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Table of Contents
About The Book
For seventeen-year-old Maya, trashion is her passion, and her talent for making clothing out of unusual objects landed her a scholarship to Guatemala City’s most prestigious art school and a finalist spot in the school’s fashion show. Mamá is her biggest supporter, taking on extra jobs to pay for what the scholarship doesn’t cover, and she might be even more excited than Maya about what the fashion show could do for her future career.
So when Mamá doesn’t come to the show, Maya doesn’t know what to think. But the truth is worse than she could have imagined. The gang threats in their neighborhood have walked in their front door—with a boy Maya considered a friend, or maybe more, among them. After barely making their escape, Maya and her mom have no choice but to continue their desperate flight all the way through Guatemala and Mexico in hopes of crossing the US border.
They have to cross. They must cross! Can they?
Two Weeks Earlier
Maya felt about tomorrow the way she did at the top of a roller-coaster ride, right before it dropped—she both wanted to fall, feel the wind on her face, and to hold on, hold on, before everything changed.
“So, mañana is the big day?” her mother asked. It was late. She leaned against the bathroom doorframe and tightened her fuzzy pink robe at the waist. Her hair was wrapped in a white towel. The smell of shampoo lingered in the air.
“Yep,” Maya said. She fluffed her pillow, trying to get comfortable on the mattress she shared with her mother and with Luna, who was inching her way underneath the covers, tail wagging. Every evening Maya and her mother lay the mattress down on the living room floor, and every morning they lifted it back up and tucked it between the sofa and the wall. In this way, the living room became their bedroom and vice versa.
“Don’t be worried. I have a good feeling, mija,” her mother said, toothbrush in hand.
Tomorrow the director of Maya’s high school—the best fashion school in Guatemala—was going to announce the top ten designers of the year. These ten would then get to showcase three looks each in the annual fashion show. Two weeks from now! This was the first year Maya was even eligible; you had to be at least in your second year at the institute and be sixteen. She—finally!—was both.
“Are you worried about Lisbeth?” her mother asked before spitting out toothpaste in the sink.
“A little…” Maya snuggled against Luna.
Now her mother returned with a jar of Pond’s lotion. “What’s meant to be is meant to be.” Maya watched as she rubbed cream onto her cheeks. Okay—strange. That lotion was a morning smell, one that belonged next to coffee and oatmeal and folded newspaper pages on the kitchen table. Not to evening.
“Hey, what’s going on? You never shower at night.”
“Ay, mija. You have talent. And you work harder than most girls at that school.”
“And you’re changing the subject. Why are—”
“I have an early appointment. No time to shower in the morning.” Mama waved her hand dismissively. “Anyway, you have real talent.”
Maya managed a small smile. It was true that she could tear a yard of fabric with nothing but a steady hand and a ruler, and she knew a dozen different hand stitches by heart. Though she preferred La Betty, her sewing machine. Tucked in the corner underneath the swaying light bulb, its loyal presence—along with Luna, who liked to sit on Maya’s feet while she sewed—kept her company whenever her mother had to work late.
Dresses were Maya’s favorite. Tops a close second. Fixing hems, shortening skirts, creating pockets, closing pockets—she could practically sew those in her sleep by the age of ten. She couldn’t afford the fancy fabrics sold in the Mercado Central in the capital, so she improvised with the scraps her mother brought home from the factory, stitching them together. Soon she began including other materials. She began using, well… trash. Not trash from the dump. Trash in the sense of: plastic cups, scratched CDs, tablecloths. Even crayons and playing cards. Anything and everything. So Maya’s mother enrolled her in a sewing class, and she was sold. And it was this method of hers—the pinching of this and that here, that and this there, from cotton to denim to linen, and patterns from polka dots to stripes—that became her signature style. She learned about it on Instagram—it was a whole thing. Since then, trashion has been her passion! Now she prayed it was enough to win her a spot in the fashion show.
As her mother worked the Pond’s into the creases at her neck, the steam from the bathroom glowed behind her. “I’ll finish up in a sec. You go to sleep.”
