We Are Not From Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez is a poignant novel of desperation, escape, and survival across the U.S.-Mexico border, inspired by current events.
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When you live in a place like this, you’re always planning your escape. Even if you don’t know when you’ll go. Even if you stare out your kitchen window, looking for reasons to stay—you stare at the red Coca-Cola sign on the faded turquoise wall of Don Felicio’s store that serves the coldest Coca-Colas you’ve ever tasted. The gauzy orange of the earth—both on the ground and swirling in the air—that has seeped into every one of your happiest memories. The green palms of the tree you climbed one time to pick and crack the ripest coconut that held the sweetest water you gave your mother. And the deep blue of the sky you tell yourself is only this blue here.
You can look at all this and still be planning your escape.
Because you’ve also seen how blood turns brown as it seeps into concrete. As it mixes with dirt and the excrements and innards of leaking dead bodies. You’ve stared at those dark places with your friends on the way to school, the places people have died. The places they disappeared from. The places they reappeared one morning months later, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, but mostly in fragments. You’ve watched dogs piss in those places. On those bodies that once cried with life.
You plan your escape because no matter how much color there is or how much color you make yourself see, you’ve watched every beautiful thing disappear from here. Made murky by night and darkness and shadow.
You plan your escape because you’ve seen your world turn black.
You plan your escape.
But you’re never really ready to go.
We should run.
The words fill my mind as the priest throws holy water on Don Felicio’s coffin. Neighbors slide it into its vault. Doña Agostina holds her rosary and wails.
Yesterday at his wake, she’d told me to run. Yesterday, Pequeña had told us to run, too. Today, my eyes scan the cemetery, looking for Rey or Nestor, and all I can think about is running.
The crowd disperses.
When we get home, Mamá sinks into the couch, exhausted. My mind sees the red velvet cushions. Blood-red. So much blood.
We should run.
“You and Chico go rest,” she says, pulling up her legs and lying down without bothering to change out of her black dress. “I’m going to stay here for just a little while. Close and lock the door.”
Chico gets up from where he was sitting in the doorway and I do as Mamá says. He heads to our room and I follow. There is a heaviness in the air, pressing down on us. The thud of my own feet sounds terrible. But as I walk past Mamá, she reaches for my arm and grabs it.
“Pulga,” she says. The force of her touch and her voice startles me. I look at her tired face and she says, “Te quiero mucho, Pulgita.”
“I know, Mamá. I love you, too.” But there is something else she wants to say, and doesn’t. I can see it on her face. She just nods, lets go of my arm, and closes her eyes.
I stand there for just a moment, wondering if Doña Agostina told her about the dream she had. Or maybe Pequeña said something. Maybe Mamá is starting to believe in brujas and superstitions. Maybe I should, too.
Maybe Mamá will even tell me I should run, because it’s the only way. That I have her blessing. That she understands broken promises.
Instead she takes a deep breath, lets it out.
And I go to my room.
Chico has the fan on the highest setting and it whirs loudly.
I close the door, even though it keeps the room hotter.
“Well?” Chico asks as I enter. He is fidgety and restless. The brown stripes on his shirt match his skin perfectly. I stare out the window.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. I haven’t told him what Doña Agostina told me, but the strange things Pequeña said put him on edge. He hasn’t been able to sit still since, and even here, he seems to be looking over his shoulder.
“She said something bad was going to happen. To us, Pulga. Something bad is going to happen to us.”
I don’t say anything and try to stay calm.
“Holy shit,” Chico whispers, making my heart beat faster. I look out the window, expecting to see Rey standing there with a gun pointed right at us.
There is no one there.
When I turn back to Chico, he is looking at me strangely. “You believe her . . . don’t you?”
I think of the book I keep under my mattress—information I’ve collected over the last few years on how to get to the States. Notes. Printouts. The train. La Bestia. I think of how my tía in the United States sends money for me every year and Mamá only gives me five or ten dollars before saving the rest for me in a hiding place. I think of how I know that hiding place. How I know that tía’s phone number and address. Have memorized both. How I know where to exchange dollars to quetzales and pesos and have already done so with those bills Mamá has given me each time.
Just in case.
