Six Bridges Book Festival: Ernesto Cisneros

Middle-Grade Novel of Immigrant Family Separation Shows Wonder Years Disrupted

When you’re in seventh grade, it’s a big deal when your best friend decides to run for student body president. Only eighth graders usually do that. Naturally, Efrén is going to stand behind his friend. And all the other stuff in life, well, that’s just something you’re used to. If your parents work too hard and it worries you sometimes, and your whole family lives in a small apartment, well, it’s going to be okay as long as there’s lots of love, your Amá makes great sopes and your little brother and sister are funny and happy.

Until one day, your Amá doesn’t come home.

Efrén Divided

In Efrén Divided, a debut middle-grade novel by Ernesto Cisneros, Efrén Nava’s “wonder years” are suddenly derailed by the deportation of his mother to Mexico by ICE federal agents.

Throughout the narrative, Cisneros strikes a skillful and realistic balance between the humor and spontaneity of early adolescence and the heart-wrenching anxiety of losing one’s family. With 24 years of teaching behind him, Cisneros has plenty of experience to help him create convincing young characters. It’s easy to see why such a timely, poignant, and inspiring manuscript was snapped up by a major publisher.

Cisneros is humble about his achievement. After unsuccessfully seeking publication for 14 years as an aspiring YA novelist writing about high school characters, he had all but given up. But writing a small story for his own children turned his publishing journey around.

“My kids wanted me to write something that they could read, because the YA fiction was too edgy for them at their younger age,” Cisneros said. “At that point, I had kind of given up on publishing, but I wanted them to see their culture in a book, so I wrote this story for them.”

Children encourage their father’s publishing dreams

His children surprised him with their reaction to Efrén Divided.

“They told me it was the best story they had ever read, and at first I thought that was just because I’m their dad. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized their reaction was based on seeing themselves in a story and connecting to a familiar culture in a very deep way.”

Still unsure of himself, Cisneros told his agent that he had a new middle-grade story he had written for his kids, not knowing if his agent would like it or not.

“But as soon as she read it, she said, ‘We have to pitch it!’” Cisneros related.

Two weeks later, Cisneros had an offer of a contract from Harper Collins.

“I still wake up and ask myself, did this really happen?” Cisneros said.

“It’s amazing how much support the book has been able to garner,” he said. “To me, this was just a quiet little story about Mexican Americans, but I have had messages from people across the country and from different backgrounds telling me how much the novel meant to them. I’m still astonished by it.”

Inspired by real events and a desire to heal

The story strikes a chord with readers in a nation where many are hurt by the separation of immigrant families, especially the children involved. The plot grew out of Cisneros’s own experience with anti-immigrant rhetoric and a search to help young people learn to value themselves even during a storm of negative public debate.

“I started working on this novel during the 2016 elections, and the story developed with the events of the following years.” Cisneros said. “During the elections, some people felt empowered to speak negatively about immigrants. As a child, I grew up internalizing a lot of those negative feelings, and they had given me a sense of disentitlement. I felt I wasn’t worth as much as others around me. I wanted to write something for my children and my students that showed them the importance of our families and the value of our culture.”

His personal experience took an even more painful turn when he saw some of his students go through the deportation experience.

“In my classroom, I saw students who had parents deported in the middle of the year, and I saw the impact on the students and how they did in school,” Cisneros said. “And it made me think that as teachers, we need to do a better job of supporting our students when there’s something that big happening in their lives.”

Encouraging young people to reach out in their communities

Some of the novel’s most moving moments are those when Efrén is afraid to tell anyone that his mother is gone or what has happened to her.

“It took a long time to be able to figure out for myself that the problem is silence and feeling alone,” Cisneros said.

In Cisneros’s own classroom, he tried to encourage his students to reach out for help.

“I kept a Blue Box in the back of the classroom where a student who was feeling blue could stick a blue index card and write something on it.” Cisneros said. “One student left a note to ask to speak to me after school, and he then told me his dad had been deported.”

In the face of such a devastating event, Cisneros could not come up with an answer. “I didn’t know what to tell him. I didn’t know what help I could offer.”

“Afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would want to tell students in that position,” Cisneros said. “I finally realized that I want those students to know that they do have people they can turn to, like the characters of Mrs. Solomon, or Mr. Garrett. I want the students to know that they are not alone—that they don’t have to struggle in silence—that there is support in the community.”

Cisneros’s “simple” little story turns out to be not simple at all, but instead unflinchingly honest—the most complex story a writer can tell. The unfiltered truth as seen by a young person is the reason why young characters have often anchored some of the most profound stories we know: To Kill a MockingbirdThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A model of resilience for youth

True to his story to the finish, Cisneros does not wrap up the ends in a tidy and painless bow to make everyone feel better. Instead, he finds a stronger answer for his young readers—one that respects pain and a need for resilience that doesn’t stop when the pages of the book close.

Cisneros knew that his ending had to be the truthful one, not the tidy one.

“That’s how it is in the real world,” he said. “So I had to ask, how could I empower these students? And the answer was to show that they can be activists for their parents and help support their families and community.”

To hear more about author Ernesto Cisneros, his connection to his neighborhood, and the way his middle-grade students encouraged him in his writing efforts, catch him at the Six Bridges Book Festival.

 Ernesto Cisneros was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he still teaches. He holds an English degree from the University of California – Irvine, a teaching credential from California State University – Long Beach, and an MFA in creative writing from National University. As an author, he believes in providing today’s youth with an honest depiction of characters with whom they can identify. The real world is filled with amazing people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. His work strives to reflect that.

Feature by Rosslyn Elliott