Nightmare Tales From Dreamers

Latino teens given voice in ‘Brave Journeys’
Erika Duncan, the founder of Herstory, which published “Brave Journeys,” hopes the collection of stories written by immigrant teens at Long Island high schools will become part of curriculums across the country. Amber Davis

“I am [name redacted], one more immigrant in this great nation. Do you want to know my story? Okay, I’ll tell you.”

It is a harrowing story of a young boy who must say goodbye to his father as he leaves his country with his mother to make a covert crossing into the United States. 

“Son, and What If I Don’t See You Again?” and 14 other equally wrenching stories, all written anonymously by students at Central Islip and Patchogue-Medford High Schools, form “Brave Journeys,” an anthology of first-person narratives of teenagers leaving home — usually a country in Central America — and crossing mountains and rivers, by bus, train, car, and on foot, often alone and always scared. 

Herstory, a writers workshop and publisher dedicated to bringing unheard voices to the public’s attention, released “Brave Journeys” last month.

Erika Duncan, an essayist, novelist, and Sag Harbor resident, founded Herstory in 1996 as a weekly workshop at the Southampton Cultural Center to help women turn their private stories into gripping ones. Two decades later, the organization has grown into an Islandwide endeavor that, through grants from various foundations as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, has published a library of books and a prototype manual and DVD tutorial that details the workshop techniques. 

The stories in “Brave Journeys” originated during an English language learners class in Central Islip High School, where Dafny Irizarry, an E.L.L. teacher in the district for 24 years, first met all but two of the students featured in the book. It was December 2016, and the group of young people had recently made their harrowing crossings into the U.S. Their pain was acutely visible, the teacher said.

“Since it was almost Christmas, I asked them to write about something that they were grateful for,” said Ms. Irizarry, who is the founder and director of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association and previously served on the Herstory board of directors. Unanimously, the students wrote about the joy of being reunited in America with a parent or loved one, she said. 

“We needed to give them a voice,” Ms. Irizarry told Ms. Duncan, although they recognized that anonymity would be necessary to protect either the children’s undocumented status or that of their families. With Helen Dorado Alessi, a Herstory-trained facilitator and translator, a weekly workshop was formed during Ms. Irizarry’s lunch period for those students whose schedules facilitated participation. During a dozen or so sessions, the stories took shape.

“Without doubt,” Ms. Irizarry writes in the epilogue of “Brave Journeys,” which will soon be available at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor, “this was my most meaningful project of the year.”

According to the International Organization for Migration, the number of migrants who died near the U.S. and Mexico border rose in 2017, as 412 migrant deaths were recorded, up from 398 a year earlier. Sixteen migrant deaths have already been recorded in the area so far in 2018.

“These are stories that moved and troubled us,” Ms. Duncan said of the 15 young authors featured in the book, “told by brave heroes who are being villainized today.” 

Their modern-day odysseys, printed in English and Spanish, serve as stark reminders of the astonishing courage and strength of many immigrant children and the exploitation of the business of border crossings, and as an indictment of immigration policy.

Here is an excerpt from “I Had to Do It,” written by a girl who left her country to be reunited with her mother, whom she had not seen in 12 years: 

“When I was 15 years old, I decided to come to the United States, because of the problems in my country and because I wished to have a better life. On the way, I suffered a lot. I never imagined it would be so hard. I walked a lot, barely ate, and suffered cold. I slept in the mountains, drank water from a puddle, which disgusted me, but if I wanted to quench my thirst, I had to do it. The only thing that gave me strength was the thought that soon I’d be with my mother.”

Many of the stories highlight painful partings with grandparents who are often the only parents these young children have known while their mothers and fathers live and work in America. Here, in “A Longed-For Reunion,” a young girl contemplates crossing the Rio Grande, which she must do the next day:

“When I’d think about having to cross the river, I’d get very scared because I’d heard that in that river many people have died. . . . ‘Run! The soldiers are coming!’ We ran out to hide. At the time, I had on sandals and couldn’t run well, so I took them off and kept running. But I felt stinging because there were thorns, but I continued until we found a place where we could hide. . . . When we got back, I began to pull out the thorns but there were so many and they hurt. A while later, the time to cross the river had come.”

Central Islip High School has been an ardent supporter and promoter of the “Brave Journeys” book, Ms. Duncan said, and Patchogue-Medford recently ordered 60 copies to use in its pre-Advanced Placement classes. But her dream, she said, “is to have the book in every high school in Long Island.” Maybe even colleges, and nationwide. 

“These children are living heroes,” Ms. Duncan said, and as such she believes that American students should be reading these stories alongside those about heroes from the Civil War and other historical events.

Indeed, in an era of hardened immigration policies, which sparked Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader of the House of Representatives, to say that “the Statue of Liberty must have tears in her eyes,” these stories can serve as a reminder to young people of a country’s shared heritage as a nation of immigrants. 

From “When the Heart and the Mind Don’t Agree,” story number 13 in the book: “That’s how I came to say ‘goodbye’ to great parts of my life. The day I left my country I realized our souls are made of glass — as I looked at my country’s streets one last time, I could hear inside how my soul and heart shattered to pieces.”