LOOKING AT THE BOTTOM of the Central American map, attempting to look up—to Mexico, to the United States, and to the plurality of borders people cross, defying the illusion that there’s only one physical border, the Mexico–U.S. border—I turn to the spectacular production and “documentation” of the LatinX child migrant. One of LatinX’s potent features is that it captures the emergence of uprooted subjects thrown into an unexpected array of circumstances.
I reflect on Valeria Luiselli’s creative nonfiction undertaking, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017). This work by the widely acclaimed Mexican novelist is “a deceptively slim volume,” to give an aperçu of National Public Radio’s view (Powers 2017). Luiselli’s account moves with an eye toward what became known, as a Wikipedia entry enumerates it, the “2014 American immigration crisis” (Wikipedia n.d.). This uncertain moment in American life refers to the influx into the United States of unaccompanied minors from Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—or “the most murderous corner of the world,” as renowned Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez describes it (2016, xviii). Their reasons for fleeing cannot be easily shrugged off: the children are escaping “extreme violence, persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment” (12). The unauthorized entries were expected to reach seventy thousand in 2014 alone, an outpouring that led President Barack Obama to declare it a “humanitarian crisis” (Gordon 2014).
Luiselli enters this course of events as a volunteer interpreter for a New York City federal immigration court. “My task there is a simple one,” she explains. “I interview children in court, following the intake questionnaire, and then translate their stories from Spanish to English” (2017, 7). Her main subject, Central American child migrants striving to exist (to say nothing of their presupposed questionable motivations for defying their national origins—for not sticking to their moira—and illegally coming to the United States) deepens the urgency of Luiselli’s work. Their stories are activated by a standardized American questionnaire—a mechanical list of unyielding items following a template, moving from one child to the ostensible monotonous sameness of the next one’s responses. The sum of the questionnaire’s forty parts presumably tells us all we need to know (40). But a different history is burgeoning through these all-too-familiar Central American children, their life-and-death circumstances, and the way things work in the courtroom. Luiselli’s approach revitalizes the immigration questionnaire’s purpose by attenuating its routineness with a focus on the uniqueness of the responses.
Luiselli and the child migrant navigate a document in the service of national security, the rule of law, and public welfare. The questionnaire—a preliminary standardized American test—is a tool that measures, that now and then lets in but that ultimately deports, time and again, the unauthorized migrant. The book’s forty questions invite an analysis of the function of its very framework—the questions—as the Central American child is actualized in the public sphere through this test. How, we must ask, is the Central American children’s humanity attended to via contemporary bureaucratic U.S. documentation? Readers are compelled to engage with the document to see a kind of Central American abject humanity, which is part of the problem. The questionnaire is a catalyst—a portal to enter the discussion of the U.S. Central American presence through the minor. It is foundational to our understanding of the becoming of the Central American “thing,” the unaccompanied minor, in the United States.
But what is the questionnaire actually doing? How are Central American children made into the word on bureaucratic paper? My efforts attempt to create a language beyond the paper, so that the emergence of the problem child is understood.
The questionnaire—a file of information and personal experience—demonstrates a genealogy of temporary American beginnings. Tell Me How It Ends is a bid to “tell me how you begin”—how the outré LatinX child is configured within juridical archival projects, within American rhetoric and practice, and within the historical space that does not admit Latina and Latino bodies. It is the U.S. questionnaire—not the passport—that operates as a nexus of organizational attention, indicating the Central American child’s unauthorized entry and providing a nebulous “history of the documentation of individual identity” (Robertson 2010, 3). This form—as sociologist John Torpey speculates in connection to “the invention of the passport”—makes “their relevant differences knowable and thus enforceable,” maintaining “documentary control” on their movement (2000, 2–3). The questionnaire grants an identity that confers restricted access to American spaces, but through a matter where the why of this minor arises. Luiselli gives insight into how the child migrant interacts with perhaps one of the most contentious and tangled questions of our contemporary moment: “Why did you come to the United States?” (2017, 7). The why—their why—discloses a Central American sociopolitical reality that does not placate the public and limits the minor’s being in the American world.
