Nine-year-old Betita is driving with family members, from her home in L.A. to San Diego, to visit her father through the border wall. In Mexico, he was an agronomist and fled north because his life was threatened. In the U.S., he worked in construction and, one day, he was deported to Mexico in an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid. After Betita’s family missed the final exit before the border, they had to drive into Mexico. When they tried to return home back across the border, Betita, her mother, and aunt were detained and put in a detention center.
This scene is from a children’s book, the latest work by Oakland-based writer Aida Salazar, titled Land of the Cranes. Published by Scholastic in 2020, the book is written as a series of hauntingly beautiful free-verse poems.
Salazar said this book, which she began working on in 2018, was inspired by the Trump administration’s actions on the southern border and the rounding up of undocumented workers around the country. In 2017, California passed a bill that prohibited local law enforcement agents from asking about a person’s immigration status, and from acting as de facto immigration agents, such as through collaborating with ICE. In 2018, there was a big push by the Trump administration to arrest undocumented immigrants. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf pushed back by alerting the community that she had heard that ICE agents would be coming into the area.
Land of the Cranes came quickly to Salazar. She was sitting in a café and wrote the first 30 pages in one sitting. She told me that these pages are almost identical to what is in the book. “After writing that story, I was devastated, but I knew that I had to tell it,” she said.
Soon after her book was bought by Scholastic in March 2018, migrant children started being separated from their families at the southern border with Mexico. “To my dismay and shock, I could not believe that what I had written was being amplified so severely,” she said. Over 5,000 children were separated from their family members; there are still over 500 children whose family members have not been located, despite efforts by the Biden administration.
The plight of undocumented and immigrant children is close to home for Salazar, who was born in Mexico, came to the U.S. when she was about 9 months old, and grew up in southeast Los Angeles. She received her green card at age 12, became a citizen about 10 years ago, and many of her family members are undocumented. Her understanding of what many migrants experience is reflected in the following excerpt from Land of the Cranes—Betita has learned that her father, Papi, has been picked up:
From a string
of weeping words
someone named ICE
put Papi and other hammer workers
in a cage
and Mami doesn’t know
how to set him free.
Through her poems, Salazar provides a detailed description of life in U.S. detention centers for the thousands of migrants fleeing their home countries — children separated from their parents; freezing cold cages (called hieleras/coolers by many migrants); poor food and inadequate medical attention; and harsh treatment by the guards. In this poem excerpt, a young woman who was organizing migrants in the U.S. arrives in the cell where Betita and her mother are being held:
A shock of loud curse words
rips through the building
in rippling punches
later that day.
We all look to see
two guards pushing
an angry young woman forward
her hands tied behind her back.
Her hair is wagging
like wild, windblown grass.
Many of the migrants who arrive at the southern border are seeking asylum due to violence at the hands of gangs and their own governments’ police and military. This type of hardship is often the consequence of U.S. foreign policy and interventions, including the so-called drug wars in which Central and South American countries bore the brunt of U.S. policy that was caused by U.S. demand for drugs. If migrants housed in U.S. detention camps were POWs, these conditions would be considered violations of the Geneva Conventions, which the U.S. ratified in 1955.
The experience of being an immigrant has affected Salazar throughout the years and she has integrated this with a love of writing poetry, which she first started to write when she was 10 years old. When she was 17, she went to U.C. Santa Barbara and thought she’d go into advertising and use her love of writing and creativity in that field. However, until she took an elective Chicano/Latin American Literature course, she didn’t encounter much creativity in her courses and didn’t do well. It was in this course that she encountered Latinx authors, including Sandra Cisneros and Rudolph Anaya. “This was the first time I saw myself reflected on the page,” she said. She changed her major to Chicano Studies, did well, and it was then that she decided she wanted to be a writer.
For about 20 years, Salazar published her poems in small publications and zines — small-circulation, self-published works — while working as an arts administrator, producing events and doing arts education. It wasn’t until a few years ago that she wrote for children and young adults.
“It took me 20 years to publish my first novel, The Moon Within,” she said. She immediately found success with this book, which focuses on young teen, Celi Rivera, her first period and her mother’s insistence that she have a traditional, ancestral “moon ceremony;” young love; and a friend coming out as transgender. The novel is written as a series of free-form poems and it was very well received and won several prestigious awards.
Salazar was inspired to write The Moon Within when her daughter was moving into womanhood. She and her daughter had been meeting with other Latinas who practiced Mesoamerican Indigenous traditions, including the moon ceremony that is associated with a girl’s first period. Salazar decided to write a book that incorporated this ceremony and celebrated her children’s multiethnic, multicultural backgrounds.
“I wanted to celebrate the multiethnicities that exist,” Salazar said. Salazar herself is Chicana, and her husband, Latin jazz musician John Santos, is Afro-Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean. “I wanted to celebrate the power and the connection that we as menstruators have to the moon. I wanted to celebrate so many transgender children who I am lucky enough to know in the Bay Area,” she explained.
It’s exciting for authors when their books have been published and they can publicize them in person, such as through in-person appearances in bookstores and schools. However, the pandemic has prevented this for many authors, including Salazar.
A book tour for Land of the Cranes was scheduled for 2020, but it was cancelled due to the pandemic, which affected her book sales, particularly in sales to schools. However, in the last year, Salazar has done a lot of writing — she has written three short stories; written a collection of poems about immigrants, In the Spirit of a Dream: 13 Stories of Immigrants of Color, which is illustrated by first and second generation immigrant artists and will be available in November, 2021; translated three books; edited an anthology of stories about menstruation, The Gift, written by authors of color; and is working on three additional books for Scholastic.
Aida Salazar’s college student dream of becoming a writer has been fulfilled. She knows children who have been subjected to appalling things and she is inspired to do whatever she can to “unravel some of these terrible things . . . including something that’s shameful or a taboo and that dehumanizes people. I have a definite mission to teach children and to offer children stories that are going to be helpful in some way,” she said.
Salazar’s writing celebrates the resilience and humanity of immigrants. It also paints a vivid picture of what life is like for many immigrants. In the case of Land of the Cranes, the story doesn’t have a conventional happy ending, such as Betita and her mother and father being reunited in the U.S. Betita doesn’t understand why she and her mother are being sent back to Mexico. Her mother explains that she asked the U.S. authorities to send them back to Mexico (called “voluntary deportation”) so their family can be intact once again, as this excerpt captures:
We have all suffered so much, amor,
I can’t bear for us to continue to live like this.
We need to be together again. We need to be juntos
even though I am afraid of Mexico too.