In the novel We Never Asked for Wings, Vanessa Diffenbaugh offers a unique perspective on the immigration experience. The New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers explores what happens to many Latinos who come to the United States to achieve the American Dream. For many, especially children, illegal entry into a foreign country where you aren’t welcomed, picked on because of the color of your skin, and poor, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This book tells a story about the difficult choices a family must make to survive and thrive in America, but living with the nostalgic question, would it have been better to return to Mexico or to have never left in the first place? We quickly see how immigration, motherhood, broken families, and young kids forced to tell lies and live in shame, are entangled in a complicated web of survival and hope inside a poor neighborhood in Northern California.
The story begins when Letty Espinoza, an unfit mother of two, is faced with raising her children for the very first time after 15 years. Her parents played the role of mother and father to Letty’s son, Alex (15), and daughter (6), Luna, until they decide to return to Mexico and leave Letty to step up and become a mother. Letty, Alex, and Luna live in a tiny apartment in the unfavorable wetlands near the bay. As Alex falls in love with a young girl, and learns that his real father lives close by, he struggles to give his mother a chance. Little Luna just misses her grandparents in Mexico and wants to be near them. Letty, wanting to prove herself capable of providing for her children, comes up with a plan to escape their seedy neighborhood with hopes for a better future in a wealthier neighborhood close by: Mission Hills. As things grow more and more difficult, the call home to Mexico is always there.
Diffenbaugh writes beautifully on the complicated themes of motherhood, illegal immigration, and the trappings and hopes of the American Dream. According to the reader’s guide provided at the end of the book, Diffenbaugh said, “she was inspired to write We Never Asked for Wings after working for a non-profit that offered after-school art and technology programs in East Palo Alto, a low-income community in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was struck by the intense isolation felt by the kids who live there.”
When I think of the American Dream, the focus seems to be on the promise of a better life, if one just works hard and never gives up. But rarely do I hear that perhaps the costs involved in attempting this dream (poverty in America, broken families, living under the radar), are not all it’s cracked out to be. Now, more than ever, Diffenbaugh’s unique perspective on whether one should stay or go, may become the common view as the pursuit of the American Dream falls just out of reach.
–Monica L. Dashwood is a freelance and blog writer.