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Mateo Garcia and his younger sister, Sophie, have been taught to fear one word for as long as they can remember: deportation. Over the past few years, however, the fear that their undocumented immigrant parents could be sent back to Mexico started to fade. Ma and Pa have been in the United States for so long, they have American-born children, and they're hard workers and good neighbors. When Mateo returns from school one day to find that his parents have been taken by ICE, he realizes that his family's worst nightmare has become a reality. With his parents' fate and his own future hanging in the balance, Mateo must figure out who he is and what he is capable of, all as he's forced to question what it means to be an American.
Daniel Aleman's Indivisible is a remarkable story—both powerful in its explorations of immigration in America and deeply intimate in its portrait of a teen boy driven by his fierce, protective love for his parents and his sister.
MA IS ALWAYS TELLING ME HOW I feel too much.
“It isn’t a bad thing, mijo,” she reminds me every time this comes up. “It just means you carry around a little more than you should. When things are bad, it weighs you down more than it would most people. But when everything’s good, you also get to feel a little more of the good stuff.”
On days like today, I think she might be right. Maybe I do feel too much. I’ve been carrying all this weight inside my stomach for hours, and it just won’t go away. It’s heavier than these boxes I have to carry around, and I’m getting tired of the way it’s bringing me down.
I look at the pile of boxes, trying to figure out which one weighs the most. Maybe if I grab the heaviest one, this feeling inside me will feel lighter in comparison, so I push a box of paper towels aside and pick up the one full of packaged tortillas.
It’s lighter than I expected, but maybe that’s just because my arms have gotten stronger. I’ve been helping Ma and Pa at the bodega for a couple of years now, but I only took over the task of restocking the shelves last summer. In the months since then, I’ve learned that no box is too heavy to carry.
I head toward the back of the store and set the box down in front of the half-empty tortilla shelf. This little corner of the bodega used to be nothing more than a few shelves with Mexican products, but ever since Pa decided to add items from other countries, we started referring to it as the Ethnic Foods section. As I begin to pile up the packages of tortillas on the shelf, that word starts burning my tongue. Ethnic.
“Too ethnic,” I whisper to myself. “Too ethnic.”
I turn around to find a woman standing behind me. Her hand is frozen mid-movement as she reaches for a bottle of salsa.
“Oh, sorry,” I say. “I was just talking to the tortillas.”
She walks away quickly, throwing me a weird look as she disappears around the corner of the aisle.
A fresh wave of anger washes over me as I think about the day Adam came up to me at school a few weeks ago, saying he’d heard about an open call for an off-Broadway play that’s beginning rehearsals this spring. They were looking for an actor who could pass as sixteen years old and who could sing and dance. We’d been dreaming about an opportunity like this ever since we first met. Suddenly, it felt as though all that time we’d spent running lines together, and training, and dreaming of being on a real stage had been for something, and this was it—our first real audition.
When Adam and I got to the theater earlier today and joined the long line of hopefuls, we were so nervous we could barely stand still. The line kept growing longer behind us, even as people started filing through the stage doors of the theater.
After half an hour of waiting, the guy in front of us turned around and asked, “So how did you two find out about this open call?”
He was tall, and blond, and older-looking. He couldn’t really pass as sixteen, but from the way he spoke—so confidently, with his back straight and his chin lifted a little too high—I could tell this wasn’t his first audition. When he told us that he was a drama student at Tisch, my stomach dropped. That’s my dream program. Looking up and down the line, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other experienced actors we were up against.
“How about you guys?” he asked. “Do you also study acting?”
Adam answered first, and I was grateful he did. He’s always been so comfortable talking to strangers, always had that loud voice and big energy that makes it easy to imagine him on a stage or in front of a camera. “No, no,” he said, flashing his perfect smile. “Well, I did the Teen Conservatory at the Stella Adler, but that was last summer.”
Tisch guy answered with a satisfied nod, even as my stomach sank lower and lower. That was only one of the programs Adam has done. He didn’t even mention all the weekend workshops he’s been to, or the other conservatory he did last year at a different acting studio. Ma and Pa can’t afford that kind of stuff, but I’ve been learning, too—from YouTube videos, from blogs, and from Adam himself. I’ve always liked to think I’m just as talented as him, but when he and Tisch guy turned toward me, I felt more insecure than ever.
