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Santiago's Road Home

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“With every chapter, readers will be further immersed in Santiago’s story as they root for his triumph over injustice.” —Booklist (starred review)
“With unflinching conviction, Diaz sketches a frank, brief account of refugee youth in an uncaring bureaucratic system.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Harrowing but deeply illuminating.” —School Library Journal
“Diaz’s crucial narrative shines a disconcerting light on the plight of children in US detention centers along the southern border.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A young boy gets detained by ICE while crossing the border from Mexico to the United States in this timely and unflinching novel by award-winning author Alexandra Diaz.

The bed creaks under Santiago’s shivering body. They say a person’s life flashes by before dying. But it’s not his whole life. Just the events that led to this. The important ones, and the ones Santiago would rather forget.

The coins in Santiago’s hand are meant for the bus fare back to his abusive abuela’s house. Except he refuses to return; he won’t be missed. His future is uncertain until he meets the kind, maternal María Dolores and her young daughter, Alegría, who help Santiago decide what comes next: He will accompany them to el otro lado, the United States of America. They embark with little, just backpacks with water and a bit of food. To travel together will require trust from all parties, and Santiago is used to going it alone. None of the three travelers realizes that the journey through Mexico to the border is just the beginning of their story.

A Reading Group Guide to

Santiago’s Road Home

By Alexandra Diaz

About the Book

Fleeing a physically abusive home, twelve-year-old Santiago finds an unexpected family in

María Dolores and her young daughter, Alegría. Together, they decide to make the dangerous

journey across the border to el otro lado, the United States. The path is full of danger, but

nothing prepares Santiago for what awaits him on the other side. Santiago’s Road Home

takes readers inside an ICE detention facility, shedding light on the challenges children like

Santiago face, while affirming their resilience, strength, and determination to work hard for

better lives.

Discussion Questions

1. A book’s prologue is often used to establish setting and provide details that will connect to the main story. What questions about Santiago’s story do you have after reading the prologue? As you read, try to find the answers to these questions. Which questions would you like more information about?

2. What do Santiago’s memories of his mother reveal about her? Why do you think the memory of dancing in the rain made such an impression on him? What is your favorite memory of a loved one? How does reflecting on it make you feel?

3. Why does María Dolores decide to go to the United States? Why does Santiago ask to go with her? Why do you think María Dolores decides to let Santiago accompany them on the journey?

4. Describe María Dolores’s plan for crossing the border into the United States. What is dangerous about this plan? Why do you think she does not try to immigrate legally? Why does Santiago remark later that “the possibility of [immigrating] the ‘correct way’ hadn’t even occurred to him”?

5. María Dolores tells Santiago, “‘Even though I don’t have much, I like to support hardworking people trying to make a living.’” What does this statement reveal about her values and priorities? Explain your answer. What do you most value in your life? How do you act upon or share your values?

6. How does Santiago’s willingness to work hard and help others allow him to gain the trust of those he meets on his journey, such as Don José, Domínguez, Consuelo, and Señor Dante? How do these adults help him in return?

7. According to the glossary, coyote is a term for a person who smuggles immigrants into the United States. How does Santiago find a trustworthy coyote? What does Dominguez say about the difference between good coyotes and bad coyotes? Why do you think he considers what he does “an honest living,” even though what he is doing is illegal?

8. Which part of Santiago’s journey across the desert do you think was the most dangerous? Where do you see him having to be strong for others? When do you see others looking out for him? Explain your answers.

9. Describe Santiago’s favorite childhood story: La princesa y el viento. What do you think is the moral of this story? Why do you think this particular story means so much to Santiago? What was your favorite fairy tale or folktale when you were younger? What did you like most about it?

10. When Santiago first sees the detention center, he notices that it “resembles a prison instead of a sanctuary.” Later, his friend Guanaco notes that children in detention “‘have fewer rights than murderers.’” Describe the conditions in the detention center. How is it similar to and different from a prison? What kind of atmosphere does this create for the children inside?

11. How does learning to read and write impact Santiago’s life? Señor Dante says that the government has decided to stop funding educational programs in detention centers because it is a “luxury they can no longer afford.” Do you think that education is a luxury or a necessity? Do you think all children should have access to an education? Explain your answers.

