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'Indivisible' author Daniel Aleman explores U.S. teen's struggle after ICE takes parents

"I think defining our identities as teens is such a huge challenge," the novelist said, "and being an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, adds a whole other dimension to the struggle."
Daniel Aleman, author of "Indivisible."
Daniel Aleman, author of "Indivisible."F. Angelini

Daniel Aleman always knew that he wanted to write a novel about a Mexican American teen from an immigrant family. That urge, he said, became even stronger as anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric ramped up during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I heard the words, ‘Mexicans are bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists,’ and something awakened deep inside of me,” Aleman said of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's 2015 speech. “Donald Trump's words were heard around the world, and they seem to leave like this resounding echo in the Mexican community that we couldn't quite run away from.”

A few years later, the Trump administration's separation of children from their parents once they crossed the border into the U.S. made Aleman realize it was time for him to write the book he’d been thinking about for years.

Aleman's debut young adult novel, “Indivisible,” which was released Tuesday after receiving advance praise, tells the story of Mateo Garcia, a Mexican American teen whose world falls apart after both his father and mother are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The book chronicles the experiences of Mateo and his little sister, who were born in the U.S. and are American citizens, unlike their parents, who lack legal immigration status. The family had managed to run a thriving bodega, or corner store, and reasoned that because their lives were so inconspicuous, they would be overlooked by immigration authorities.

Everything changes the day Mateo arrives at the family's store after school to discover that his parents were being held in an immigration facility. The teen and his sister then have to rely heavily on a family friend and his wife as they struggle to navigate what to do without their parents.

Author Daniel Aleman's debut young adult novel, “Indivisible.”
Author Daniel Aleman's debut young adult novel, “Indivisible.”Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Kids with detained parents “have to turn to their communities, to family, friends, and basically just try to survive and try to make a normal life as best as they can, even when they've been put in an impossible situation,” Aleman said.

Aleman’s character Mateo is fictional, but the National Immigration Forum estimates about 16.2 million people in the U.S. live in a mixed-status family, defined as families that include some members who are either U.S. citizens or green card holders and some who are undocumented. Of that group, 6.1 million are children who were born in the United States to undocumented parents.

Aleman’s own immigration to the U.S. was very different from the story portrayed in his novel. The Alemans immigrated to New York when he was 17. He had just graduated from high school in Mexico, so shortly after he moved to the U.S., he went to Montreal to begin college at McGill University.

But he did draw on his own memories as he wrote the novel.

“My own grandfather had dreams of going to the United States, but he never did. And that dream was passed along to my dad,” he said. “Neither of my parents had easy childhoods, and so they wanted me and my siblings to have the best life possible.”

In the novel, Mateo has to grow up very fast as he navigates life without his parents, caring for his elementary-school-aged sister and grappling with his life as a New York City high schooler — as he's also coming to terms with being gay.

Aleman said late last year in a video tweet that as a gay teenager, he didn't have access to a lot of books that reflected his experiences, and that books can serve as mirrors.

"I also felt like I grew up too quickly —that has to do with many things, but one of them was being an immigrant and coming to a new country as a teenager,” Aleman told NBC News. “I think defining our identities as teens is such a huge challenge in and of itself. And being an immigrant, or the child of immigrants, adds a whole other dimension to the struggle.”

As readers absorb Mateo’s story, Aleman ultimately hopes they will think more about the real people behind the statistics they see about undocumented immigration and ICE detainees.

“Something I keep thinking about is the way in which immigration has become such a heartless topic. So many people are used to thinking about this from a purely legal or political standpoint,” Aleman said about the current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. "But at the end of the day, we're all human, and when we accept things like family separation, and kids in cages, and cruel immigration policy, as facts of life, we unconsciously strip immigrant people of their humanity."

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