Where We Come From

Where We Come From

by Oscar Cásares


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A stunning and timely novel about a Mexican-American family in Brownsville, Texas, that reluctantly becomes involved in smuggling immigrants into the United States.

From a distance, the towns along the U.S.-Mexican border have dangerous reputations—on one side, drug cartels; on the other, zealous border patrol agents—and Brownsville is no different. But to twelve-year-old Orly, it's simply where his godmother Nina lives—and where he is being forced to stay the summer after his mother's sudden death.

For Nina, Brownsville is where she grew up, where she lost her first and only love, and where she stayed as her relatives moved away and her neighborhood deteriorated. It's the place where she has buried all her secrets—and now she has another: she's providing refuge for a young immigrant boy named Daniel, for whom traveling to America has meant trading one set of dangers for another. 

Separated from the violent human traffickers who brought him across the border and pursued by the authorities, Daniel must stay completely hidden. But Orly's arrival threatens to put them all at risk of exposure.

Tackling the crisis of U.S. immigration policy from a deeply human angle, Where We Come From explores through an intimate lens the ways that family history shapes us, how secrets can burden us, and how finding compassion and understanding for others can ultimately set us free.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525655435
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 472,376
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Oscar Cásares is the author of Brownsville, a collection of stories that was an American Library Association Notable Book, and the novel Amigoland. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copernicus Society of America, and the Texas Institute of Letters. Originally from Brownsville, he now lives in Austin with his family and teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Where We Come From

Orly’s dad packed the Suburban on a Saturday morning. Alex had left for camp the day before, the bus departing from the Methodist church parking lot down the street. For Orly’s dad this would be only an overnight trip, 725 miles down and back, because after he drove back to Houston he had to fly out to San Francisco two days later. He considered putting Orly on a direct flight to Brownsville, but thought they could use some father-son time, especially with Orly still wondering why he couldn’t just stay in Houston. When they were done bringing all their bags out to the car, his dad told him to ride up front with him.

“But Mom said I had to wait until I was a teenager.”

“It doesn’t look like there’s any room in the back, buddy.” His dad had tossed the bags in the backseat instead of in the cargo space in the very back of the Suburban, where they usually stored the luggage. “Plus it’s a long ride. I could use the company.”

“She always said it was against the law for me to sit in the front and we might get in trouble.”

“Not really,” he said, “and you already look thirteen to me.” He mussed Orly’s hair in that way he did when he meant to say it was a private joke, some caper between the two of them.

Until that grayish Tuesday afternoon when he learned she died from one, Orly had never heard of an aneurysm. It was already weird, their dad picking him up after school two hours late when it should’ve been Maribel picking him up on time. Alex was in the car and still sweaty from his basketball practice.

This was the day their mom was supposed to be moving into her townhouse.

Oct. 4: Mom moving to Condo.
There it was on the dry-erase board for everyone to see when they were at the refrigerator getting a cheese stick or filling their water bottles at the dispenser; she’d even peeled off the magnetic stickers to Vincent’s Doggy Daycare and the poison control center so they could see her note more clearly on the board. After the first or second week, though, the words had become more of a blur to him, seen but not read, recognized but no longer processed, no different from a reminder about an upcoming chimney sweep visit or Pepe’s heartworm pills. It didn’t help that she had run out of room to write “townhouse” and instead had settled for calling it a condo, when all along she had only called it a townhouse. There were probably similarities between townhouses and con­dos, sure, but in his mind he associated the word “condo” with the times they had gone as a family to the beach, which were fun and worth remembering and he knew this condo wasn’t going to be either of those.

Her notes usually ended with two exclamation points, but in this case, because it wasn’t exactly a happy day, not like a birth­day or anniversary, she had settled for underlining her words. Underlining wasn’t the same as exclaiming; underlining meant this is important, don’t forget because sooner or later this is com­ing around and you’ll want to remember it; an exclamation point meant PAY ATTENTION because something’s about to hap­pen, something you’ll probably regret missing for a long time. And so yes, as soon as his mom had mentioned it that morning Orly remembered the date, of course, even if he tried to act like he thought it was next month or at the end of the summer, and anyway by then she’d pulled up to the front of the car line and Mr. Domínguez, who happened to be on traffic-control duty that morning, opened Orly’s door and said, “¡Buenos días, Orly!” in his chipper voice and waited for him to exit, as did the other two dozen cars behind them. From there, his mom had rushed back to the house to wait for the movers, who were the ones who found her passed out next to the boxes she’d been storing in the garage. Weeks earlier she had started taking the packing boxes out of the house so Alex and Orly wouldn’t have to see what they already knew but didn’t want to believe.

