2018 / Lauren Markham

Lauren Markham, the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, is the 2018 recipient of The Ridenhour Book Prize.

In The Far Away Brothers, Markham tells the story of identical twin brothers, Ernesto and Raúl Flores, who grew up in rural El Salvador in the aftermath of that country’s civil war.

When seventeen-year-old Ernesto is threatened by brutal gangs in the region, the brothers flee to California to build new lives. Markham follows them on their harrowing journey — across the Rio Grande, through the Texas desert, into the hands of immigration authorities and, ultimately, to their older brother’s custody in Oakland.
In Markham’s important look at contemporary immigration and the migrant experience, she provides a nuanced portrait of Central America’s child exodus and critiques American immigration policy.

The twins, while working to pay their coyote debt, navigate a new language, a new school, and appear before a judge in immigration court — all while facing the triumphs and pitfalls of life as American teenagers.

Markham, a Northern-California based writer and reporter, is a contributing editor to VQR  who primarily covers youth, migration, youth, the environment, her home state of California, among topics. Her essays, fiction and journalism have appeared in outlets including as The GuardianOrionGuernicaHarper’sThe New Republic, and VQR, where she is a Contributing Editor. ​In addition to writing, she works at a high school for immigrant youth in Oakland, California.

2018 Book Prize Speeches

Transcript of the Truth-Telling speeches:

KATE DOYLES:  Thank you Danielle, and thank you all. Lauren Markham’s wonderful, wonderful book, The Faraway Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life chronicles the story of two brothers, twin brothers, traveling the arduous passage between two countries, twinned in the telling, El Salvador and El Norte, the United States. 

Along the way, they passed through all the stations of the border cross that you think you know, the hasty leave-taking from a home become too dangerous to survive. The perilous journey into the unknown, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, always onward, always northward. The painstaking saving of money, the inevitable assault and robbery of the same money. Rafting across the Rio Grande, the vast landscapes on the other side, capture, detention, and the kindness of strangers, lawyers, and schoolteachers who helped them make their lives.

But what makes Markham’s book extraordinary and powerful and a righteous and worthy recipient of the Ridenhour Book Prize, is her decision to immerse herself in the lives of Ernesto and Raul, these two children from El Salvador, who become part of the waves of tens of thousands of children from Central America, that wash over the borders, desperately seeking safety and life, children’s lives. Her granular reporting creates very tight[?] scenes that linger in your mind after you close the book.

The ones that stick with me, for example, a boy who agreed to allow himself to be tied in a sack and thrown over the wall. He landed between the feet of two border agents, but somehow managed to scrabble himself out of the sack and run away and escape. A coyote, far from being the cliché of the greedy, heartless human trafficker, who has a maternal streak, and texts the boys’ encouraging words, urging them on when they get lost in the American desert. Or the young lawyer, patiently explaining the legal status to a group of seven, eight, and nine year olds imprisoned in a US immigration detention center. 

Her book is filled with those and many other unimaginable scenes, pictures of a catastrophe on two sides of the border, and how the legacy of the US supported violence and failed policies helped create and continue to fuel the disaster in Central America that drove them. It’s an enormous tale to tell. But she captures it through the lives of these two boys, in this tender and astonishing book. Please help me welcome Lauren Markham to the stage.

LAUREN MARKHAM:  Thank you so much to all of you for being here. Thank you so much to Kate for that incredibly warm and generous introduction and your kind words about my book. I also want to thank the Nation Institute, the Ridenhour Prize, and the Fertel Foundation, and Randy, for bringing us all together, and for making this possible, and just for honoring my book. This is my first book, and I’m completely overwhelmed with gratitude. And I’m also kind of star struck to be recognized here with the authors and truth tellers that I have long admired. So this is kind of astounding for me.

Almost exactly four years ago, I began working on the initial proposal for this book. I had been reporting on unaccompanied minors who are young people and mostly from Central America, who cross into our country without papers or their parents. And I had been reporting on that for several years. There had been a rapid increase in this number, as we all know now. At the time, no one was really writing about it though. This was before 2014. 