12. Santiago, María Dolores, and Alegría claim that they are siblings even though they are not related by blood. What does Santiago mean when he says that admitting he has two sisters is “the internal truth”? Do you have people in your life who you consider to be family even though you are not related? What is your definition of family?

13. What does it mean for someone immigrating to be granted asylum? Why does Señora Bárbara say that Santiago has a great case for being granted asylum in the United States?

14. Señor Dante tells the boys in his class that even though they cannot control the future, they can control how they respond to what comes their way. How does Santiago demonstrate this ability to control how he responds to adversity? How could you apply this advice to your own life?

15. What makes Santiago think that María Dolores forgot about him? What does he find out to understand what really happened?

16. It is often possible to analyze a story as a hero’s journey—a type of narrative with specific steps. One of these steps involves the hero being tested. How many different tests does Santiago face on his journey? Consider events that tested him physically and emotionally, as well as times when he had to use intelligence and creativity to solve a problem. What characteristics helped him overcome these challenges?

17. When we talk about words, we say that they have both denotative (literal) and connotative (associative) meanings. What are different meanings for the word home? What do you think the title Santiago’s Road Home means?

18. Read the author’s note and resources sections at the end of the novel. Santiago’s Road Home is a work of fiction, yet it is based on true accounts of people immigrating to the United States. Does knowing that information change the way you think about the story? Explain your answer. Why do you think the author, Alexandra Diaz, wrote this novel? What do you think she hopes readers will understand after reading it?

19. We discuss books about other cultural experiences as being either mirrors or windows. A mirror is a book that reflects your own experience in some way, allowing you to see a part of yourself in the story. A window is a book that allows you to look into the experience of someone whose life is very different from your own, and, as a result, helps you to understand things that others experience. Was this book a mirror or a window for you? Why do you think it is important to read both types of books?

Extension Activities

1. Consider the following comment from Santiago’s Road Home: “Not playing by the rules didn’t make someone bad. Especially if the rules were unjust to begin with.” Do you believe that there are times when it is okay to break a rule or disobey a law? Write a persuasive essay or speech about whether or not you agree with this statement.

2. Reflect on your experience reading a book that uses vocabulary from two different languages. How often were you able to understand what unfamiliar words meant based on their contexts? How often did you need to refer to the glossary? Try writing a short story or short autobiography that incorporates words from another language. Try to provide enough context for a reader to comprehend the meaning of these words. At the end of the story, include a glossary. Exchange your story with a partner, and then discuss your experiences reading each other’s work.

3. In chapter fourteen, the author reveals that both María Dolores and Santiago left Mexico to escape domestic violence. After spending time in the harsh detention center, Santiago thinks, “As horrible as staying here would be, it [doesn’t] compare with returning back there.” Research the reasons that people attempt to immigrate to the United States, especially women and children. What are the most common reasons? Are they similar to María Dolores’s and Santiago’s situations? Work in a small group to draft a proposal for measures that could help address one of the main reasons people like Santiago feel they have to leave their home countries.

4. María Dolores, Alegría, and Santiago almost die as a result of dehydration and heat stroke. Research the dangers of dehydration and heat-related illnesses, and create an informative poster or video for your school about the importance of hydration. Think about the audience you’d like to reach, especially athletes and others who spend significant time outside.

5. In the detention center, Guanaco explains the separation policy to Santiago, saying, “‘They say it’s to keep people safe. Personally, I think it’s to hold power. Only bullies separate you from your family.’” Research the government’s separation policy for people immigrating to the United States. What reasons are given for separating adults from children and boys from girls? What reasons are given by advocates who oppose family separation policies? What do you think the government’s policy should be? Explain your position using facts that you have researched from reliable sources.

6. Research the process for immigrating legally into the United States. Why is it difficult for someone in Santiago’s position to follow this process? What role do nonprofits like Ley Unido play in helping people like Santiago enter the United States? As a class, come up with questions you have about the process or the history of immigration. Then decide who might be best to answer these questions, such as a local immigration lawyer or advocacy group, and see if you can discuss with them via email or video conference.

7. One of the lawyers for Ley Unido tells Santiago, “‘There are over thirteen thousand youths in facilities all over the country, and this is one of the better ones.’” Alexandra Diaz also references the fact that the United States government spends more than seven hundred dollars per person per day to hold children in immigration centers. If you were to design a facility that could house two hundred children awaiting immigration hearings at a cost of seven hundred dollars a day per person, what would be your monthly operating budget? How would you spend this budget? What programs and assistance would you provide for the children?

Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.

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.
Owen Benson

Alexandra Diaz is the author of The Only Road, which was a Pura Belpré Honor Book, an ALA Notable Book, and the recipient of two starred reviews. She is also the author of Of All the Stupid Things, which was an ALA Rainbow List book and a New Mexico Book Award finalist, The Crossroads, and Santiago’s Road Home. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban refugees and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but got her MA in writing for young people at Bath Spa University in England. A native Spanish speaker, Alexandra now teaches creative writing to adults and teens. Visit her online at Alexandra-Diaz.com.

“Everyone is separated.” Return to la malvada, or try his luck on his own? For 12-year-old Santiago, going back to his abusive abuela leaves him with no choice at all. At a loss as to his next move, he finds an opportunity when he meets a young mother named María Dolores and her small daughter, Alegría, on their way to el otro lado. For María Dolores, a new life on the other side means fleeing from a troubled past, and Santiago heads with them to El Norte. After a brief stop in a town full of treacherous coyotes and los pollos at their mercy, the three Mexican refugees cross the border and embark on an arduous trek over a barren mountain range, with the desert heat slowly chipping away at their lives. Close to death, the trio falls into the clutches of U.S. immigration officers. Separated from his newfound family, Santi must now navigate life at a youth immigration detention center. It’s here that Santiago’s story delves into an uncomfortable and bleak modern reality: one where children are held captive at underfunded, psychologically scarring detention centers. With unflinching conviction, Diaz sketches a frank, brief account of refugee youth in an uncaring bureaucratic system, where hope comes in glimpses and family separation becomes the norm. The author’s cleareyed, compassionate writing serves as a much-needed wake-up call to readers. . . . An urgent mirror for troubling times. (author’s note, resources, further reading, glossary) (Fiction. 8-12)

– Kirkus Reviews, *STARRED REVIEW*, March 1, 2020

This incisive portrayal of an unaccompanied minor’s trials will inspire both empathy and righteous anger in young readers. Santiago has been shuffled from relative to relative ever since his mom died when he was five. After his abusive aunt kicks him out, the 14-year-old decides to cross the border, from Mexico into the U.S., in hopes of finding a new life. He meets and bonds with a kind, single mom and her adorable little girl, with whom he joins on the harrowing journey, but when they get separated at the border, he wonders if he will ever be reunited with his newfound family. This is a heartrending tale of survival against the odds—including murderous coyotes, inhumane living conditions at detention centers, and traitorous guards. Diaz follows her Pura Belpré–winning The Only Road (2016) and its sequel with an equally sympathetic narrator searching for family and home. With every chapter, readers will be further immersed in Santiago’s story as they root for his triumph over injustice. The characters here are fully realized, and this narrative is one that brings home the reality of what is happening at our borders. Pair with David Bowles’ They Call Me Gu¨ero for units exploring the southern U.S. border. A musthave for all middle-grade collections.

– Booklist, STARRED Review, April 15, 2020

DIAZ, Alexandra. Santiago’s Road Home. 336p. S. & S./Paula Wiseman Bks. May 2020. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781534446236.

Gr 5-7–Fleeing his abusive family, 12-year-old Santiago joins a young mother, María Dolores, and her daughter, Alegría, in an attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. The three are near death from exhaustion and dehydration when border agents find and separate them. Santiago spends months in a youth detention facility where he is treated as a “criminal” and given no information about the mother and daughter, whom he has come to think of as his sisters. The prose is straightforward, presenting stark realities with no adornment. Covered with scars from abuse and often starving, Santiago approaches death’s door twice, and a teen at the detention center does die. The text includes many italicized Spanish words and phrases, and it acknowledges varying accents and vocabularies among Latin American countries. Back matter includes an afterword, a glossary, and lists of online resources and related books. Santiago is a sympathetic character, and readers get a vivid sense of his experiences and world view, which includes a distrust of police and most adults, as well as a great capacity for caretaking. The book ends with a happy reunion with María Dolores and Alegría, but their asylum cases are pending. They still don’t know if they will be allowed to stay in the U.S., and they will always live with the trauma of being separated. VERDICT Vivid details and a sympathetic protagonist make this a harrowing but deeply illuminating portrayal of the struggles faced by families at the U.S.-Mexico border.–Lisa Goldstein, Brooklyn Public Library