“I, uh…” In that moment, it became so obvious—the fact that next to Adam, I’m quiet. Next to him, I’m short, less talented, less prepared. I cleared my throat. “I’ve never taken actual lessons, but I’ve learned in other ways.”
“Yeah,” Adam said. “Matt’s super talented.”
The blond guy’s mouth twisted downward. “Well, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it,” he said to me. “I don’t think they’re looking to cast an ethnic actor for this role anyway.”
Adam froze beside me. “What?”
My hands started sweating. My mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t think of anything at all.
The blond guy slumped his shoulders, shifting awkwardly on the spot. “No offense,” he said, looking down at his feet. “I mean, I’m sure you’re talented. But, you know, you’re a little too…”
“Too ethnic?” I spat.
“Listen, I’m sorry. I was just trying to make small talk to pass the time. We can all just go back to waiting.”
He turned his back on us and crossed his arms.
“He’s an idiot,” Adam whispered to me. “Don’t let him get in your head. You’re gonna kill the audition. We both will.”
But I didn’t. How could I, when I was carrying all that anger inside me? I stumbled the second I walked into the audition room, and I was two lines into my monologue when I choked. I managed to remember the next line, to finish the piece, but when I was done, the casting director thanked me with a stone face, and I knew right at that second that I hadn’t gotten it.
I take the last tortillas out of the box and slap them on the shelf. Then, I pat all the piles to make sure they look even. I know how much this store means to Ma and Pa. They opened Adela’s Corner Store almost ten years ago, and it’s the reason why we can afford to pay rent, and buy clothes, and put food on the table. I used to think I was destined to take over from them when the time came, but it’s been a while since I started dreaming of something different, and I’d never looked back—until today.
What if it never happens? What if I can’t make it as an actor because I don’t look like the other guys standing in that line? Or because my parents haven’t been able to pay for private lessons? Or because, even if my grades and SAT scores were good enough to get into Tisch on a scholarship, we might still not be able to afford the tuition?
My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of the bell at the front door. It rings so many times in a day that I’ve learned to tune it out, but there’s something about the sound of heavy boots walking into the store—two pairs, at least—that captures my attention.
I hear muffled voices near the checkout counter. That’s pretty common, too. When customers lower their voices like that, it’s almost always because they’re asking where they can find condoms, or laxatives, or hemorrhoid treatment. But then I hear something that sends a chill running down my back.
“We’re looking for Ernesto Garcia.”
Whoever is looking for Pa has a strong, deep voice. I move quietly toward the counter, wanting to see what he looks like. From behind the last aisle, I sneak a peek at the two men standing there.
Erika, one of the girls my parents hired to help out, is behind the counter, staring back at them with a blank look on her face. “He—he’s not here,” she stammers.
“Do you know when he’ll be back?” asks the second man. I know exactly what they are. They’re wearing bulky black jackets with the letters ICE printed across the back.
Erika shakes her head. “No idea,” she says. “He might not be back at all today.”
There’s a long moment of silence—or at least it seems long to me. It’s as if time has stopped. I’m frozen, unable to move, unable to think, unable to even feel anything. I’m holding my breath, waiting—praying—for these men to just turn around and leave.
“Do you mind if I take a look around?”
Erika’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t say anything. I can tell exactly what she’s thinking—she’s wondering what these men might do if she refuses to cooperate.
I watch with my heart stuck in my throat as one of the agents takes a few steps toward the back of the bodega, where the tiny office is. Slowly, he stretches out a hand and pushes the door open, only to reveal a dark room.
“All right, then,” he says, turning back toward the counter. “Thanks for your help.”
Erika mumbles a few words as the men move toward the exit, and they are halfway out the door when something happens—a dozen bags of chips start falling on top of me.
I don’t understand how I did this. I must’ve barely brushed the shelf with my shoulder, but a second later all the bags are on the floor around my feet, and the damage is done.
