by Rosayra Pablo Cruz and Julie Schwietert Collazo
HarperOne, 2020, 256 pp; $24.83 (hardcover)Buy Book
The Book of Rosy: A Mother’s Story of Separation at the Border begins as a personal story of an indomitable mother. Rosayra (Rosy) Pablo Cruz is determined to get two of her children, sons Yordy and Fernando, to safety and a better life in the United States. She also faces the agonizing decision to leave daughters, Dulce and Britney, behind in the care of her mother. Written in two parts, Part One is in the words of asylum seeker Rosayra (Rosy) Pablo Cruz, as told to Julie Schwietert Collazo, co-founder of Immigrant Families Together. Part Two is Julie’s story of how she went from being a writer, editor, and translator to a fundraiser and activist leading a grassroots group reuniting and caring for families separated at the border.
Anyone questioning the forces driving the number of undocumented migrants toward the US/Mexico border need only read The Book of Rosy. The story is intimate and immersive. As I delved into Rosy’s account, I felt as if we were two new friends sitting across from each other at one of those wobbly square tables at a coffee shop; her speaking to me in a hushed tone for privacy, and me leaning in to not miss a word of her harrowing journey, fighting the urge to put my hand on hers to both comfort her and steel myself for the details as she let them unfold.
In an unflinching account, she describes the crime, the gang violence, the constant threats of violence in her Guatemalan community, the assault on her life, the murder of her husband, and the fear that her children could be next.
Life is like this in Guatemala. Once the wheels of violence are set in motion, they don’t stop. They keep rolling forward. The engine may idle for a while, but the terrible machine will eventually keep plowing on, and it doesn’t care who stands in its path; it rolls over you with impunity. Once you are in its sights, you can do little—maybe nothing—to save yourself . . . unless you see a door and you run through it.
The door for Rosy and her young sons is what is known as the “Migrant Highway.” It is a heavily traveled section of many Central Americans’ journey northward, the two-lane road between her hometown and the last town before crossing from northwestern Guatemala into Mexico. Rosy takes us inside of a safe house, the first leg of the journey, where asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—women and men, children and babies—are crowded into a single room. We are there with her in a truck careening down the road for the journey that takes eight days and nights—2,300 miles—in which passengers are packed in, the heat suffocating and the smells oppressive, where threats of roadblocks, hijackers, and rapists are always present.
The asylum seekers are commonly switched from truck to truck along the way. At one point during this process, Rosy is separated from Yordy, which terrifies her.
A second truck pulls up, and it is our turn to crowd into the vehicle. I scramble into the truck bed with Fernando and turn to see that Yordy is being assigned to a third truck, which will be filled with men only. I don’t want to be separated from him, but there is no chance to protest this decision. Everyone is squished into the truck, the human equivalent of chicken or cattle you see crowded into crates or pens and loaded onto trucks to be shipped from the farm to the slaughterhouse.
At the immigrant processing center in the Arizona desert, Rosy is allowed to keep Fernando with her when they are moved to a cell, but Yordy is sent to another. Her insistence to the officer that both sons be allowed to stay with her is refused. Three days later she sees Yordy. Her mixture of relief and anguish comes through in her words.
Seventy-two hours can feel like a lifetime, especially when you’re sitting in a cold cell, anxious and afraid, with nothing to do but think. We spot each other through a window, our eyes meeting. I am so desperate to hold him, to embrace him, but I can’t. So, I just ask God to give us the strength to overcome this excruciatingly painful moment.
Rosy doesn’t know it at the time, but more pain is to come as the separation process becomes even lengthier. Along the way, mother and sons will face the hard task of trying to rebuild bonds that have become fractured and to realign the family hierarchy that has shifted during the immigration process.
At one point, Rosy seems to be speaking directly to individuals who question why asylum seekers pursue that route in the first place. Rosy states that most people don’t want to leave the land where they were born, and if they believed that they would be safe at home, they would never set off on such a journey.
An additionally appealing aspect of the book—during this era in which cultural appropriation in literature has been the source of much discussion and controversy—is that The Book of Rosy is an #ownvoices story of immigration, written about a marginalized community by a person from that marginalized community.
In Part Two of the book, Julie recounts her journey in helping Rosy, once she reaches the US, through her foundation, Immigrant Families Together. Julie’s story of raising funds to post bonds for mothers and for foster care centers that take in children separated at the border, as well as the support she provides for Rosy and her sons, illustrates the impact that generous people—typically strangers to those they are helping—have on the lives of individuals escaping hardship. While the writing is compelling, as the book switched to Julie’s section, I was longing to hear more of Rosy’s journey in the US from her point of view.
The Book of Rosy is a quick read filled with moments of heartbreak, terror, joy, and triumph. The most painful moments in the story were when Rosy was separated from her children. The book left me feeling empathy for not only Rosy and her children, but for the countless others who have made that journey north to escape from conditions that are not only unbearable for themselves and their loved ones, but life-threatening. This book crystallizes the impact of immigration policy on a micro level and brings humanity to the immigration story.