A detail of the cover illustration for "Land of the Cranes" by Aida Salazar. Credit: Scholastic Inc.

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In her new book, “Land of the Cranes,” Oakland-based author Aida Salazar addresses the horrors of family separation at the border and what goes on inside immigration detention centers through the eyes of a nine-year-old protagonist, Betita.

Salazar began writing the book in March 2018 just as President Trump was ramping up his attacks on immigrant communities. “[Oakland Mayor] Libby Schaaf had just announced that ICE was going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Salazar recalled. “Sanctuary cities were under attack by the Trump Administration.”

Around that same time, Salazar was struck by the tragic news of a couple who crashed their car and died while fleeing immigration agents in the Central Valley city of Delano, where there is a large immigrant farm worker community. “They left behind six U.S citizen orphans,” Salazar said. “That story was very much alive in my heart, and the fact that our community was being terrorized—I felt this very deeply.”

About 30 pages into writing the first draft of “Land of Cranes,” Salazar said, “I felt like Betita was in the room with me, telling me what she was experiencing.” A week later, Salazar had already plotted the entire premise of the book.  As she continued writing, Trump was making headlines for his “zero-tolerance” immigration policies. The U.S. Department of Justice began to criminally prosecute people crossing the border illegally, adults arriving with minors were separated and charged with unlawful entry, and their children were taken from them. The new policy was meant to deter immigrants from coming into the United States. Close to 3,000 children were separated from their parents.  

In her new book, “Land of the Cranes,” Oakland-based author Aida Salazar addresses the horrors of family separation at the border and what goes on inside immigration detention centers. Credit: Roy Robles

Salazar, who is formerly undocumented and lived in Los Angeles in the 1990s, is no stranger to the issues she explores in her new book. “I was a pretty vocal activist in L.A.,” she said. At the time, Pete Wilson was governor and his administration supported several anti-immigrant policies, including the controversial Proposition 187, which voters approved in 1994. The law, which was deemed unconstitutional and never went into effect, would have prohibited undocumented Californians from using non-emergency health care, attending public schools, and accessing other public services. “We were trying to combat how those terms like ‘illegal’ were weaponized, the hatred that was weaponized against us,” said Salazar.

In “Land of the Cranes,” readers follow Betita as she copes with her father’s deportation and the anguish of her pregnant mother. The book is written in verse, giving readers a glimpse into what the young girl is feeling as her family is broken up.

Why would ICE take my papi?

He only works.

Hurts nobody.

Will they make him go back

To the mountain where

mean men can hurt him?

Back to an abuelita Lola

whose soft wrinkles

we aren’t supposed to know?

“Because the book was written for children, I tried to use poetry and my craft as a writer to really embody the voice and perspective of a child,” Salazar said.

Betita’s poems lament her separation from her father and describe her and her mom’s eventual incarceration in a detention center. The poems are also used to describe why families flee their home countries, and how they navigate being undocumented.

He talks with a mouthful of food

From the side of his mouth

About how the prophecy says

One day

We will fly back home and croon, cry and build

Our nests in the place we once left.

He says all of us cranes

Are giving the prophecy life.

Salazar wanted younger readers to understand why people leave their homes behind in search of a better future, and how these migrations of people are normal and natural, like the flight of birds. “I used the metaphor of the cranes because, as children, we like to believe in things that are more powerful than us,” she said. “In this case, the migration of people and the right to migrate freely.” 

Using verse was also a way to convey a difficult subject matter to a younger audience. “There’s a lot of [blank] space around some of the heavier poems,” she said, “because we need that space to recover [from what we just read.]”

Although “Land of the Cranes” is fiction, Salazar relied on stories written by journalists covering the Trump Administration’s immigration policies to develop the story of Betita and her family.

Salazar also wanted to avoid turning the book into what she calls “immigrant porn”—depictions of suffering that don’t serve a purpose beyond entertainment, or which do as much harm as good. “I didn’t interview any children in detention centers out of respect,” she said. “I knew that these kids had experienced such extreme trauma that I didn’t feel qualified nor justified to ask them about their trauma.”

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Earlier this year, many authors and journalists in the Latinx community heavily criticized the book “American Dirt” by author Jeanine Cummings for how the story of immigrants crossing the border was written. Critics felt the book was inaccurate, that it appropriated culture and experience, and was filled with harmful stereotypes. Critics also noted that Cummings is not an immigrant herself and has no personal connection to what the undocumented community goes through. Some characterized “American Dirt” as an example of “trauma porn,” similar to the “immigrant porn” Salazar wanted to avoid creating.

Salazar is no longer planning an in-person book tour because of the pandemic. But she will be promoting the release through Booklandia, an Oakland bilingual book subscription and box service where readers can place orders for “Land of the Cranes.” She also has a virtual fall book tour set to begin on September 17 and culminating on December 5. 

Despite the pain caused by the U.S. immigration system and conveyed in her book, Salazar wants the story to fill readers with hope. “I wasn’t interested in creating a victimizing narrative,” she said, “but one that created action and activism.”

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Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.