Left in America: The Story of Juan Terrazas by Sally Salas.
Left in America Organization, Dallas, Texas, 2015.
Biography, 219 pages.
The story of an undocumented child who was left behind when his parents were deported at 14 years old, including his struggles with homelessness and journey to Christianity.
The book is clearly self-published but a good effort was made to make it standard. My copy had a few formatting errors, and some photos were blurred or pixelated, including the back cover. The back matter consists of one quote which might be about the book (it isn’t quite clear) and lacks a standard blurb.
I assume that there is a Spanish language edition of this as well, since the chapters are titled in English and Spanish. The 43 chapters mostly alternate between Juan and Sally. The first few go back and forth, and I was irritated at Sally’s explanation of why she was writing this book. I wasn’t opposed to the inclusion of the information, but bothered by what felt like an extended disclaimer.
The transparency about the roles of Juan and his biographer was also lacking. Each chapter has a name assigned to it and they are written from the first-person perspective of that person. But Sally Salas is the only author listed. Obviously she worked with Juan somehow Did Salas interview him (as she describes doing with his parents) and then write the entire book? Or did he write portions that were edited and compiled by Salas?
The main text is proceeded by a foreword from Ed Blair, who manages the Left In America foundation that drove the creation of this book. The main story ends on page 185, and is followed by a big selection of “Juan’s Quotes & Poems” from 2008 to 2014, a selection of photographs from 2006 to 2011 (the rest of the book includes photos from other times), and several other short snippets. The first selection felt like padding and would probably have been more appropriate on the book’s website or elsewhere. The very end has an important update on a major event that happened in 2015. I would guess that these portions were added at some point as the book was worked on by various people.
One of the big strengths of this book and a feature that will make it more appealing to young people is the variety of photographs scattered throughout. It is such a big help in this kind of nonfiction to see a well-placed picture of who or what you’re reading about as you are reading about it. A few of the pictures could have been formatted better or scanned at a higher resolution, but they were correctly done, complementing but not overwhelming the text.
Although this text could be inspiring to middle school students, I would generally recommend it to high school and above due to some of the content. (Spoilers and trigger warnings for the rest of this paragraph.) Juan deals with family addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, desperate poverty, living amidst drug use, spousal abuse, and suicidal thoughts. He also perpetrates some abuse against his sister, culminating in an incident on page 92 where he hits his sister and is called out as following his father’s pattern. This is a life-changing moment for him and I greatly admire his bravery in sharing it with the world. These events and incidents are not glamorized, and the book may still be appropriate for individual students, classes, or libraries. But I would hesitate to generally suggest it for students under 13 given the scope, variety, and seriousness of difficult topics involved.
Juan is darker-skinned with curly hair that could be mistaken for an afro, and during his time alone in America, he leaned in to that heavily. People frequently thought he was either black or mixed, so he tried to stop speaking Spanish and avoid anything stereotypically Hispanic. This was surprising and eye-opening for me, but makes sense for an illegal immigrant near the Texas border.
While the book only gets preachy at a few points that could mostly be skipped, it’s important to note that this is an explicitly Christian book. Juan credits God with his successes and blames himself for his failures. Church and his inner religious life are a main driving force as he attempts to find stable housing, get a job, and graduate with four years at the same high school. He doesn’t belong to a specific group but was heavily involved with two nondenominational churches and several different ministries. Both the religion and the practical assistance provided (starting with Vacation Bible School as a child) clearly made a huge difference in his life.
Definitely an interesting read. I could see teens reading this in youth group or at a Christian high school. The short chapters and mostly snappy pace with a great deal of drama encourage the reader to keep moving – I was able to finish this in a day.
Left in America could also be of interest to adults who work in this type of ministry or are looking for an illegal immigation/DACA memoir with a Christian spin. Despite the flaws, I enjoyed this quick read. However, there are other similar books that I’d recommend first, especially for readers wanting a secular story.