Their father had planned to wait until they were home before telling the boys anything, but with the summer heat and stop-and-go traffic and the tightness in his chest building like it would only be harder to say the longer it took to finally circle into their driveway and sit them down in the living room, he instead pulled into the first open parking lot he saw. He undid his seat belt so he could turn around and face them, then signaled for them to turn off their devices and remove their headphones, but told them not to open the doors because they weren’t getting out.

Then why pull into Star Pizza? For as long as the boys could remember and way before their parents ever mentioned separat­ing, they used to come here as a family on those Friday nights when Maribel had the night off. It was the place they used to order the garlic bread from, with the deep-dish pizza that Alex used to get all over his shirt, the place that looks like an old house and has tiny restrooms, with the busboy who looks like their cousin Eloy, only older and with a gold tooth, where their parents sometimes let the kids sit outside on the patio while the grown-ups ate inside looking at their phones. Why that place?

“I need to tell you something sad that happened today.”

Orly’s hand shot up. “You got a new job and we’re all moving somewhere else together?”

“No, it has to do with our family, with Mom.”

“She changed her mind and isn’t moving out?” Alex said.

“Why would that be sad?” Orly asked.

“I’m just saying. Maybe he’s the one moving out now.”

“But Mom said she had to be the one or else it might not happen.”

“Just let me finish, okay? Me first, then you.” Their dad had twisted around in his seat but was still gripping the steering wheel with his left hand. He stared at both of them for a couple of sec­onds, as if he wanted to remember what their faces looked like in this moment before he said what he had to say. “Your mom had an accident this morning.”

Without knowing what exactly was coming next, Orly covered his ears and buried his face in his lap. He was humming so loud that it should’ve blocked out the sound of his father’s voice, but he heard enough to know the accident, as he suspected, was more than an accident. He heard it in his father’s voice before he finished and the words made any sense.

After their father gave them the details of how she had died but they still had no idea what an aneurysm was, he told them it was a brain stroke, thinking this might stop them from asking so many questions, but of course it didn’t because neither Orly nor Alex knew what a stroke was either. Even with his seat belt still pressing against his chest, Orly felt as if everything he had inside him, his heart and lungs and liver and kidneys and stomach, was slipping from his body, down his legs and onto the floor mat where he’d just dropped his iPad.

Their father tried to explain that a stroke was like a heart attack but to her brain and the damage it did to her brain was what killed her. They knew heart attacks because their dad’s mother had died of one years earlier, but a heart attack was something that hap­pened to old people and their mom was barely forty-one, which was old but not old-old, like grandma-old, not like heart-attack-old, even if hers was more like a brain attack. None of it made any sense. Their dad was seven years older. So why was she the one who got sick? Alex had stopped with all his questions and was star­ing out the window at something in the bushes. Then he started slowly bumping the side of his head against the glass over and over until his dad opened his door and went around the car to hold him in his arms, and a couple of minutes later did the same with Orly.

Even going against traffic, it took almost half an hour before they passed every Marshalls, Target, Walmart, Chili’s, McDon­ald’s, Academy, Subway, Home Depot, and Bed Bath & Beyond it seemed there could be in the world. The drive down to Browns­ville usually took about six hours, but this time Orly knew it would feel a lot longer, more like seven or eight hours, maybe because on this trip he would be staying weeks and not days, or because his brother and his father wouldn’t also be there with him. When he sat in the backseat he always had a movie or game to play on his iPad and basically, unless his mom or dad told him and Alex to look at some random cows in a pasture, he never had to deal with how utterly boring it was to look out the window.

They were only an hour from the house when his iPad dinged with a text.
[Where r u?]
[In car w/ dad, just left HTX.] Orly responded.
[Tell Eduardo I said hi!]
“Alex says hi,” Orly told his dad. He knew better than to say that just between them Alex liked to refer to their father by his first name. Or that he insisted on calling him Eduardo, the way he was addressed in Brownsville, and not Eddie, the way he was everywhere else.