But I don’t like the terrified look on Chico’s face. The one that confirms what we are both afraid to believe.
I shake my head. My heart is racing and it feels hard to breathe, but I tell myself it’s just the heat.
“You know what? This baby has Pequeña all messed up,” I tell Chico. “That’s all. She’s not herself. All we have to do is act normal.” The lies spill from my mouth. But they taste better than the truth.
He closes his eyes and tears stream down his face.
“Even if Rey thinks we saw something,” I continue, “or know something, he’ll keep an eye on us. And when he sees we’re acting normal, that we haven’t told anyone anything, he’ll leave us alone.”
Chico opens his eyes. They’re red and watery and unconvinced. He wipes at them roughly, but tears keep streaming down his face. I sit down next to him on his mattress, put my arm over his shoulders.
“It’ll be okay, Chico. I promise.”
“But, Pulga . . .”
“It’s all going to be okay . . .”
He stares at me for a moment, and I will myself to believe it so he will, too. Maybe I can believe it. Maybe if I believe it, it will be true.
“Come on, you trust me, don’t you? I promise you it’ll be okay.”
After a while he says, “Okay.” Guilt washes over me, but I push it away. “If you say so, Pulga, okay.”
“All we have to do is act normal, okay?”
He nods again. “Okay.”
“We saw nothing, Chico. Just remember that. We went there, we grabbed a soda, and we headed back home. By the time what happened happened, we were far away from there. We were never there, Chico. We saw nothing.”
He takes a deep breath. “We saw nothing.”
“That’s right,” I tell him. “We saw nothing.” I grab hold of these words so they will force out thoughts of running. Maybe I can put my faith into these words instead. Maybe I can will these words to save us.
The fan whirs and catches our words.
We saw nothing.
We saw nothing.
We saw nothing.
Those words circle around us the day after Don Felicio’s funeral. And the day after that. And the day after that. For over a week Chico and I go on as normal. We head to school even though all I do is watch the door, waiting, barely able to tell one day apart from another.
We saw nothing.
We take no detours. We look over our shoulders every five minutes.
We saw nothing.
We repeat those words in our heads so much that we hear them in the thud of our steps on the way home from school. We hear them as we walk past Don Felicio’s store—which doesn’t even exist anymore, all boarded up the way it is.
We saw nothing.
We repeat them so much that we almost believe them. And we start to think maybe, maybe we’ve escaped. Maybe we’ll be okay. But then one morning we’re headed to school. And my breath catches.
I see that car.
Barreling toward us once more.
It grinds to a stop too quickly, spraying dirt and dust on Chico and me. The same car Rey and Nestor drove the other day.
“Get in,” Nestor calls to us as we try to wave away the dust from our faces. It gets caught in my lashes and I can taste it. Nestor is alone, but he’s positioned the car to block our way.
“No, we’re okay. Thanks,” I say, grabbing on to Chico’s shoulder and starting to walk around the car.
“You think I’m offering you a ride? I said, get in.” He puts his hand on a gun lying on the passenger seat.
I look at Chico and he looks back at me. His eyes are frantic and I think Chico might run. I can feel my own legs wanting to run, but there’s something else in my brain holding me back, not letting me move.
Maybe it’s remembering how Nestor picked on everyone as soon as he grew a few inches. Maybe it’s the way he looked at Rey years ago when Rey said he should have taken care of me and Chico himself. Maybe it’s knowing how eagerly Nestor is trying to prove himself.
I look back to see if anyone will see me and Chico getting in the car. People talk about how Nestor is following in his brother’s footsteps, and the same is thought of anyone seen with either of them.
“Go ahead,” I say quietly to Chico. I can see the fear threatening to choke him. I can feel it rising in my own throat, like bile. But we both get in.
And that’s when I know this isn’t going to go away. Rey and Nestor found out somehow. They know we know it was them at Don Felicio’s store. And now they’ve come for us.
Fate is fate. And this . . . it turns out, has always been our fate. The thing is, I guess I’ve always known it would be. And still, I lied to myself.
Even if Mamá thinks I have an artist’s heart, even if I try to see the world in color, even if I dare to dream—it doesn’t matter when your world keeps turning black.