If, as philosopher Thomas Nail advances, the twenty-first century is “the century of the migrant,” our epoch, too, is globally marked, in large scale, by the child migrant (2015, 1). “Migration to developed states” by children and young people under twenty, affirms public policy scholar Jacqueline Bhabha, “has more than doubled in the last thirty-five years.” In cases when migrant children “did not have families to care for them,” they “became the responsibility of diasporic community organizations from their countries of origin—Ethiopia, Iran, Vietnam, Somalia, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Guatemala. Formal legal decisions were not taken on their behalf, and state entities did not take responsibility for their well-being” (2016, 2). Recall 2016 headlines that stressed the absence of protective attention for unaccompanied minors migrating to Europe. Thousands of moving children from Syria, Afghanistan, or Eritrea are missing or have been “accommodated” to the needs of the dark and intricate infrastructures of Greece’s and Italy’s informal marketplaces. A BBC title inquired, “Why Are 10,000 Migrant Children Missing in Europe?” The answer is disturbing: smugglers may be “turning the children they bring into Europe into the hands of traffickers to make more money. Those children might then be pushed into prostitution or slavery” (Merriman 2016). These migration patterns, routes of power, and forces of exploitation moving along with unaccompanied minors warrant studies from various researchers and experts in numerous fields and across geographies.
This juncture also merits new questions on mobility, the presence of children, and their restrictive U.S. contexts alongside the everyday spaces of their lives. Transnational migrations, generally an adult-centered topic, are understood through assimilation, hyphenation, remittances, or full subjectivities. The “unaccompanied alien child,” as the legal term construes them, navigates a number of worlds with—as the Mesoamerican corridor evinces—underworlds invariably lurking nearby. Central American minors—their agency, discoveries, and evolving stories—are fertilizing the field as well as the intellectual reach of Latino/a studies and its unlikely spaces in the Global South.
But there is no final intellectual destination. How do the courses of these minors’ mobility—their livelihood, the tensions, their different embodiments, and the imprints they leave behind in movement, in detention, in U.S. life, and in deportation processes—readjust the discursive edifice not so much of Latino/a ontological being but of deracinated emergence? By deracination I mean more than location or national uprootedness. It is a possibility to think about fragmentation, dissemination, and reconfiguration—an ungroundedness that decouples geographic fundamentality, specificity, and essentialism from the meaning of Latina and Latino in the United States. Latino/a is never fully situated in the world. The LatinX child’s trajectory lends a hand in how these concerns with unpredictable starting points are disentangled.
Zigzagging our way through these conceptual thickets requires a brief explanation about the titular adjective moving this critical itinerary forward: LatinX. This gender-neutral denomination, to quickly review and summarize this term’s fundamentals, is deemed the current alternative to U.S. Latina and Latino ethnoracial labels. LatinX—predominantly employed by scholars, activists, artists, and journalists—substitutes the terminological ilk of Latina/o, Latino/a, and Latin@. Online news outlets such as ColorLines, Fusion, Huffington Post, Latina, and Latino USA have been among the first to elucidate LatinX’s meaning (see Logue 2015; Funes 2017; Latino USA 2016; Reichard 2016; Rivas 2017). LatinX “first began to emerge within queer communities on the Internet in 2004.” It makes room “for people who are trans, queer, agender, non-binary, gender non-conforming or gender fluid,” as the X rejects “the gendering of words especially since Spanish is such a gendered language” (Ramirez and Blay 2016).
I do not quarrel about, or submit, “correct” definitions. What attracts me about LatinX is its range of possibilities, its myriad pathways, and its wilting of conformity. The LatinX rhetorical gesture, as a matter of orientation in thought, is a ponderable one for our intellectual generation (see Chandler 2013). LatinX is more than just about Spanish as a gendered Romance language. The X is unknowable—or beyond knowing. The classification itself, LatinX, remains unknown, which is to say that we have rendered ourselves to the unknown—or the unknowns of unpredictable worlds. In this regard, LatinX can critically and imaginatively operate as “a guide to getting lost,” to extract from essayist Rebecca Solnit, wherein we—quite riveted and wide awake—“leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go” (2005, 4).
The Latin and the X are marked by, and prolong in, indeterminacy. Latin and X are capitalized to put their discursive functioning and communicative tensions in analytic play and to highlight how these dual-directional signifiers elicit continuous discernment. I steer toward LatinX in the context of unaccompanied Central American minors thrown into urgency, migration, detention, crises, and questionnaires: the X of our actual moment in history. The X of the LatinX child subsumes many Xs: lest we forget, there is more than one LatinX child. The scattered LatinX child lives at the margins of the unknown, of the double uncertainty of the Xs of the Latino/a world and the American one. Its centrality of being is its abject, threatening knownness. The LatinX child has been depersonalized and dehumanized, far removed from the here and now.