The agents stop in their tracks and turn to look at me. I stare into the eyes of one of them, and then the other. What have I done?
My heart starts beating hard against my chest, and there is nothing for me to do but wait—wait for them to come closer, to start asking me questions. I try my best to remember all the things I should do in this type of situation—I should ask them if they have a warrant. I should pull out my phone and start recording, because if they just strolled in here when they weren’t supposed to, we might be able to use that in our defense.
As the seconds go by, though, my whole body starts feeling weak. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to use my voice, or if I’ll be strong enough to stand up to these men. But then, after what feels like forever, one of the agents gives a polite nod in my direction. I manage to return the nod, and then they walk out the door.
I let out a long sigh as Erika runs out from behind the counter and comes toward me. She starts picking up the bags of chips, putting them back on the shelf, and I slowly lean down to help her.
In the back of my mind, I realize that the weight I’d been carrying in my stomach is gone. I can’t even feel a trace of it. In fact, I feel nothing at all. Everything that happened earlier today is insignificant now that I know ICE is looking for my dad.
There’s a heavy silence lingering around the table. I can’t remember the last time dinner was like this. It’s usually loud in the apartment, with Pa talking about what’s new in the neighborhood, and who came by the bodega earlier, and Sophie telling us all about her day at school. Ma usually listens with a satisfied look on her face. I know she’s too tired to talk much after working two jobs and making dinner, but I can tell she waits all day just for this—for the four of us to be sitting around the table.
Everything feels so wrong tonight. No one has said anything since we sat down to eat. The second Pa came home, I told him about what happened at the store, and he’s been speechless since. He hasn’t even said anything about the food, even though Ma made chiles rellenos, one of his favorites.
“We’ll just have to be careful,” he says suddenly. As if this were a final solution. As if we hadn’t already been careful our entire lives. As if “being careful” wasn’t the number one thing in the back of our minds at all times.
I must’ve been around seven years old when Ma and Pa sat me down to have this conversation. At first, I thought I’d done something wrong, but Ma quickly said that wasn’t the reason they wanted to talk. They explained everything to me—how they’d left Mexico, Pa when he was seventeen and Ma when she was twenty-one. They told me how they’d met once they were both settled in New York, how their families back home had been able to survive because of the money they sent them, how much better life had gotten since they had come to the United States. And how no one could ever know that they didn’t have papers.
“If anyone at school asks, tell them your parents are from the South. They’ll think we’re from Texas or something,” Ma said.
Pa nodded quickly. “Never, ever tell anyone more than they need to know.”
They gave Sophie the exact same talk last year, when she was only six. Unlike me, she didn’t just sit down and listen. She asked a million questions, which my parents answered patiently.
Sophie has always been a big talker. It’s one of the things I love most about her—how easily she can make friends, how open and loving she is even with people she doesn’t know. But it’s probably also the reason my parents decided to have this conversation with her at such a young age.
Tonight, Sophie’s quiet. She looks so tiny in her chair. She must’ve taken two bites of her food before putting her fork down, and now she’s just staring at her plate. All I want to do is reach out to her, hold her hand, tell her everything’s gonna be okay, but I can’t find the strength to do any of that.
Ma clutches her stomach. Since her gallbladder surgery last year, she’s been doing that a lot. She’s not in pain—or at least she says she’s not. I think it’s just a reflex. The scar she now has on her belly is probably an important reminder to her—a reminder that we made it through what we thought was the worst that could possibly happen: getting sick without insurance, having to find a way to pay for the surgery, praying that no one at the hospital would alert the authorities that my mom didn’t have papers.
“¿Cómo pudo pasar esto?” she asks. “They must’ve known—someone must’ve told them about you.”
Pa presses his lips together, shakes his head without saying anything.
“ICE doesn’t just come looking for people without a reason,” Ma says.
Something strange happens in that moment. We all meet one another’s eyes. I look at Sophie, then at Ma, then at Pa. The air feels heavy with the things we’re not saying, but I know we’re all thinking about it—what’s been going on in the news lately. All that talk about Mexicans, and deportation, and the wall. But surely nothing bad could happen to us, right? Right?