– School Library Journal, May 2020

Diaz, Alexandra

Santiago's Road Home

2020. 336pp. $17.99. hc. Paula Wiseman Books (Simon & Schuster). 9781534446236. Grades 6-8

Alexandra Diaz, recipient of a Pura Belpré Honor, writer and daughter of Cuban refugees, has produced a Dickensian tale of children who become “Dreamers” in search of a new life in the United States. Twelve-year-old Santiago doesn’t trust the future. After his mom’s death, Santiago is bounced from his abusive grandmother to the home of his aunt and uncle, who are also looking after his cousins. When Santiago capitalizes on an opportunity to run away, he is lucky enough to meet teen mother Maria Dolores and her toddler on his way, and ultimately decides he wants to cross the border with them to the United States. After a harrowing trip with a local “coyote,” the trio are left to fend for themselves in the dessert with limited supplies and water. After suffering dehydration and heat exhaustion, they are separated at an immigration holding center. Readers partake in Santiago’s painful prison-like experience in a holding center where genders and family members are separated. Diaz makes powerful statements about the corruption and nightmarish realities surrounding the holding centers, including the fact that people are not always returned to their countries, and are frequently returned in worse condition than before they left. Text includes a glossary of Spanish words, a further reading list of picture, middle, YA, and adult books, with nonfiction and web resources, and an author's note about holding centers. Book lovers will appreciate how Santiago flourishes while learning to read and help out during juvenile story-time. While there are more and more books being published about Dreamers, there are not many out there which expose the deplorable conditions of the displaced persons centers, a part of the story all Americans need to learn. Laura Dooley-Taylor, School Library Media Specialist, Cumberland Elementary School, Des Plaines, Illinois

Highly Recommended

– School Library Connection, May / June 2020

Following 12-year-old Santiago, Diaz (The Only Road) gives voice to a young refugee who overcomes tremendous obstacles to cross the border from Mexico into the United States, only to be trapped in a detention center. Forced from his aunt’s home, Santiago scrounges for food rather than return to his abusive grandmother. When a woman and her young daughter offer him sustenance and kindness, he asks to accompany them across the border. Sensing that he is trustworthy, they agree. While the book’s first half depicts the numerous dangers they survive together, leading up to a harrowing journey across the desert, the second half shares Santiago’s disconcerting experiences after being forcibly separated from his companions; crowded into a stark, chilly room with teenage boys; and monitored by unsympathetic guards. While kind staff offer comfort, months of bleak daily existence and an uncertain future undermine Santiago’s natural resilience. Basing Santiago’s story on well-documented experiences, Diaz’s crucial narrative shines a disconcerting light on the plight of children in U.S. detention centers along the southern border. Ages 8–12. Agent: Sarah Davies, Greenhouse Literary. (May)

– Publishers Weekly *STARRED*, May 25, 2020

For twelve-year-old Santiago, the future is a dangerous concept. Years of enduring physical abuse and emotional neglect at the hands of la malvada (his grandmother) and tía following the sudden death of his mother have taught Santiago not to hope for better prospects. Yet Santiago’s self-efficacy and resolve to survive ignite his courage to create a better life. Striking out on his own from Chihuahua, Mexico, Santiago meets María Dolores, a young mother who, along with her daughter Alegría, is on the way to el otro lado, the United States. Seizing the moment, Santiago decides to go, too. Diaz’s third-person narration specifies the life-and-death stakes involved in their journey north—from the cramped, dusty bus ride through Mexico, to the border town where Santiago negotiates the clandestine passage that ultimately strands them in the Sonoran Desert, to their eventual capture by la migra, who threaten to sever their forged kinship. Diaz achieves what statistics about childhood refugees often don’t, as the second half of the book illustrates the casual cruelties (metallic blankets, shoddy toothbrushes) and state-sanctioned violence of family separation. Personified through Santiago, the direct connections between immigrant detention and a country that treats imprisonment as an industry become undeniable. An author’s note, resources, further reading, and a glossary are appended.

– The Horn Book Magazine, September/October 2020

More books from this author: Alexandra Diaz