and grandmother help her deal with the predictable outcome of their investigation into the whereabouts of her father and life in America.
Illegal is a strong novel that presents a wide range of issues involved in illegal immigration using believable characters and a strong protagonist.
Illegal by Bettina Restropo
Katherine Tegen Books 2011