“Good night, mija.”
Maya set the alarm on her cell phone for six thirty a.m., placed it facedown beside her, and curled into the sheets. “Besides…” She spoke into the darkness. “You’re right, Mama.”
“Right about what?”
“If I don’t get it this year, there’s always next year.”
Silence. Except for Luna snoring.
“Mama? Did you hear me? This is when you say, ‘Yes, mija, definitely.’?” Maya swore she could hear her mother swallow.
“Sí, mija,” she said at last.
Well, that wasn’t exactly encouraging, Maya thought, fighting sleep. And just as she closed her eyes, she spotted a quick-moving shadow. Her mother, making the sign of the cross. Her mother. Carmen. Her only family in the world. The two of them finished each other’s sentences, ate halves of the same sandwich, shared clothes, sunglasses, sneakers, sometimes makeup on special occasions. They even shared the same dream: to open their own shop one day, not just a tailor shop, but an actual label. They’d need to come up with a good name….
The next thing Maya knew, it was morning. On the kitchen counter was a plateful of scrambled eggs and a slice of buttered white toast, a wicker basket full of pan dulce beside it. Her mother had already left for her appointment. Appointment for what? Maya wondered.
Reading Group Guide
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By Jennifer De Leon
About the Book
Maya loved her life in Guatemala: she was a student at a prestigious design school, worked hard on her passion for fashion (or “trashion”), hung out with her best friend, and developed a crush on a boy. But after witnessing gang violence in her neighborhood, Maya and her mother are forced to flee the city—and the country—they’ve known their whole lives in an attempt to find safety. They’ll have to cross the US border if they hope to survive, but even if they get that far, will they remain together?
1. Take some time to jot down the way author Jennifer De Leon characterizes the protagonist, Maya. What details do we learn about her in the first few chapters? What are her thoughts and feelings, and what important choices does she make? How do those details serve as a counternarrative to stereotypes held about Central Americans in the United States?
2. Consider who Maya’s inner circle is. Who does she draw her strength from? Who does she support and how? What does this tell you about her?
3. Between chapters one and four, the rising action includes foreshadowing. (Merriam-Webster defines “foreshadow” as a verb meaning “to represent, indicate, or typify beforehand.”) Cite examples from those chapters where moments of tension and rising action also foreshadow events later in the book. How does this build the plot?
4. [Spoiler] Sebastian turns out to be an important character in Borderless. What are his motivations? How does his personal story and Oscar’s story seem to humanize them even though they turn out to be the villains in the climax of the story?
5. What commentary on social class is the author exploring across various settings? What can be discussed about class at Maya’s school? In her neighborhood? In the United States?
6. The book’s epigraph is “Home” by Warsan Shire. Reread it and discuss what this book teaches us about reasons why people leave home. Movement across borders is common and is motivated by many causes. Discuss the reasons for people’s movement and migrations away from one home and to a new one in Borderless. What makes Maya, and others who undertake this journey, feel border-less?
7. As De Leon explores the setting in Guatemala, what does the trip to San Marcos reveal about Indigenous presence and identity? How is San Marcos portrayed versus the capital where Maya lives?
8. By chapter eight we see a parallel developing: Lisbeth has secrets. Maya also has secrets. How are their secrets different? How are they similar? How are they playing a role in building the rising action and moving the plot forward?
9. One of the topics explored in this book through the characters is choices. Each character makes important choices that have short- and long-term consequences. Additionally, external influences seem to have a deep impact on those choices. Complete a chart where you track the choices made with their consequences and the impact they have on the characters’ lives.
10. In chapter thirty, after Maya reaches the border and is released from the detention center, in her reflection after observing her surroundings she thinks, “Welcome to America.” How would you describe what it’s like to walk into your city or town? Write a paragraph describing your city or neighborhood and conclude with the phrase, “Welcome to America.”
11. This book features violence and gang life. How does Jennifer De Leon add a new perspective to the conversation of these negative forces? What nuances does she include? What might her story be missing?
