Suffer the Children


In summer 215, Valeria Luiselli, an immigrant from Mexico waiting for her green card, signed up as a volunteer interpreter with an immigration court in New York. There she interviewed hundreds of Central American children who had crossed the border to the US and were now completing their intake questionnaires. Her clear, urgent, hair-raising book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Coffee House Press) is a record of her work, and of trauma that privileged settled people cannot imagine. The forty questions are those put to each child, whose stories “are always shuffled, stuttered… delivered with hesitance, sometimes distrust, always with fear”—and just one step in a precarious legal process. Questions 1 and 2: Why did you come to the United States? When did you enter the United States? Question 3: Did you travel with anyone you knew? Almost all of these children travel with a paid “coyote” (human smuggler). Some kids are assaulted, raped, killed. Question 6: How did you travel here? Most say, “I came on La Bestia”—the freight trains that run to and from the Mexico–US border. Migrants travel north by clinging to the top or sides of the cars; thousands of people have been killed in falls, or by smugglers, thieves, blackmailers or police. Question 7: Did anything happen on your trip to the US that scared you or hurt you? More than 11, people abducted in one month, 8 percent of women and girls reporting rape, tens of thousands of refugees vanished. Question 8: Has anyone hurt, threatened, or frightened you since you came to the US? See above. Questions 9 and 1: How do you like where you’re living now? Are you happy here? The children answer yes. Eventually a few of them get as far as court, but not all of them follow through, especially if their relatives are undocumented, therefore vulnerable. Others don’t proceed because they cannot afford a lawyer. The children’s accounts are similar, “but also each one is unspeakably anguished in its own way”: I crossed the border by foot. I have not ever met my father. I worked in the fields, ten or maybe fifteen hours a day. The MS-13 shot my sister. She died. Yes, my uncle hit me often. Luiselli struggles to write down the responses honestly and to the kids’ best advantage. A boy reports that gang members followed him home, so he closed his eyes and ran. Then they followed him home with a gun. Then they kicked my door open and shot my little brother. The brother died. What words are the most precise? Gangs are an insidious common denominator in the accounts: they are the subject of the last ten questions, 25 percent of the interview. These are the second-generation Hispanic groups that formed in Los Angeles in the 198s, particularly the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), a coalition of immigrants from war-torn El Salvador, and the Barrio 18 (Calle 18)—both consisting originally of Central Americans who were fleeing US-funded massacres, both expanding, in spite of efforts to deport gang members. No solution is possible, Luiselli says, until all governments involved “acknowledge their shared accountability” for the crisis. Meanwhile, “It is at this point in the interview that many of the children, especially the older ones, break down.” Every child and teenager migrating from Central America knows ganga and pandillero and all have come in contact with the gangs. They threaten you, threaten to rape your sisters if you don’t join. They knock your teeth out for fun. They kill each other. “Hempstead [New York] is a shithole full of pandilleros, just like Tegucigalpa,” says one boy. But, as Luiselli points out, “official US accounts almost always locate the dividing line between civilization and barbarity just below the Rio Grande.” Her scrutiny of language is a compelling aspect of her analysis, because it reminds us that language shapes beliefs, and can leave us feeling sad but helpless in the face of some inevitable cruel fate. “The word illegal prevails over undocumented,” Luiselli writes, “and immigrant over refugee.” We learn of “children caught while crossing illegally, laws that permit their deportation, children who come from poor and violent towns.” We are quick to bring up “the problems of the countries of origin,” she points out, “cynically overlooking the causes of the exodus… deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history”—a transnational problem in which the United States is an active historical participant. “There is little said, for example,” she writes, “of arms being trafficked from the US into Mexico or Central America, legally or not; and little mention of the fact that the consumption of drugs in the US is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent.”

No items found.


Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


David M. Wallace

Red Flags

The maple leaf no longer feels like a symbol of national pride.

CB Campbell

Joe and Me

Playing against the fastest chess player in the world.

Mia + Eric

Future Perfect

New bylaws for civic spaces.