Growing up in Santa Ana, a largely Latinx, working-class Southern California suburb, Ernesto Cisneros showed early signs of a literary future. He loved to read and daydream. “I was the space cadet in the corner who was always dreaming,” he says. “Later I realized I was writing, just not on paper.”
But it would be many years before the stars would align to bring Cisneros’s first book, Efrén Divided (Quill Tree), into the world. The middle grade novel follows a seventh grader’s attempt to keep his family going after his mother is deported. Efrén has, on one hand, a strong family that loves him deeply and, on the other, all the challenges that come with a country that doesn’t.
“I also grew up with a sense of disentitlement,” Cisneros says—a belief that writing is “for people who are really talented and gifted, not people like me.” As a child, Cisneros struggled with attention deficit disorder and was placed in lower-track classes, which lacked art easels and other amenities that marked the honors track. His teachers stopped taking students on weekly trips to the library in fifth grade, and “I didn’t pick up another book until junior year of high school,” he says.
That was when his English teacher, Sharon Saxton, invited author Helena María Viramontes to visit and Cisneros encountered her story “The Moths,” in which a young Latina cares for her dying grandmother. “It had never dawned on me that you could write about Latino characters,” Cisneros says. “[Viramontes] asked me what my major would be, and I said English.”
Cisneros, who teaches middle school in his hometown, makes a point of naming the teachers and authors who encouraged him on his winding path to becoming a writer. His website includes a section labeled “Hall of Fame,” devoted to photos of himself with “authors whom I not only admire, but who have helped pave the road for others like me to follow.” The slideshow includes well-known writers such as Matt de la Peña and Luis J. Rodríguez, along with fellow writers in his critique group.
The way Cisneros acknowledges the people who have uplifted him seems to stem from the humility of being a late bloomer. As a teacher, he recognizes that every bloom requires diligent gardeners. As a writer, he wasn’t sure he would ever get there.
Cisneros plugged away for 14 years before writing Efrén Divided, which has gone on to attract enthusiastic reviews and was blurbed by Sandra Cisneros (no relation), who called it “a book doing the work of spirit in a time of darkness.” He recalls, “Every time I submitted something, I barely heard back. I’d pretty much given up on getting published.”
Then, in 2016, Donald Trump was elected and the parents of three of Cisneros’s students were deported. When one of the students confided in him after school, he says, “I didn’t know what to say to him. Then I knew what I needed to write. I didn’t want to write a political book, I just wanted to open up the door and invite the world in to meet my family.”
Cisneros says writing a story for himself and those he cares about was the fun part. The hard part was depicting the injustice that has terrorized Latinx communities. “I based Amá on my own mother,” he notes. “As authors we torment our characters, and it was painful to do that to my family.”
When Efrén’s mother is deported, his father works overtime to pay a coyote to bring her back. Efrén is left to care for his younger siblings, and, although he struggles, he is buoyed by an outpouring of community support.
“My uncles would come over, and they had nothing,” Cisneros remembers. “But they’d give you their last dollar so you could go get ice cream. My neighbors are always bringing me fruit from their fruit trees. It was part of my culture that made me feel rich, and I wanted to depict that.”