This scrutiny delves into the broader concept of the expulsed Central American child as a newcomer, a migrant, and the beginning of something else: a LatinX phenomenon of, and in, crisis. By beginning I mean all that starts afresh: the LatinX child’s inception is characteristic of how it came into being, as literary theorist and public intellectual Edward Said put forward (1975, 174–75). His preoccupations come within the LatinX child’s range, for “the notion of a beginning itself is practically tied up in a whole complex of relations. Between the word beginning and the word origin lies a constantly changing system of meanings” (5–6). Beginnings “inaugurate a deliberately other production of meaning”: they are “a problem to be studied,” “preparatory to something else” (13–14). Origins, by contrast, are passive, tied to “precedence and unchanging being,” where “everything can be referred for an explanation” (174). While Central America is an origin—as in a “source,” the first stage of existence, or, as Nail conjectures, the “socially fixed point from which” the LatinX child “departs”—I benefit from Said’s cogitation on beginnings, as they do not subscribe to purity (14). Beginnings challenge a subject’s simplification to a decisive origin or a point in time. They are vectors emphasizing direction, sharing a spirit of possibilities-cum-possible disappointments. Provisional beginnings—chosen beginnings, geographic beginnings, murky beginnings—as novelist Edwidge Danticat (2019) has observed, “have a much bigger burden and are often less clear.”
This LatinX beginning—beginning of something else—requires that we wrestle, on and on, as Said makes clear, with “the tumbling disorder that will not settle down” for Latins looming under that capacious and changeable X (50). The LatinX child advancing these pages begins through the Mesoamerican journey, at odds with the American child’s safe domestic movements. Reflecting on childhood wanderings, getting lost, and its activation of the creative imagination, Solnit writes: “Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back” (2005, 7). What does the LatinX child imaginatively conjure up during movement or “adventure”? Unaccompanied minors turn themselves over to the Border Patrol, to American bureaucracy, upon making it to the other side. There is a certain innocence in Solnit’s passage. But the questionnaire’s LatinX child is already inscribed into a transcriptional practice. Which is to say that we need another beginning to Luiselli’s end. For the LatinX child, “roaming” is at odds with their journey. The LatinX child locomotes with motivation and will. The LatinX traveler is still a child and still unable to move through the bureaucracy of their final destination.
Anthropologist Susan J. Terrio sets forth that “when the number of unaccompanied children crossing the US–Mexico border from October 2013 to June 2014 surged to 57,525, moral panic centered on the threat of criminality and disease they posed” (2015, 10). The reader, thrust into Luiselli’s text vis-à-vis an exigent crisis, learns how movement and detention inaugurate—indeed, usher along—the LatinX child, or the ex-child who does not quite fall back to childhood. Let us consider, too, that there is another X-child in Luiselli’s enterprise: her unnamed five-year-old daughter, a key questioner who often asks her, “So, how does the story of those children end?” (2017, 55). Through her child’s eye—another witness account—we see an unbreakable feedback between mother and daughter. Luiselli’s titular intent could just as readily be amended to (You) Tell Me How It Ends (Mamá), or even (You) Tell Me How It Ends (Mamá, Because It’s Different from How Your Story Ended). The Central American minor is perhaps the most X of the children that are “out there.” What is LatinX in relation to child migrants? What is a LatinX life, given its dissonances, incoherence, and fluctuating borders? How are their LatinXness and AmericanXness put into words? I pursue these concerns through an unfolding LatinXness underpinned by notions of nascency. Like the Central American child, this incipience is intangible, deracinated, aspirational, and far from unified—transcending “the nation” and struggling to “make sense.”
Tell Me How It Ends obliges readers to sift through historical antecedents of the questionnaire and its circulations to try to find a working order of the racialized Central American child in it. I start by drawing on a brief overview of surveys and the narratives they have proffered to the nation as well as its citizens—illustrating, during these beginning moments of Central American inscription, that “the future is only the stuff of some kids,” as performance studies theorist José Esteban Muñoz made known (2009, 95). From there, I interrogate the meanings of U.S. crisis in Central American life.
The Central American Minor / The Minor Central American
Migration from Central America to the United States is not a recent occurrence. Sociologist Norma Stoltz Chinchilla and political scientist Nora Hamilton note that the isthmus’s civil wars during the 1980s—in conjunction with “the effects of Hurricane Mitch and other natural disasters in the 1990s, and deteriorating economic conditions, as well as a demand for immigrant labor in certain U.S. labor markets”—set in motion their steady migratory flows (2007, 328). Since “a substantial number of Central American immigrants are undocumented,” they add, this “constitutes an important obstacle to their economic success, limiting the kinds of jobs available to them and resulting in frequent exploitation of their labor. In contrast to Cubans and Vietnamese, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans were not accepted as refugees during the 1980s, and very few were able to obtain asylum” (333).
Sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo underscores that “Salvadoran and Guatemalan women and men left their countries in haste, often leaving their children behind, as they fled the civil wars, political violence, and upheaval” (2007, 53). Journalistic endeavors such as Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey (2007)—originally a six-part Los Angeles Times series from 2002, which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing—looked into the psychological impact of gendered migrations on Central American families. Nazario chronicled how Enrique, a teenager, traveled alone from Honduras to search for his mother in the United States, feeling, as some Central American children frequently do, abandoned. Central American children are not, clearly, the first or the last to take a questionnaire. Yet the survey—how it ideologically strengthens itself and keeps tabs on the unwanted migrant child—gives “birth” to expellable intruders who are seen precisely because of their “illegality” and Central Americanness. The questionnaire is a legitimate form that makes these undocumented subjects speak and legible to a social order. Central American children are foregrounded as nomadic and oral—at odds with the written records structuring the nation and its families.
Historian Sarah Igo imparts that “the promise of empirical surveys,” with its prying inquisitiveness, is “to disclose the society to itself” (2007, 2). Mass surveys entered the public domain after World War I, “telling Americans ‘who we are,’ ‘what we want,’ and ‘what we believe’” (3). Doubtlessly, there are “many other ways to envision America, beginning with works of literature, photography, and history” (4). “Americans today,” Igo proceeds, “are accustomed to a seemingly endless stream of questions from survey researchers, political pollsters, marketers, and census takers. Being studied, and being privy to the results, is an understood and unexceptional feature of modern life. It is perhaps the principal way that we know ourselves to be a part of the national community” (2–3). Contemporary U.S. life is inundated with countless types of questionnaires shared on social media. Personality tests, dating profiles, and “our obsession with online quizzes” manifest “a nonstop, exhausting performance” of selfhood (Maloney 2014). MIT psychologist and cultural analyst Sherry Turkle emphasizes that the quizzes’ function “is to share it, to feel ‘who you are’ by how you share who you are” (Maloney).
This globally networked relationality—or untiring “linking” of the technological self that is always on—involves an active makeover that recurrently performs and reveals a new kind of temporal life. But this reworking of the self cannot be neatly connected to unsummoned, unaccompanied Central American children and the “confessional” responses required in off-line questionnaires for U.S. courtrooms. “As you make your way down its forty questions,” Luiselli avers, “it’s impossible not to feel that the world has become a much more fucked-up place than anyone could have ever imagined” (2017, 10). These children’s stigmatized bodies are a mismatch. They cannot, on the face of it, afford quality things and habitually tinker with the self through smart technological gadgets. Unable to readily catch up to the ongoing, updated reinvention encountered online, they come across as distant from the everyday American. And the questionnaire, as applied to administered Central Americans in U.S. courtrooms, upholds the value of American organizational life, of an efficient American bureaucracy that competently deports them. The disruption is not the procedural paper logic that writes them off, or the history of American intervention that has produced these displacements. The Central American minor is disruption embodied.
But I want to follow, for a bit, the historical thread of the questionnaire and its associations to notions of geography, pedigree, racial hierarchies, and moral characteristics. Evan Kindley’s Questionnaire (2016) keeps a finger on the pulse of nineteenth-century efforts to draft surveys envisioning “a world remade by asking the right questions” (11). Another way to put it may be that the “right” questions asked by the “right” kind of people led to a “righted” world, as English explorer and anthropologist Francis Galton intended. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton coined the scientific and social movement known as eugenics in 1883 and is recognized for this form’s early and meticulous uses. He designed questionnaires promoting the development of the sciences of anthropometrics, statistics, and evolutionary biology. Galton’s surveys—“scientific investigations”—were fortuitous. Parents became “family historians,” preserving a “trustworthy record” of their “biological experience” through their children (Galton 1884). These family catalogs gave rise to “the baby book, a popular genre that continues to flourish today” (Kindley 2016, 14).
Galton’s investment in purity, development, and fitness from infancy onward coincided with the extreme representation, during England’s Victorian age (1837–1901), of Máximo and Bartola, two “diminutive, primary microcephalic” Central American siblings. Known for their “‘dwarfish and idiotic’ appearance,” they toured both sides of the Atlantic (Bogdan 1988, 127–28). A Spanish trader approached Máximo and Bartola’s parents to take them from El Salvador to the United States and cure them of their “imbecility” (128). Arguably, Máximo and Bartola are the genesis of Central American “unaccompanied minors.” Later sold to an American, the brother and sister were refashioned as “Aztec children” by their owner-manager, who metamorphosed them into objects of “vivid interest” at a time when Americans “thirsted for more information about the natural history of their own continent” (128, 130).