[D says hi back. Says he heard there were no devices @ camp.]
[Fake News!]
[D says ur going 2 get into trouble 4 breaking the rules.]
[Tell Eduardo to chillax, it’s a summer camp not a prison.]
[D says he should’ve made both of us go to Brownsville.]
[AKA Camp BS (Boring Summer)]
It wasn’t long before what they saw out the tinted windows turned to miles and miles of dreary coastal plain, dull enough that Orly could nap for twenty minutes and after opening his eyes feel like they’d been moving but were still in the same place. Before, when he used to sit behind his mom, he thought the boredom had to do with only being able to look out at the side of the road and not the road in front of them, but as it turned out, with the exception of spotting some roadkill, he really hadn’t been miss­ing all that much. Still, he liked sitting up front like they were in a buddy movie, just the two of them traveling cross-country, even if it meant he had to talk more or listen to his dad’s news station and couldn’t just put on his headphones or play another round of Clash Royale on his iPad, which he had planned to do for most of the trip. Close to noon they stopped at a Whataburger for lunch and a pee break.

“But what if I get bored and there’s nothing to do?”

They had already ordered at the counter and were waiting for one of the table servers to bring their meal out to them.

“That’s why you’re taking your summer books and your iPad. But you should really be outside doing stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Lots of things. Taking chances and doing fun stuff, not just the things some camp director plans out for you and a bunch of other kids.”

“But doing what?”

“Whatever there is to do,” his dad said. “Your own ways to spend your time and have fun, different from mine. Give it a chance and you’ll have a good time. Just wait and see.”

“Were you ever bored in the summer when you were growing up?”

“All the time, but then I found things to do. You’ll have fun in Brownsville and get to do things on your own. You’ll see how dif­ferent it is down there and how good you and your brother have it where you live and the schools you go to, stuff I never had grow­ing up. It’s just three weeks to try something new. Your Nina will take good care of you and keep you safe.”

“What if I hate it or if she’s mean?”

“Has she been mean to you before when we’ve gone to visit or she’s come to see us in Houston?”

“No, but maybe she’ll get tired of me being there.”

“I doubt it—she’s been begging me for years for you to go stay with her.”

“She looks like she could be mean.”

“Because she’s older?”

“Maybe.” He took a sip of his soda.

“You should’ve seen her when she was young.”

“What was she like?”

“I’ve only seen pictures, but everybody used to say she was even prettier. I heard that one time she was in the parade and a photog­rapher from San Antonio walked the whole route, like more than a mile, just to give her his phone number and ask if she wanted to be a model.”

“Wait, seriously, she was a model?”

“Not really. She was still in high school and her parents didn’t let her.”

“What about after she graduated?”

“I guess she changed her mind.”

“How come she never got married?”

“Who knows? It just didn’t work out that way. Not everybody’s supposed to be married.”

When the food showed up there was some confusion about who had ordered which cheeseburger. This was actually the first time Orly had ordered something off the regular menu, which he did only because his dad had invited him to sit up front in the Sub­urban with him and Orly wanted him to think he was older. His dad had even let him get a soft drink, an orange Fanta, something his mom never let him do.

The most frustrating part for Orly was not knowing what hap­pened to her, not having a way to understand why someone would have an aneurysm. Even later that same day, in his room at home, he couldn’t immediately look it up on his laptop because he didn’t know how to spell the word, which in a stupid way made the whole thing that much worse, his mother dying of something he didn’t know how to google.

“The doctor said nobody knows why this happened now. Some­times it happens this way with aneurysms.” They were eating din­ner at the time they were usually already in bed. Their father had reheated the chicken and pasta soup Maribel had left for them.

“No warning at all?” Orly said.

“Sometimes, or the person feels like something is wrong but keeps it to himself until it’s too late.”

“Herself,” Alex said.

“Right,” his father said. “Herself.”

The doctors did all they could to try to save her. At least she hadn’t suffered long. This last part was meant to make them feel a little less sad. And of course Orly wouldn’t have wanted her to suffer, but he also wasn’t sure about her leaving so suddenly, about his finding out when it was already too late, about having to wait until after school because his father needed time to figure out all the things he needed to do next, the arrangements with the funeral home, the death certificate, phone calls to family and certain friends, to her law firm, to his office, before the next thing to do was tell the boys what had happened to their mom.

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