I feel incredibly lucky to be able to share a piece of myself with you. Indivisible is a book about many things—it is about a family faced with impossible circumstances, whose love and devotion to one another manage to keep them together even when they are apart. It is a portrait of a gay Mexican-American teenager who is forced to grow up too quickly, and who finds strength within himself to do unimaginable things. It is a story about finding solace in the most unexpected of places, and about the unbreakable bonds that bind us to the people we love.
This is, ultimately, a work of fiction, but there is a lot of myself in these pages. There are images of what family meals used to be like when I was growing up, and the feeling of sitting at the table next to my parents and siblings, eating home-made Mexican food. There are pieces of my friends, and the nights we spent fantasizing out loud, talking about our dreams as though we were certain they were going to come true. There are glimpses into the admiration I have for my Latinx community, and the love and support the people around me have offered when I’ve needed them the most.
I learned many things as I was writing this story, but one of the most important lessons was one that I learned alongside Mateo, the main character in Indivisible: That asking for help when we need it is not a sign of weakness, but of strength.
Much like Mateo, I haven’t always known how to ask for help. Especially at moments when I’ve felt alone, or angry, or when I’ve found myself at a crossroads, I have found it difficult to speak up. It’s ironic, really—the way in which challenging situations sometimes force us to withdraw into ourselves, rather than turn toward those around us. When we’re feeling down, it can be incredibly easy to forget that there are people in our lives who are willing to lift us up, and that our own voice is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal.
I hope this book reminds you that there is power in vulnerability, that asking for help when you need it only makes you stronger, and that leaning on others can bring unexpected things into your life. More than that, I hope that it moves you, inspires you, and helps you see that — no matter how tough things may get sometimes — you are never truly alone.
Thank you for giving this story a chance. I hope you enjoy reading it.
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.
This timely, moving debut novel follows a teen's efforts to keep his family together as his parents face deportation.
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, even 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.
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