The “Aztec Lilliputians” were guests of President Millard Fillmore at the White House and created “quite a stir” in England (Bogdan 1988, 130). They were exhibited at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York and before the Ethnological Society of London. Máximo and Bartola also met the royal family at Buckingham Palace. They progressed from “sensation to specimen”—having been declared “a new type of humanity, only three feet high”—as literary scholar Robert D. Aguirre reveals (2005, 105). Máximo and Bartola had been rendered, in a word, inanimate objects. They performed for their own moment in time, foreshadowing the grotesqueries of the Central American future.
This snapshot casts light on the rhetorical and processual building up of the questionnaire, especially during industrialization and during a time of change. In the 1880s the number of excluded classes in the U.S. immigration system grew, as historian Mae Ngai has discussed, “to comprise the mentally retarded, contract laborers, persons with ‘dangerous and loathsome contagious disease,’ paupers, polygamists, and the ‘feebleminded’ and ‘insane,’ as well as Chinese laborers” (2004, 59). Victorian scholar Sally Mitchell writes that across the Atlantic the textures of everyday life, “the physical and technological surroundings in which people lived, the patterns of their education and work and recreation and belief, were [all] utterly transformed” (1996, xiv). This transition period parallels our contemporary time, with the digitization of life. Yet the more connected we are digitally, the more disconnected we become. Sentimentality and the representation of emotions are attributed to inanimate children like Máximo and Bartola—not unlike the projected dark brownness and stillness of minors in a questionnaire.
Obsessive scientific approaches and racialized lenses are applied to “things,” to “monstrous” differences that help hegemonic subjects understand their normality and superiority. But it is a “monstrosity” that must be kept afar. Terrio expounds that “terms such as racial purity have largely disappeared from public usage, but racial thinking is expressed in coded language about work, education, immigration, and entitlements” (2015, 9). Organizational and managerial control does not trail too far behind. Anthropologist David Graeber reminds us of this when he observes that bureaucratic procedure “invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real human existence and reducing everything to simple pre-established mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules, statistics, or questionnaires, bureaucracy is always about simplification” (2011, 51).
Luiselli attempts to limn, sardonically, America’s normative fears when it comes to the child migrant from Central America—a region that, in foreign affairs journalist Tim Marshall’s rendering, “has little going for it by way of geography but for one thing. It is thin” (2015, 226). Marshall posits a different relation to the area and its human subjects, a new sense of getting caught up in “that” Central American “thin(g)”: that trivial thin thing. Luiselli writes:
In varying degrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts! They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen—these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their brownness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms. And if they are allowed to stay here they will—eventually—reproduce. (2017, 15)
To be clear: I admire Luiselli’s oeuvre, her thoughtfulness, and, as she demonstrates, her readiness and skill to witness, translate, and discharge the concrete problem back to her American addressees. Tell Me How It Ends is a testament that the Central American minor has not been kicked out of the American world so silently. Luiselli raises awareness—“a transformation of consciousness,” as author Nathaniel Popkin rightly gauged in Literary Hub (2017)—and appeals to a U.S. goodness that will engender reason and dignity to Central American children.
It is almost as though the reader is privy to Luiselli’s Latina becoming. She is an alien—a “nonresident alien” wanting to become a “resident alien”—wrestling with the green card questionnaire and the unresolvable question, “Why did you come to the United States?” (2017, 8–10). I understand her intended irony in the aforementioned excerpt, a tricky thing to capture. Yet the ease of the prose—the circulation of this cultural representation—does not read as ironic. The passage sounds eerily like eugenics. To whom are these words of “disfigurement” directed? These signifiers conceivably legitimate these minors’ geopolitical and racial differences—marking them as “real.” Central American differences are unchangeable. Most ironically, isn’t that why these minors are policed, detained, and deported in the first place?
Ultimately, what does such a passage contribute? Can we grasp “their” difference only through this repetition of saturated difference? What is this LatinX child’s difference? The LatinX child may not be called a rapist or a predator in the U.S. lingua franca, as undocumented adults are usually dubbed. But perhaps Luiselli’s double-edged comments about this political problem are unerring to the extent that the semiotics applied to the unlawful child migrant’s racialized meanings are not so color-blind. This racialization is at odds with how, as constitutional scholar Patricia Williams has pointed out, U.S. children in predominantly white schools are told by “well-meaning teachers” such hackneyed expressions as, “Color makes no difference,” and “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or red or green or blue” (1997, 3). Seemingly, the LatinX child—none or all of the above—is muffled in the classroom and remains outside the colorings of this colorless palette, of this discursive elision of race. The Central American child becomes what “we” already “know” “it” is, or, as Luiselli synthesizes it, “barbarians who deserve subhuman treatment” (2017, 84).