12. By the end of chapter twenty-seven, Maya, her mother, and Sebastian are traveling across the border. They are about enter the US without proper documentation. Are they justified in their choice? Are they right or wrong? What would you do in their case?
13. Chapter twenty-nine features a tragic scene as the migrants cross the Rio Grande. Take a moment to journal about this moment. Select one of the reflections below:
a. Have you ever been in a situation where you had to leave someone behind? How did that feel? What was your struggle?
b. The efforts migrants have to take to reach refuge in another country are sometimes deadly. What new ideas or revelations do you have after reading this chapter?
14. In chapter thirty, De Leon walks us through a detention center like the ones at the US border between Mexico and Texas. While Maya is there, she thinks, “No one deserved any of this.” How, in your opinion, should migrants and refugees be treated when they arrive at the border? How does this description of Maya’s experience support or contradict your thoughts?
15. What role does poverty play in the plot of the story? Who is suffering from poverty and how does it drive their choices, if at all?
16. While this book reveals hardships related to border crossing and migration, there are also many moments of joy, resilience, and love. Cite moments throughout the book where characters are joyful, where their strength is evident, and where love is at the center.
1. Setting: The book explores various types of settings both geographically and socially. Create a chart where you visit all the spots in the story in order to analyze what happens in these places and who has access to them. Then discuss how this access is connected to gender and class.
2. Symbolism: Identify the objects, people, and actions that represent larger ideas. For example, Betty-- Maya’s sewing machine-- represents her skills and abilities. However, it also represents struggle since she doesn’t have high-quality equipment for her work. Explore other symbols present throughout the story and ask: What do they represent? How do these symbols connect to larger social issues? How are these symbols helpful for understanding characterization?
3. Gang life and crime: Borderless is set in Guatemala, a country where communities are struggling with gang life and crime. Engage students in a research project where they learn more about how Guatemala came to develop this issue (and the role the US played in Guatemala’s Civil War), how US deportations contributed to violence, and how young men find themselves in these situations. Together, explore Guatemala’s struggle and how migration is sometimes the best solution for Guatemalans. Lastly, watch clips or interviews of migrants explaining their lives and choices in order to create space for the migrants to speak for themselves.
4. Fashion: Throughout the story, Maya’s talent of “trashion” is celebrated. Use this to explore sustainable fashion, using recycling for fashion, and how this connects to climate change. Invite students to create some of their own outfits via drawings or digital designs. Use videos and visual art to inspire the artistic ideas needed for this assignment. Collaborate with a local artist or the school’s art teacher to create a well-supported unit, especially for students who do not feel secure in their artistic skills.
Other books teachers can read to explore alongside Borderless:
-We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez
- The Displaced, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas
- American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Lorena Germán is a Dominican American educator dedicated to antibias and anti-racist teaching. She’s been published by NCTE, ASCD, and EdWeek, and was featured in The New York Times. Her bestselling book Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices (2021) and The Anti Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook (2019) are both focused on strategies for the classroom bridging theory to practice. She’s a two-time nationally awarded teacher and is cofounder of #DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom, and currently chairs the National Council of Teachers of English’s Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.
- Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books (April 25, 2023)
- Length: 336 pages
- ISBN13: 9781665904162
- Grades: 9 and up
- Ages: 14 - 99
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Raves and Reviews
The book illustrates the violent consequences of structural poverty, as readers are introduced to characters trying to do the best they can with what they’ve been handed. Their desperation is communicated vividly as well as their determination to keep their loved ones safe.
An engrossing exploration of youths and gang violence.
– Kirkus Reviews, 02/15/2023
Recommended for its authentic teen voice, close mother-daughter relationship, and especially for its affecting depictions of daily life in Guatemala and the dehumanizing experience of entering the U.S. as an asylum seeker.
– Booklist, 4/15/23
– Publishers Weekly, 3/27/2023
De Leon’s story offers a real-world truth: immigrants face some of the greatest injustices and uncertain futures, but they carry with them their past, their loves, and a powerful glimmer of hope.
– BCCB *STARRED REVIEW*, 3/16/23
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