That’s what I look for in my family’s eyes—some sort of reassurance that everything will be fine, that nothing’s gonna change, but the only thing I find in their faces is fear.
Finally, Pa speaks up. “It’s going to be okay. We are going to be okay,” he says.
Almost at the same time, we all let out a sigh. Of course Pa is right. He has to be. He and Ma have been in this country for so long. They’ve built lives, built a business, built a family, and even though we’ve always been afraid, no one’s come after them in all these years.
Pa picks up his fork again and keeps eating. Ma, Sophie, and I do the same. We all try to pretend that everything is normal, that there is nothing to worry about, but the silence from earlier comes back, and now it’s even heavier than it was before we had this conversation.
THE NEXT DAY STARTS LIKE EVERY OTHER day.
I wake up to the sound of my third or fourth alarm. I put on the shirt and pants I picked out last night, eat a bowl of dry cereal next to Sophie and Ma—Pa is already at the bodega—and leave home a little too late. I run across Fourteenth Street toward the nearest subway station, jump on the L train, and then transfer to the packed uptown 1 train. When I get off the subway at Columbus Circle, I rush through the crowds, looking at my phone every few minutes to check the time. Now that spring is here and the air is getting warmer, tourists have flooded the city like they do every year, which adds time to my commute. I make it through the school doors just before nine, sprint up the stairs all the way to the fourth floor, and walk into the classroom right on time for first period.
This is what school feels like most days—it’s just a blur of running up endless flights of stairs, bumping shoulders with people as I rush through the hallways, a bit of class here and there, and then running up and down the stairs some more.
My locker is on the ground floor, which means I have to run back down after class is over to grab my books before second period. It is there, staring into the dark interior of my locker, that I finally have a second to breathe. Today has felt normal so far—no different than any other Thursday—but then a sinking feeling invades my stomach, reminding me that something is wrong.
I think about Pa. What if those men come back to the bodega while he’s there? What will they do to him?
“Heya,” a voice says from behind the open door of my locker. I swing it shut and find Kimmie standing there, with her black hair in a side ponytail. She keeps switching up the way she does her hair. It’s one of the things she began doing last year, right around the time when she started introducing herself to people as Kimberly and talking about how she didn’t want to blend into the crowd. Another one of her new things: scouring thrift stores for cool clothes. She’s wearing a fluorescent-green jacket that makes her look like she works on the runway at the airport.
“Hey,” I say, letting out a small smile. No matter what’s going on, seeing Kimmie always has a way of making me a little happier. She and I met in middle school, long before Adam came into the picture, and even though I’d never had many friends, Kimmie latched on to me and refused to let go. I’ve never fully understood why she picked me, of all people, but maybe there’s something about the fact that she’s half Korean and I’m Mexican that makes us see the world similarly—maybe both of us have always felt like outsiders in our own ways. Now I’m so grateful to have found her. She’s been by my side through some of the toughest times—surviving that hellhole of a middle school we went to, and my chicken-legs phase, and Ma’s surgery last year.
She loops her arm through mine as we join the slow crowd moving down the hallway. “So,” she says, and just like that, I can tell she knows something. Most of the time, the way she’s able to see right through me is a blessing—it means she’s always there when I need her. Today, however, I wish I could put up a wall and not let her see what I’m thinking about. “Adam told me the audition didn’t go so great yesterday.”
The blow comes unexpectedly. With everything else on my mind, I’d managed to forget about the audition. I think longingly about twenty-four hours ago, when Adam and I were plotting our early escape from school—when I was still so hopeful, when ICE hadn’t yet come looking for my dad.
“No,” I say. “No, it didn’t.”
“Well, that’s okay,” she says, shrugging. “There’ll be other auditions. Besides, I got something that’ll cheer you up.”
She lifts her free hand to show me her phone screen. The words lottery and Hamilton jump out at me.
“No way.” I stop suddenly, so that the people who were walking behind us nearly bump into me. I take the phone from her just to make sure the email is real, and sure enough—Hamilton, orchestra seats, eight o’clock tomorrow. “How? I mean… how?”