Binding the minor to the precision of the survey’s questions, we only “know” Central American children as juridical subjects, as an impure matter on which American power will be exercised. Not an American child but more like a contemptible child without discipline and with a slew of undesirable attributes, this minor treads a path far from straight and narrow. Who are they, what are their origins, and where are their parents? Luiselli explains that “the process by which a child is asked questions during the intake interview is called screening.” She continues:
Right before the first formal interview question, a line floats across the page like an uncomfortable silence:
Where is the child’s mother?___father?___
There are no family trees to reconstruct this “floating” population: only blank lines resting, “floating,” on genealogical “imperfection.” They surface as empty, anonymous Xs “filled” by a blank univocality unified by abandonment and unknowability. The Central American child transfigures into the LatinX child, coming to us from a different “Latin” world. Its adjacent AmericanXness is never far behind: LatinXness and AmericanXness have been birthed in crisis (Luiselli 2017, 11).
This child’s relatives are nonrelatives. The LatinX child’s “authenticity” is the X that looks odd, that duplicates, that is both paper and paperwork. The X of blank-headedness and bureaucratic runaround. The X of heightened exclusion. The X that requires the LatinX child to be “realistic.” The X of not knowing where or how it will end up. The X that drops by. The X of stigma and confinement. The X that cannot cross out the (Northern Triangle) error. The LatinX child is resistant to closure.
“Too often, the spaces remain blank,” Luiselli divulges. “All the children come without their fathers and their mothers. And many of them do not even know where their parents are” (2017, 11). These are families in crisis. Buried in a particular “grammar book,” as literary theorist Hortense J. Spillers might put it, this Central American “baby”—a “notorious bastard” that is always Mama’s, Papa’s, and the nation’s “maybe”—grows into “a resource for metaphor” (1987, 66). The absence of the mother and father for the Central American child evolves into a “territory of cultural and political maneuver” (67). Central American minors become illegitimate children with illegitimate claims. Spillers’s methodological conception of U.S. historical order as it relates to black womanhood, enslavement, and African American family structures is, needless to add, distinct from migrant children who “try to turn themselves in to the migra, or Border Patrol, as soon as possible” (20). Yet I revisit Spillers’s work to deliberate on this migrant “anomaly”—on Central American “faults” and “failures” from early childhood—and the new kind of “grammar,” the “altered human factor,” the X, produced in transit. “The migration of children,” Luiselli regards with keen attention, “is reorganizing and redefining the traditional family structure” (2017, 48).
The Central American child is “unthinkable” (Luiselli 2017, 12). To trouble this pronouncement further: it is not the minor per se who is unthinkable. Central American children and their ballooning numbers are simply unthinkable in the United States—and extraordinarily unthinkable in the American long run. Seen as such, these minors “deserve,” as Bhabha has it, punitive treatment, punitive intervention, and punitive measures that return them “to the places they fear” (2016, 207). Their predicament—and the ugliness that surrounds their plight, to say nothing of their unhealthy nations—exhibits an unfitness registering the isthmus’s dangers and pathologies. LatinX children can never really speak of a new life, only attest to their ever-present abjection. Their “floating” explanations steadily go south—taking these minors, literally, back to Central America.
Luiselli swiftly resurrects a passage from a Reuters story in which the news agency reported that “looking happy the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with the balloons they had been given” (2017, 16). Calling this far-from-festive sight an “uncanny image,” Luiselli “cannot stop reproducing” it “somewhere in the dark back of our minds.” Reuters’s characterization of deportation as “fun and games” is, shall we say, haunting, almost suggesting that expelled children must play—or, rather, that adult readers must be comforted by—the positive role of being happy under these circumstances. The balloon is like a goody of care, a party favor, a temporary consolation prize. The balloon and the minor are easy to puncture and deflate: deflatable goods for deflatable children. Children and balloons, both familiar in daily life, become strange and unfamiliar. They are the contents of an awkward and outrageous performance that “fits” in the culture of a detention and deportation system through a different form of “crisis management.” There is no management model to improve the practice of admitting Central American children into the United States, just the coordination of detention and mass expulsions.
