Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros
Themes: family, immigration, deportation, community, activism
Audience: Grades 3-7
Review by Julia Stone (she/her)
MLIS Student, Kent State University iSchool
Efrén Divided received the Pura Belpré Children’s Author Award in 2021. Ernesto Cisneros writes with incredible heart and authenticity in his debut middle-grade novel. Spanish is interwoven into the story effortlessly; if the reader cannot determine the meanings from context, there is a glossary of Spanish words in the back of the book.
The story revolves around 12-year-old Efrén Nava as he navigates school and family life after his mother is deported. I couldn’t put the book down because I cared so much about what happened to Efrén and his family. Although the story is fictional, it feels very real. By following Efrén’s journey, readers will hopefully open their eyes and hearts to the struggles many children with undocumented parents face. The story is deeply moving and tragic, but also hopeful. Through the lens of Efrén’s experiences, Cisneros exhibits the sacrifices that immigrant parents make for their children and the strength a community can provide during times of turmoil.
Efrén Divided touches upon immigration policy in meaningful ways for readers of all ages. Efrén explains the idea of being undocumented to his five-year-old twin siblings, Max and Mía, by comparing it to one of their favorite Dr. Seuss stories, “The Sneetches.” Efrén says that people born in the United States have “stars upon thars,” but their Amá doesn’t have any. His sister points out, “But that doesn’t matter. At the end of the book, nobody cares who has a star and who doesn’t.”
This scene is an effective depiction of the complicated issue of illegal immigration. Cisneros makes the issue easy for younger readers to understand, but also makes the issue compelling and thought-provoking to older readers. If someone does not have a star on their belly (citizenship), do we have the right to ostracize them? Is it right to separate them from their families for trying to give their children a better life?
One of the most striking aspects of this story is its power to inspire young people to engage in activism. Jennifer, Efrén’s classmate and friend, runs for student president because she wants to make a difference, even if it is just on a small scale. Jennifer’s mother often repeats the Mexican saying: Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas. (They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.) Like Jennifer, Efrén is “buried” and burdened by challenges and emotional unrest after his mother is deported. He must grow up quickly, caring for his siblings while his father takes on additional work.
The concept of being seeds and growing into something more, despite their country trying to bury them, is empowering for Jennifer and Efrén. The school elections represent a way to sprout. (“For all the semillitas like him, he couldn’t stay buried any longer.”) Cisneros demonstrates that by coming together and believing in our own potential, we can grow and instigate change.