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Photo: Penguin Random House / AFP
Photo: Penguin Random House / AFP

'Sanctuary': When a hero is made jumping over trenches and ditches

It could be 2032 or the year after this election. Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher's migrant dystopia is a brilliant call to action that is both heartbreaking and…

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Vermont, 2032. Imagine a not-too-distant future where people must wear ID chips on their wrists to wipe out undocumented citizens. It's a future already envisioned by the country's most conservative minds, with border police exercising ironclad control over migrants to the point where insistent deportation raids combine with landmines exploding under the feet of those trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. 

One second you're a young migrant trying to get a crumb of the American dream, the next you're cannon fodder. 

This is the ominous context in which Sanctuary places us — a dystopia so close to the times we live in that acts as an urgent call for attention on the present and future of immigration policies. 

The novel, written by Colombian activist Paola Mendoza and writer Abby Sher, follows the adventures of Valentina, a young Latina daughter of Colombian migrants in her desperate flight to California, which has become the only bastion of freedom in the country, its last sanctuary. 

One of the great things about Sanctuary is that it works the miracle of the best science fiction — awakening a chill in the reader because of the future it describes. It is by all means, an exercise in "futurology" and a prospective where society is moving forward with one foot on the heart of the social problems weighing on the United States and Latinx community. 

It's something that places its authors in the tradition of sensational ladies of the most contentious Sci-Fi that address the country's political and racial reality, such as Octavia Butler. But Mendoza and Sher do not recreate, as Butler often did — a metaphorical universe where vampires or alien races act — but modeled one that borders on the present advanced a couple of steps in the future.

This makes its protagonist the lever of change of that "tornado that is already in sight." That's the totalitarian regime that she, with all the clairvoyance and idealism of a teenager, believes she can defeat. At the same time, she invites us to do it, as we travel with her through the fields, taking the same route as thousands of other migrants today, surrounded by the vivid and atrocious descriptions of the harshness of a journey that blurs with death. It's so real and current, that it is impossible during reading to not stop and shake the dust off one's shoulders. 

Sanctuary not only wakes up the reader, but it is one of the clearest examples of the great quality of literature written by Latinx authors in the United States, and a beacon towards which the publishing industry should aim in its search for new perspectives and plural voices beyond hackneyed paths and doctrinal discourses. 

Science fiction is not a minor sub-genre, and dystopias are not future imaginations — but warnings — nor are Latinx authors minor storytellers, but rather capable of opening the door — as is the case with Sanctuary, to reflections so profound in form and substance that to call it political literature is to fall short. 

What is the answer to the dark world presented by Mendoza and Sher? Read, tremble, and arm yourself like Vali Gonzalez, its protagonist, with all your courage, and meditate if you are going to be mere spectators or part of the story. 

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