Thirteen-year-old Estela Juarez is two steps ahead of other debut authors three times her age. A letter she wrote to President Trump when she was eight—describing her mother’s deportation to Mexico despite her father’s naturalized citizenship and service as a Marine—gained national attention and led to a video address at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. She has adapted her family’s story into a picture book, Until Someone Listens, co-written with Lissette Norman and illustrated by Teresa Martinez, available in English and Spanish editions. PW spoke with Juarez about translating her real-life experiences onto the page.
Most of us don’t want to relive the worst days of our lives, but you’ve done it in letters, on video, and now in a book. Where does your courage come from?
This has affected my family every day, and even now that my mom is back with us in the U.S., she’s worried about what might happen to her in the next year. So I think I get my courage from just knowing that I need to do everything I can to help my mom.
I have gotten very used to talking about this because I do it so often. But mostly it feels frustrating knowing that my mom is in this situation and she has done nothing wrong. She has contributed so much to this country, and she’s being punished for it, and it’s all in this book.
Those difficult moments are never shown directly. When someone first appears threatening your mother with deportation, the two are simply shadows on the wall. When she’s taken away, only the shadow of her hand appears—a shadow you’re running after. Why shadows?
I think Miss Teresa tried to really represent how dark the moment was for me, so the shadows are gray and dark, and they are the sad moments. In my young mind, I could never comprehend what was going on, even when the man from the government came to my house to try to deport my mom. I only remember his voice. I do not remember his face, and to me it looked like shadows.
What was your reaction to the early drawings?
I was astonished when I saw the pictures. Miss Teresa did the whole story beautifully. I was so happy, and I felt so grateful to know that such an incredible illustrator was representing my story.
You don’t want to create something so scary that a parent is not going to read your book to a child. So how do you show strong emotion on the page?
I know my story is a very difficult and complicated one. As a child I never fully understood what was going on until I got a little older. So we really wanted to create it in a way where other children could take courage from my story, know that they can share their voice, and that they will eventually be heard. We wanted to show it in a way that didn’t make children scared, but we also wanted them to understand what was going on in the moment.
If a future you could send back strength to your younger self, would it have helped to know how it would all turn out?
Me telling my younger self what was going to happen—I feel like it wouldn’t have made a difference. I knew that my mom was going to get deported. I remember the last day she had in the United States. I kept thinking, is this real? And I had to come to terms with it—that she was being taken away the next day. I could have used the courage that I have now when I was little. But I also think that what happened in the past made me who I am today.
When you finally finished the book, how did that feel?
I started writing before I was approached with the opportunity for this book. So knowing that my writing was actually going to be published, it felt incredible and unreal to me. It was such a beautiful experience.
Does seeing your story in book form change anything for you?
It makes me feel very safe and very full of gratitude, knowing that my story will be there for anybody who would like to read it or needs inspiration and courage. And when I get older and hopefully become a lawyer, they will think, “Wow! She actually accomplished her dreams.” It’ll be beautiful for anybody to read my legacy whenever they would like to.
No child wants to be separated from their parents. Suppose an all-powerful genie appeared and said, “Estela, you can turn back time and never be separated from your mother, never appear in the spotlight, never hold this book in your hands.” What would you choose, and why?
Wow, this is a very hard question! Although what happened to my family was terrible, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to help other immigrants that I have now. But I think going through such a hard time prepared me for what’s coming next. I want to be an immigration lawyer, and though I’ll feel terrible, seeing all those children who were separated from their families just like I was, I’ll understand.
You say you wrote this book to share your experiences with the world and hopefully change things. What do you write for yourself that you wouldn’t want to share?
There are times where I’ve been very angry, writing down all the terrible things I couldn’t say, because I just felt so many emotions. When I was in the U.S. and my mom was in Mexico, especially knowing that she was alone with no emotional support, that felt very terrible to me.
You seemed to know that writing could make you feel better and help release those feelings.
I realized that writing is a way of healing. I needed to write down my experiences to heal, especially since I didn’t have access to therapy—my dad was at work, so nobody could drive me there. I think that writing definitely made me the person that I am today.
What advice do you have for other writers your age who want to publish a book someday?
No matter how scary it is, just keep writing down all your experiences, and continue to share your voice because somebody will hear you. And read a lot, because you learn from other storytellers. March by John Lewis inspired me. As a young man, he used his voice. I hope that my book inspires others. I hope that it will reach legislators who can help change the broken immigration laws to find a permanent solution for my mom and for other families. My story is one of many—a lot of families are much less fortunate. They really need that courage, and need to be reunited with their family again.
Until Someone Listens: A Story About Borders, Family, and One Girl’s Mission by Estela Juarez with Lissette Norman, illus. by Teresa Martínez. Roaring Brook, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-250-83212-2