“We won the lottery!” she yells, making a few people turn to look at us. From the way she’s smiling, they might be thinking we won the actual lottery, but we may as well have. Kimmie, Adam, and I have been trying to get tickets for years. We’ve lost the Hamilton lottery so many times that we agreed to stop talking about it until one of us had good news.
Before she can say anything else, we hear Adam’s voice coming from behind. “Hey!”
We turn around to see him swerving his way toward us. He’s incredibly tall, so that his head sticks out above everyone else. He has dirty blond hair and the biggest smile you have ever seen, and when I meet his eyes, his entire face lights up.
“Did you tell him about the tickets?” he asks Kimmie as soon as he catches up to us. He’s always carried a bright energy everywhere he goes, but today it seems to be shining brighter than ever.
“I just did!”
“Wait a second,” I say, remembering something. Whenever we’ve won lottery tickets for a show, we’ve had to make the same tough decision about who gets to go. Whoever wins obviously keeps one of the tickets, but the second has to go to whichever one of us is most excited to see that particular show, or whoever didn’t get to go the previous time. For Hamilton, though, I know this decision is gonna end up being painful. “How are we gonna figure out who goes?”
“That’s the thing,” Kimmie says, her face falling. “My aunt and uncle are in town for the weekend, so I have this family dinner tomorrow that I can’t miss. The two of you can go.”
“Are you sure? Kimmie, you—”
“I’ll just meet you guys after the show. You two are way bigger Hamilton fans than I am anyway.”
For a moment, I almost argue. I’m about to tell her that there’s something she must be able to do—that she can’t just give up her ticket—but in the end I stop myself, because I want to see Hamilton so freaking bad.
“So?” Adam asks me, lifting his eyebrows. “Are you coming?”
I laugh a little. With Kimmie and Adam both beaming at me, it’s easy to let go of the weight I’ve been carrying in my stomach since yesterday. “Of course I am.”
I look down at my phone and realize I have only a couple of minutes before next period starts. “Gotta run. I have chem on the sixth floor, but I’ll see you guys at lunch.”
As I rush away from them, sneaking through small gaps in the crowd, I hear Adam’s voice yelling after me, “Hamilton, baby!”
The run up the stairs to the sixth floor feels faster and easier than usual. I honestly don’t know what I would do without Kimmie and Adam. They make everything better—they always have. I just wish I could tell them about what’s going on at home. I’m sure that if I did, they would help me push all this anxiety aside, but this isn’t just my secret to tell—it’s my entire family’s, so our “be careful” rule also applies to Kimmie and Adam. I’ve never told them that my parents don’t have papers, even though I’ve told them a million other things about my life—that I’m gay, that I’m the biggest telenovela fan, and that before I met them, I’d always felt a little lonely.
The second I sit down in the chemistry classroom, the heaviness returns to my stomach. It may come and go, but the truth is that I have no way to fully escape from it.
“Is everything okay?” Ma asks me as soon as I walk into the apartment that night. She’s standing in the tiny kitchen, wearing her glasses and an apron that Sophie gave her last Mother’s Day, and the entire place is filled with the mouthwatering smell of her cooking.
“Yeah,” I say as I close the door behind me. “Those men didn’t show up at the store today.”
I spent my entire shift listening for the bell at the door, dreading that it would be followed by the sound of heavy boots. The longer I spent at the bodega, the more jumpy I became. It got so bad that Erika offered to close the store on her own so I could go home and relax.
“Have you heard from Pa?” I ask my mom, stepping into the kitchen for a quick hug. Pa spends the afternoons meeting with suppliers, and picking up orders, and running errands for the bodega, but he usually makes it back well before dinner.
“He called to say he’ll be home soon!” Sophie yells from the dinner table. She’s sitting there with her books spread out in front of her, doing homework.
I look at Ma, who gives a small nod.
“Do you need help?” I ask, staring down at the counter. She’s making flautas de pollo, another one of Pa’s favorites.
“No, mijo. Go start your homework. I’ll let you know when we’re ready to eat.”
