Illegal by Bettina Restrepo–Are your papers in order?

     What would you do if you were a girl seriously wanting your father for your fifteenth birthday, quienceanera, and he’d suddenly gone silent in a strange land called Houston?

Bettina Restrepo’s Illegal places readers smack dab in young Nora’s desperate world of failing grapefruit orchard, dying village and dangerous journey to the not very welcoming land of Texas. In Houston the buildings grow tall while keeping people small and insignificant. Deepening poverty and increasing concern about the silence of Nora’s father from the land of opportunity drive the young girl and her mother into making a desperate search to a place where calling the police to report an assault is not a viable option.  No one wants to leave the once thriving village but survival dictates desperate measure for desperate times when the tax man gets impatient.

Love and family values push three generations of Mexican women to leave behind all they know and hold dear to search for the man missing from their daily lives. Deliberately or not, Restrepo presents anew the mythic threesome of the maiden, matron and crone in the forms of Nora, her mother and grandmother as they are forced to confront the reality of the economic and social death of their Mexican village. The grapefruits rotting in the once prosperous orchard reinforce the mythic imagery of a dying land unable to support the people. Even the village bank scarcely has any purpose other than to employ Hector.

    Illegal is a dark reality check of a young adult novel that many American adults would benefit from reading. What’s the Dream Act about? Who wants it and why? Well, Nora’s story might provide some clues to the answers. Hungry stomachs often go hand in hand with hungry young minds. The need to make a meaningful life wherever you find your feet planted is real and valid cause for concern. Unless they’ve experienced poverty in America many young readers might have trouble entering Nora’s world where learning to speak English is a vital concern surpassed by the need to help her mother keep it together in a hostile urban jungle where girls beat each other for entrance into gangs.

Restrepo does her best to get readers into and keep them in Nora’s changing world.  It’s not an easy task. To help raise cultural awareness she incorporates Espanol into the novel. There’s a decent little glossary at the back for readers who have no idea that cartas means a pack of cards, cabrito is a baby goat, and that a coyote can be something other than an animal–a human smuggler. Illegal is a solid novel which pulls no punches yet works to be accessible to young adult readers who are curious about what’s going with other young people beyond the boundaries of their own private worlds.

Now what would have happened if the Native Americans had thought to demand identity papers and immigration documents for all the white European invaders searching for land and riches in the New World?  Imagine that.

Visit Bettina Restrepo at

Find Illegal and more young adult fiction published by Katherine Tegen Books:



  1. August 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful review! I never considered the women as the mythic 3, but I intentionally portrayed the orchard as you described.

    You raise interesting and important questions – exactly the response I wanted the reader to have.

    Thanks again for writing down your thoughts.

    • August 14, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      Hello Bett. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts about Illegal and making the effort to leave your kind words. Illegal is a good book about a very important human issues. I hope it is read widely.

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