The LatinX child is pliable. Childhood and adulthood are on the same hostile footing. The Central American minor (as in: under the legal age of full responsibility) interchangeably becomes a minor Central American (meaning: someone who has a low rank, status, or position)—enacting an ideological Lilliputianness at the juridical level. The diminutiveness of the LatinX child—a descendant of Máximo’s and Bartola’s, so to speak—evokes magnification: the magnification of smallness through time. Lilliputianness is a metaphor for Central America and the Central American. The questionnaire mirrors this shortness by condensing and minimizing its subject. The fantastical smallness of Máximo and Bartola makes a return as the little LatinX child is shortened through his or her questionnaire responses in our modern day. After all, immigration judge Jack H. Weil has argued that “three- and four-year-olds can learn immigration law well enough to represent themselves in court. I’ve taught immigration law literally to three-year-olds and four-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done” (Markon 2016).
The LatinX child is expected to possess the brainpower to figure out U.S. immigration law and to competently serve as its own legal counsel. This child acts out a legally sanctioned bizarre irrationalism. The LatinX child stages the juridical mode of recognition by which it is identified: its abject problems. But there is no sense of American ethics and obligation to the Central American child who appears to arrive ex nihilo. Three additional judges publicly challenged Weil: “A typical three-year-old cannot tie her shoes, count to 100, peel a banana, or be trusted not to swallow marbles” (Markon 2016). Luiselli mentions the cognitive stumbling blocks presented by the form’s last ten questions. They “are the most difficult because they refer directly to the gangs. Smaller children look back at you with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement if you say ‘bands of organized criminals,’ maybe because they associate the word ‘bands’ with musical groups” (2017, 73). The LatinX child, “targeted on the basis of racialized national identities,” is framed to articulate its own grounds of expulsion (Terrio 2015, 15). Ngai’s words ring true: if “the illegal immigrant cannot be constituted without deportation—the possibility or threat of deportation, if not the fact”—neither can the LatinX child (2004, 58). Illegality, detention, and deportation are its iconic status.
One is not a detached observer. Luiselli speaks of two Guatemalan sisters, five and seven years old, whose mother saved enough money to bring them up north through a coyote or, as one of the girls says, “a man” (2017, 56). They prepared for their journey in this way:
The day before they left, their grandmother sewed a ten-digit number on the collars of the dress each girl would wear through the entire trip. It was a ten-digit number the girls had not been able to memorize, as hard as she tried to get them to, so she had decided to embroider it on their dresses and repeat over, and over, a single instruction: they should never take this dress off, not even to sleep, and as soon as they reached America, as soon as they met the first American policeman, they were to show the inside of the dress’s collar to him. He would then dial the number and let them speak to their mother. The rest would follow. (57)
Luiselli calls attention to the “ten-digit number.” This incomprehensible phone number—as unknowable as XXX-XXX-XXXX—cannot be repeated memoriter. It cannot come any further than Luiselli’s qualifier: the ten-digit number. At times U.S. businesses make phone numbers catchier by using letters or phrases in place of digits. But this ingenious grandmother clears this obstacle by fashioning her own system of communication. By the same token, there is no punctual sense of clock and calendar time—no one knows the length of this arduous and risky journey, just the descriptor “through the entire trip.” The girls are “timed” by the number of borders they continue to cross in their coded, unchangeable dresses, a sort of borderlands uniform in this Mesoamerican space of “standard stranded time,” as it were. They are “timed,” as well, by their bodies—children’s bodies keeping up with adult paces, a coyote’s speed, moving forward—which assume, one can only speculate, a physical and psychological toll. Their grandmother tells their story of crossing boundaries through her needlework—stitching a U.S. recognizable, registered, and working number, a “good” number, on a collar to be shown, like official documentation, to American government agents on arrival. But this dress is a different activation of caller ID, let’s say, for one cannot predict who will access and dial the ten digits: a U.S. police officer or a member of a gang or an organized crime group. The dress and its discreet phone number presage life and death, good and bad news, farness and nearness, childhood home and detention center, crossing with fear and living with fear.
“The children that arrived here, one must remember, are also the children that made it. The children that made it through Mexico, which is really like hell for Central American migrants,” Luiselli told Democracy Now! (Goodman 2017). Central American vulnerability along the hazardous Mesoamerican route has been widely explored in academic studies, journalistic feature and news writings, films, and documentaries (see Sandoval-García 2017; Basok 2015; Mártinez 2013; “Travelers in Hiding” 2012; Sin Nombre 2009; Which Way Home 2009; Nazario 2007). Anyone who crosses over has more than made it. Their perseverance across borders is “life beyond life”: “Survival is not simply that which remains but the most intense life possible” (Derrida 2007, 52).