In addition to my work as a writer, I work at a public school in Oakland, California, where I oversee support services for students and families. All of a sudden, and this came as a total surprise to me then, but really in retrospect shouldn’t have, a coworker walked into my office and said, “We really have to do something about all of these kids at our school who have court dates and who need lawyers.” And I sort of like, “What?” I was totally stunned. 

It turned out that, while I had been reporting on this issue all around the country, the number of these kids that ended up at my school, at that point, out of a school of 400, there were 60 unaccompanied minors. Today we have 137 at the school. So this crisis was happening right at my doorstep as well, which again, looking back, is not surprising. My work as a writer and as an educator suddenly converged. 

So later in 2014, a couple months after I had—after these students, we sort of realized all these students were at my school, this issue hit the airways. And then, as these things happened, it suddenly disappeared. And I said this last night. But funnily enough, I had this idea for a book. But my biggest fear was that, by the time my book was actually published, unaccompanied minors and issues of youth migration would feel like yesterday’s news. And no one would be talking or caring about young migrants in the national media. Wow. Couldn’t have been more wrong about that, unfortunately.

Today, migration is being weaponized, and not just here in our country, but all over the globe. That is troubling and something we need to be paying attention to. I’m so honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this book and to do my part to truth-tell about something that I came to know about. I also learned that writing, in the process of writing this book, that the notion of authorial brilliance is a total sham. Don’t believe the hype. Books are written in partnership. And while the authors get credit for the finished product, so many other people contribute along the way.

My amazing editor, Megan Houser, can she stand up? She’s here. I don’t know where she is. [applause] She’s right there! She completely made this book happen and made it come true. And of course, she’s just such an amazing, loving editor, and so brilliant. And also the Flores family who I wrote about, they were really the partners in writing this book. And they are incredibly courageous and brave for allowing themselves to be written about.

The awards we’re here to celebrate today are about truth-telling, courage, and in the spirit of the work and life of the great Ron Ridenhour. We often tend to think about courage and truth-telling as most relevant and most important during moments of crisis. And it certainly feels like we’re in several intersecting, overlapping moments of crisis today. People mobilize around crisis and environmental disaster that goes systemically ignored, a repressive government regime taking action against young people. A national reckoning of sexual abuse and harassment. Or a reckless leader voted into power. These things wake us up and call us into action.
But I’ve sort of learned, mostly through the young people I work with, that we have to be careful not to be like barracuda, drawn to the shiny, glinting thing of the moment. And then, once the other next blinding crisis emerged, to kind of forget what came before, and follow that. I think the real courage is about seeing not just the great glaring injustice of crises, but the pernicious injustices of the everyday. 

That’s how we might stop crises from happening in the first place, paying attention, as Tanara Burke has logged onto the systemic abuse of women’s minds and bodies, that’s embedded deeply in our culture, paying attention as Mayor Cruz does each day to the fact that an estimated 96 percent of her island of Puerto Rico is still without power, and watching as Joe Piscatella does, for young people who refuse to accept the everyday injustices of their world.

Like I said, the young men I write about in this book are tremendously courageous. At the age of 17, they were forced out of their home. They got to the United States with no lawyer, no money, no English, no home, no parents, no sense of what would happen to them. And they kept at it every single day, in spite of all of these injustices and bearing them.

It’s easy to talk about what’s happening now in El Salvador as a crisis, because it is one. But crisis makes it sound sudden and unpredictable, like an earthquake or a storm. But today’s crisis in El Salvador is a direct outgrowth of the crisis in the ‘80s during the civil war, and all of the horrors that happened during that time, and that the US government happened to fund and support. 

So it’s easy for—It was so easy for so many of us, after the peacekeeping efforts that happened, to sort of ignore El Salvador and to stop paying attention, because it was no longer a crisis. But if more of us had been paying attention in the decades that followed the civil war, to the daily injustices and suffering, the poverty, the corruption, the environmental catastrophes, unemployment, family cleavings, community trauma, most people bore these quietly every day and invisibly to the rest of the world.

And if we’d been paying attention, today’s gang crisis might not have happened. I wish I had been paying more attention during that time, and this prize and my fellow winners inspire me to do that in the future. Thank you so much.