The Secret Side of Empty
Written by Maria E. Andreu
Philadelphia: RP Teens, 2014, 332 pp.
Monserrat Thalia, known by her friends as M.T. or M, has a secret—one that she has kept from her closest friends since kindergarten. M.T. is an “illegal,” a term she uses to describe her status in the United States and the reason for her unhappiness and lack of a future. She is an undocumented immigrant from Argentina and resides with her parents and little brother, Jose, in the United States. M.T. does her best to pass as an Anglo-American. She is light-skinned with light brown hair and a very successful high school student who earns straight A’s in all of her college prep and AP classes. However, M.T. questions her future because she cannot go to college, as all of her friends will be doing at the end of the school year. And, the only work she can do without being discovered is the low wage labor that her mother and father do—cleaning, sewing, and kitchen work in restaurants.
M.T.’s family came to the U.S. when she was too young to recall the family’s move from Argentina and so her culture, language, and expectations have been Americanized. When she and her abusive father argue, her Americanization becomes a point of contention. What would happen to her if she and her family were deported to a country she doesn’t know? The semi-autobiographical story is Maria Andreu’s debut novel. Andreu was born in Spain and lived in Argentina for two years. At the age of eight, she and her family emigrated to the U.S. without documentation.
Andreu is deeply connected to many of the problems and feelings that M.T. experiences. However, Andreu tells us in the Author’s Notes that M.T. takes on a life of her own as a character in this novel. M.T. not only has to negotiate her legal status but also her abusive father and considerations of suicide when she sees no future options. The conflicts that arise with her father and her immigration status are complex. Her father’s unfulfilled dreams for prosperity and the opportunity for a better life for his family have turned him into something of a monster. Ironically, it was the birth of M.T. that drove her father to pursue a new financial realty in the United States so that he could be a better provider for his family, especially M.T.. His depression about the slipping away of his dream, his inability to be anything more than a “secret,” and his building resentment of M.T. and her identification with all that is American, has created a diasporic nightmare.
Dispersion is one aspect of being a member of a diaspora. Although they do not participate as members of an Argentina community, they do represent a group living outside its ‘homeland’ (Brubaker, 2005). The novel does foreground a split between the parents and M.T. and her little brother. Both parents grew up in Argentina and maintain cultural memories of their homeland. On the other hand, M.T. and her little brother do not have these memories. Their identity is embedded in American culture, creating a problematic division between M.T. and her parents, particularly her father. Although the father resists cultural assimilation, this appears to be due to the loss of confidence in his ability to provide adequately for his family and the humiliation he feels in living a ‘secret’ life. The children, on the other hand, want nothing more than to move on with their lives in the only country they know–the United States. The family, then, is torn. The parents fit Brubaker’s criteria for belonging to a diaspora. Their cultural memory is still intact. M.T. is an immigrant without a cultural memory of the country where she was born. And, her little brother, born in the United States, is legally an American. This division within the family creates another interesting dilemma in the story, which is never resolved because of its complexity.
How does one assimilate into the country, especially as an “illegal,” and maintain the cultural roots of his/her homeland? In The Secret Side of Empty, Andreu explores how immigration has created different conflicts for each member of the family. M.T. is certain that she never wants to go to Argentina; she has nothing in common with the culture, language, and family that she left behind as a very young girl. Her little brother was born in the United States and so the deportation of any or all of his family members would leave him with an even more uncertain future. The mother misses her family in Argentina and sobs when she tells them that she will not be returning “home.” The father is conflicted because if he is deported, not only will this present problems for his family, but he will be reminded of his failure knowing that he will not have an opportunity to be visit the United States legally.
The novel is a remarkable story that leaves the reader wondering how s/he would negotiate a secret life as an undocumented immigrant. And, then there will be readers who live this scenario and know all too well what would happen if their secret is revealed. Andreu knows M.T.’s story and, as previously mentioned, was an “illegal” from Argentina when she was a young girl. In 1986, the Immigration Control and Reform Act put her on “a path to eventual citizenship” and changed her life “in every way imaginable” (Andreu, 2014, p. 331). It would be interesting to find out the extent to which The Dream Act, signed into law on August 13, 2012, influenced Andreu’s decision to write The Secret Side of Empty, a novel that has the potential to empower young readers to see options rather than closed doors.
This novel could be paired with Ask Me No Questions (Marina Budhos, 2007), the story of an undocumented Bangladeshi family who face difficult challenges in the U.S. after the tragedy of 9/11. Another possibility is Gloria Anzaldúa’s Friends from the Other Side (1993), a bilingual picture book about a Mexican-American girl who befriends a Mexican boy and his mother after they cross the Rio Grande River. Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (2009) addresses issues related to undocumented immigrants, posing challenging situations for the characters who rethink their own initial perspectives and reconsider the realities of immigration.
Brubaker, R. (2005). The ‘diaspora’ diaspora. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 28 (1), pp. 1-19.
Deborah Dimmett, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