Communication scholars Timothy L. Sellnow and Matthew W. Seeger outline that crises connote unpredictable, threatening, and high-uncertainty occurrences bringing about a sense of collapse, disruption, and harm (2003, 2, 4). These exigencies can include the humanities crisis; an existential breakdown or midlife crisis; a social crisis; a health crisis or pandemic; natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes; environmental catastrophes like lead seeping into drinking water, global warming, drought, nuclear disaster, and an oil spill; financial disasters; an energy crisis; terrorist attacks; or a “specific, unexpected, non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and a significant or perceived threat to high priority goals” (6–7). “The dizzying array of crisis narratives,” as anthropologist Janet Roitman alludes to them, determines “the post hoc judgment of deviation, of failure” (2014, 41–42). The LatinX child migrant is a visually excessive sign of repetitive crisis and failure. The LatinX minor’s forecast is gloomy: it is a futurity that cannot be. LatinX kids are a liability and tend to meet with the same kind of ending. Can one imagine what a Central American child in crisis can become? Can a LatinX child move beyond alienness? Perhaps 2014 indicates a bigger extremity: that of Central American negation, the disavowal of their humanness.
How did this grave U.S. emergency resonate in Central America? Public discourse of a state of crisis propelled Óscar Martínez to report on the phenomenon. The investigative journalist’s account—“Los niños no se van: Se los llevan” (“The Children Don’t Leave: They Take Them”)—questions the perceived homogeneous entity of the “unaccompanied child migrant.” His extraordinary article from July 2014 has not yet been published in English, and so I have translated all the excerpts referenced here. Martínez pushes for greater interpretive complexity vis-à-vis the decisions Central Americans make to move and engage in what still amounts to an open future. His piece tracks down the nuances within contexts of violence, family separation, and the business of human smuggling.
Martínez avoids the term crisis: it dehumanizes the Central American minor’s perils and trauma. Children are not a crisis. “What has changed in the last few months,” he asks, “so that tens of thousands of Central American children flee from violence?” Martínez infers that “if El Salvador’s children would leave because of the violence alone, thousands and thousands would’ve left. We’ve been violent for a long time before fifty-two thousand children left.” He consults with the pseudonymous “Señor Coyote,” who has been in the human smuggling business since 1979. Mr. Coyote “boasts being one of El Salvador’s first coyotes. When he began to coyotear,” or smuggle, “he even ran ads for ‘safe travel to the United States’ on newspaper pages, listing his office number.” Mr. Coyote’s métier entails making headway through Mexico, getting the children to the other side, and training them “to forget they went with a coyote” (Martínez 2014).
More remarkable is a point made almost en passant, proffering insights about a LatinXness in transit and its temporary identifications. Mr. Coyote mentions that “many children passed through with the papers of Puerto Ricans or Dominicans.” Martínez does not untangle the degrees of otherness that Central American children undertake at geographic and cultural crossroads and in an active process of “Latinization.” Their modifications touch on a LatinXness of being: minors must “forget” about the adults guiding them from point X to point X and assume an accompanying “citizenship” from another country. Puerto Rican or Dominican papers facilitate the Central American child’s mobility farther north, uprooting the child from his or her “origins,” but beginning again as something else. These documents assign another layer of meaning to the LatinX minor (Martínez 2014).
Can we even quantify the dizzying array of Latin copiousness in these “Puerto Rican” and “Dominican” border crossings? What do we make of this deracinated but dispersed, “underage” but legal, and hidden but well-paced “Latinidad”—or, rather, these legal iterations of Dominicanness and Puerto Ricanness in Mesoamerica? Puerto Rican U.S. citizenships circulating through Mesoamerican undocumented migrations intimate broad “alien” movements. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, of course, and the domain of a flexible Puerto Ricanness in this Central American moment punctuates a paradoxical “foreignness.” An often-unrecognized U.S. citizenship is activated through the transitory “Americanness” of Central Americans. The LatinX migrant, hailing from elsewhere, is “naturalized” to other homelands. Martínez imparts another kind of resistance to restrictions that carve out family spaces. “If parents don’t have a real choice to take their children in a legal way,” he concludes, “if parents don’t see that violence shows signs of declining significantly in Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador, if many of those parents no longer wash dishes but have established, after years of sacrifice, their own business, then what? If the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras does not give them an option, a coyote will give it to them. Parents will always want to have their children by their side” (Martínez 2014).
Central American movements continue. They are about far more than immigration forms. Tell Me How It Ends is, sure, about the comprehensive American questionnaire and its cultivation of alien personae. Luiselli tells us, in this sense, how the LatinX child begins: in movement, in deportation, in questions, and in new affiliations. The LatinX child is starting another production of meaning. The LatinX child is beginning here and there.