I turn around to go into my room. Our apartment used to be a two-bedroom, but a couple of years ago Ma and Pa decided to trade rooms with me and Sophie. They moved into the smaller one, and we put up a fake wall to divide the master bedroom so that my sister and I would each have some space of our own.
I can’t fit much in here, except for my twin bed and a small desk that is crammed against the wall. I have to keep my clothes and everything I own in storage boxes under the bed, and the fake wall divides the window in half, so it’s pretty dark in here most of the time. I turn on a light, throw my backpack in the corner, and kneel down to pull a box out from underneath the bed.
I keep my money in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans. I don’t get a wage for working at the bodega—I mostly just do it to help out my parents. Instead, they give me a small allowance every week, which I usually spend on Broadway shows, whenever my friends and I can get our hands on cheap tickets.
I grab a ten-dollar bill to pay Kimmie back for my Hamilton ticket, and then I start doing homework. I try to hurry up, hoping to sneak in a quick acting tutorial before dinner, but Pa comes home before I can get much done, and then Ma calls out my name.
“Mateo, ¡la cena está lista!”
When I don’t answer after a few seconds, Sophie peeps into my room. “Are you coming?”
“Sí, Sophie. I’m coming.”
I follow her to the dinner table, and we all sit down to eat. The air feels both similar and different from yesterday. Similar because the apartment is quiet except for the noise of four people eating, but different because we’re all a little more relaxed. It’s almost like the past day has been a test, and now that we know the ICE agents didn’t come back to the bodega, it feels as though we’ve passed it.
- "Indivisible is a deeply moving tribute to those caught between two worlds in the immigration crisis in America—a potent reminder that no human being is illegal, and that hundreds of thousands of children in this situation are forced to grow up too quickly. Although this is fiction, it’s far too real."—Jodi Picoult, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of The Book of Two Ways
- "Indivisible is a powerful story about family, friendship, and home. In a world divided by so many labels, this story is a reminder that there are no boundaries for love. It shines a light on the difficult choices people make for their family and community, and reminds us that each family is a little world. Mateo, Sophie, and their parents are now part of my heart."—Yamile Saied Méndez, author of Pura Belpré Inaugural YA Award winner Furia
- “As heart-wrenching a tale as it is, Indivisible is also a heartening tribute to the power and endurance of familial love."—Adi Alsaid, author of Let's Get Lost and North of Happy
- "Indivisible is a heartbreakingly poignant and timely coming-of-age story of the human cost of a morally bankrupt immigration policy. This book is an unforgettable chronicle of the fiercest, indomitable love and devotion."—Jeff Zentner, Morris Award-winning author of The Serpent King
- "Both a gripping, harrowing story about an American tragedy and a moving portrait of the bonds of family and unexpected community, Indivisible somehow never loses its humor, its humanity or its hope."—Kelly Loy Gilbert, author of Stonewall Honor Book Picture Us In the Light
- "Daniel Aleman is a fearless writer who never shies away from the complexity of his premise, yet gives Mateo such agency and drive, you never lose hope as a reader. A total miracle of a book."—Adam Sass, author of Surrender Your Sons
- “In his moving debut novel, Daniel Aleman skillfully paints a story of how injustice rips us apart, friendships and family gathers our broken pieces, and hope slowly stitches us back together. Indivisible belongs on every shelf.”—Julian Winters, award-winning author of Running With Lions
- "Indivisible is an intimate and emotional portrait of a family trying to survive under the threat of deportation, with a deeply sensitive and resilient narrator at its center. It’s a powerful story of finding strength: strength to hold a family together as their worst fear becomes reality, and strength to learn who you are, what you want and the person you hope to become. At times heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, this book is a poignant story we need."—Julia Drake, author of The Last True Poets of the Sea
- * “Stellar, clear and emotional, realistic and suspenseful. The story is complex and heart-wrenching, yet full of hope and familial love.”—Booklist, starred review
- * “[This] thoroughly openhearted debut … will leave an indelible mark on the hearts of readers.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "Heart-wrenching.... An ode to the children of migrants."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Insightful.... The uncertainty and heartbreak faced by families separated by deportation is brilliantly displayed."—SLJ
- On Sale
- May 4, 2021
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers