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In "Borderless," Guatemalan author seeks to correct misconceptions about Central American immigrants

Here & Now‘s Deepa Fernandes speaks with author Jennifer De Leon about her new young adult novel “Borderless.” The book tells the story of Maya, a young woman growing up in Guatemala, and the circumstances that force her and her mother to attempt an illegal border crossing into the United States.

The cover of “Borderless” by Jennifer De Leon. (Courtesy)

Book excerpt: ‘Borderless’

By Jennifer De Leon


As she turns the corner onto her street, she feels instantly uneasy. There is no one around. Not the tortilla lady selling her last docena of the day, or some guy on a motorcycle whispering into his girlfriend’s ear, or a tired señor coming home late from work. The avenida is empty, save for a stray dog whose ribs Maya can make out even in the dark.

A surge of relief—she is home! Then, about to unlock the door, she sees it is already open a crack. She takes a step back- ward, instantly wary—pushes the door open carefully. She hears someone laughing. Who is that? Mama would never deliberately miss Maya’s big night. They’ve both been look- ing forward to the show for two straight weeks. Mama would never—she would never miss it. . . .

“Mama?” Maya calls out hesitantly. The kitchen lights are on—and what is that strange smell? Smoke—cigarette smoke. Again, a laugh. A man. A man laughing. Not a celebratory kind of laugh, not one that has been watered with jokes or chisme or . . . This laugh scrapes her from the inside.

Maya drops her bag soundlessly. Smoke, and bottles clink- ing, and men—two?

She takes a step, then another, quietly, quietly, until she can peek around the corner into the kitchen. There, at the round table with the plastic tablecloth—the one with mother hens feeding little chicks, a pattern repeated—sits her mother.

Tied to the chair.

Two men in black masks and gray hoodies surround her. Maya fixates on one—the one gripping the gun. No, no, no. He holds it to the back of her mother’s head. Mama! Her face is wet with tears. A gag covers her mouth. Teal. Their fabric.

“Mama.” The word escapes in a tangled whisper. As if she hears, Mama glances up.

Shakes her head ever so slightly. Don’t talk. Don’t say anything. Maya briefly registers Luna whimpering somewhere, but she can’t, she can’t, look away from her mother’s face. It is her face too.


Two Weeks Earlier


Maya felt about tomorrow the way she did at the top of a roller- coaster ride, right before it dropped—she both wanted to fall, feel the wind on her face, and to hold on, hold on, before every- thing changed.

“So, mañana is the big day?” her mother asked. It was late. She leaned against the bathroom doorframe and tightened her fuzzy pink robe at the waist. Her hair was wrapped in a white towel. The smell of shampoo lingered in the air.

“Yep,” Maya said. She fluffed her pillow, trying to get com- fortable on the mattress she shared with her mother and with Luna, who was inching her way underneath the covers, tail wagging. Every evening Maya and her mother lay the mattress down on the living room floor, and every morning they lifted it back up and tucked it between the sofa and the wall. In this way, the living room became their bedroom and vice versa.

“Don’t be worried. I have a good feeling, mija,” her mother said, toothbrush in hand.

Tomorrow the director of Maya’s high school—the best fash- ion school in Guatemala—was going to announce the top ten designers of the year. These ten would then get to showcase three looks each in the annual fashion show. Two weeks from now! This was the first year Maya was even eligible; you had to be at least in your second year at the institute and be sixteen. She—finally!—was both.

“Are you worried about Lisbeth?” her mother asked before spitting out toothpaste in the sink.

“A little . . .” Maya snuggled against Luna.

Now her mother returned with a jar of Pond’s lotion. “What’s meant to be is meant to be.” Maya watched as she rubbed cream onto her cheeks. Okay—strange. That lotion was a morning smell, one that belonged next to coffee and oatmeal and folded newspaper pages on the kitchen table. Not to evening.

“Hey, what’s going on? You never shower at night.”

“Ay, mija. You have talent. And you work harder than most girls at that school.”

“And you’re changing the subject. Why are—”

“I have an early appointment. No time to shower in the morning.” Mama waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, you have real talent.”

Maya managed a small smile. It was true that she could tear a yard of fabric with nothing but a steady hand and a ruler, and she knew a dozen different hand stitches by heart. Though she preferred La Betty, her sewing machine. Tucked in the corner underneath the swaying light bulb, its loyal presence—along with Luna, who liked to sit on Maya’s feet while she sewed—kept her company whenever her mother had to work late.

Dresses were Maya’s favorite. Tops a close second. Fixing hems, shortening skirts, creating pockets, closing pockets—she could practically sew those in her sleep by the age of ten. She couldn’t afford the fancy fabrics sold in the Mercado Central in the capital, so she improvised with the scraps her mother brought home from the factory, stitching them together. Soon she began including other materials. She began using, well . . . trash. Not trash from the dump. Trash in the sense of: plastic cups, scratched CDs, tablecloths. Even crayons and playing cards. Anything and everything. So Maya’s mother enrolled her in a sewing class, and she was sold. And it was this method of hers—the pinching of this and that here, that and this there, from cotton to denim to linen, and patterns from polka dots to stripes—that became her signature style. She learned about it on Instagram—it was a whole thing. Since then, trashion has been her passion! Now she prayed it was enough to win her a spot in the fashion show.

As her mother worked the Pond’s into the creases at her neck, the steam from the bathroom glowed behind her. “I’ll finish up in a sec. You go to sleep.”

“Okay—good night.” “Good night, mija.”

Maya set the alarm on her cell phone for six thirty a.m., placed it facedown beside her, and curled into the sheets. “Besides . . .” She spoke into the darkness. “You’re right, Mama.”

“Right about what?

“If I don’t get it this year, there’s always next year.” Silence. Except for Luna snoring.

“Mama? Did you hear me? This is when you say, ‘Yes, mija, definitely.’” Maya swore she could hear her mother swallow.

“Sí, mija,” she said at last.

Well, that wasn’t exactly encouraging, Maya thought, fighting sleep. And just as she closed her eyes, she spotted a quick-moving shadow. Her mother, making the sign of the cross. Her mother. Carmen. Her only family in the world. The two of them fin- ished each other’s sentences, ate halves of the same sandwich, shared clothes, sunglasses, sneakers, sometimes makeup on special occasions. They even shared the same dream: to open their own shop one day, not just a tailor shop, but an actual label. They’d need to come up with a good name. . . .

The next thing Maya knew, it was morning. On the kitchen counter was a plateful of scrambled eggs and a slice of buttered white toast, a wicker basket full of pan dulce beside it. Her mother had already left for her appointment. Appointment for what? Maya wondered.

Excerpted from “Borderless” by Jennifer De Leon. Copyright © 2023 by Jennifer De Leon. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Provided courtesy of Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Author Jennifer De Leon. (Courtesy of Matthew Guillory)
Author Jennifer De Leon. (Courtesy of Matthew Guillory)