Where Language and Government Meet: A Review of Valeria Luiselli’s “Tell Me How It Ends”


This is what happened when author and essayist Valeria Luiselli asked children in immigration court why they came to the United States:

Their answers vary, but they often point to a single pull factor: reunification with a parent or another close relative who migrated to the U.S. years earlier. Other times, the answers point to push factors—the unthinkable circumstances the children are fleeing: extreme violence persecution and coercion by gangs, mental and physical abuse, forced labor, neglect, abandonment. It is not even the American Dream that they pursue, but rather the more modest aspiration to wake up from the nightmare into which they were born.

Sad, touching well researched, vivid, emotionally gritty, and ferociously brave and honest, Tell Me How it Ends is an insider’s look at immigrant children and the “problem” they are treated as in the U.S. In this expanded essay, Luiselli recounts what she experienced while doing volunteer work as a translator for child immigrants during the 2014 refugee crisis, when the number of undocumented children coming into the country alone skyrocketed. She would ask them the 40 questions that make up the official questionnaire and then record and subsequently translate their answers. The experience turned the tables on her: she became a storyteller at the mercy of the narratives she heard. Her job was to translate, but translation is always framed/contextualized, it always goes hand-in-hand with meaning, and that made her job challenging. Furthermore, she was exposed to the realities of youngsters from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala; places in which gang violence, drugs, poor infrastructure, incapable law enforcement officers, and corrupt governments have wreaked havoc on the citizens. This book collects her experiences, research, and observations, but it also offers a look at the lives of various children, a glimpse at the hell they faced back home, the one most of them face in this country, and the plethora of obstacles that countries like the U.S. and Mexico put in their way in order to keep them in their previous state.

While most of the essay deals directly with the 40 questions undocumented youngsters are asked in “the icebox” and takes place during the time the author spent volunteering, the scope of it is much larger. In fact, the current political landscape, as Luiselli points out toward the end of the book, has pushed immigration to the forefront of the discussion once again, and it has shown that the system is still broken. The voices of the children in this book are tied to a name, a family, a history. These are not examples; these are lives full of suffering that just want a chance at something better. Luiselli’s writing never becomes preachy or fully engaged with any sort of pro-immigrant discourse, but the evidence and numbers presented make a stronger case for the children than any romantic discourse the author could have constructed. Immigration is indeed a problem, but not because the country is receiving large numbers of children looking for a better life. No, the problem with immigration has been, is, and apparently will keep on being the nation’s inability to deal with it correctly. There are no easy solutions, but this essay is a great way to get some crucial information out there, both good and bad, and maybe start a conversation.

Tell Me How it Ends is not an easy read. The information provided is soul-crushing. How soul-crushing? Try this: 80% of the women who set out to cross the border are raped. No, age has nothing to do with it. While some would argue that this is an essay presenting some horrific examples, the truth is that it accomplishes much more than that; it shows, as clear as it’s ever been shown in essay form, the clash between what we understand as the American Dream and American inadequacy, fear, and racism. From the worst barrios in Honduras to the cold hallways of New York City’s federal immigration court, young undocumented immigrants are human and deserve to be treated with decency. Sadly, that’s something many countries are failing to do.

From the crisis in 2014 to the days after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Tell Me How it Ends presents a bleak picture. However, the essay is not mere finger pointing; it is a strong call to action:

The United States is a country full of holes, and Hempstead in particular is a giant shithole, as Manu says. But it’s also a place full of individuals who, out of a sense of duty toward other people, perhaps, are willing to fill those holes in one by one. There are lawyers and activists who work tirelessly to help communities that aren’t their own; there are students who, though not at all privileged, are willing to dedicate their time to those even less privileged than themselves.

Tell Me How it Ends is the kind of reading experience that rips your heart out. In this case, it throws it all the way to Central America, where it will hopefully do something to help fix the current situation and fight the current proposals to make it even worse. Luiselli has already demonstrated she’s one of the most powerful young voices in fiction, and with this book she has done the same in the realm of nonfiction. Simply put, this is required reading.


Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
by Valeria Luiselli
Coffee House Press; 128 p.

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