Julia Alvarez, the popular American novelist whose cultural roots are in the Dominican Republic, has once again turned her depth of insight and imagination to the young adult genre. In Return to Sender, she’s taken the hot-button topic of undocumented Mexican workers and brought it into focus through the story of two families, one American and one Mexican. The Paquette family lives on a Vermont dairy farm that has been in their family for generations.
We meet them through Tyler, an earnest and likeable sixth-grader who has discovered that his parents hired a Mexican family to work on the farm. Because of his grandfather’s recent death and a farm accident which left his father disabled, Tyler knows that the survival of his family’s farm is in jeopardy. He asks his parents if they went to Mexico to hire the Cruz family while he was visiting his aunt and uncle. “No, son,” his father answered. “We didn’t have to go to Mexico. They were already here.” Alvarez immediately draws in the reader, young and old alike, through her sympathetic and honest take on Tyler’s family. Tyler, who loves life on the farm, has a brother who is off to college with no farming ambitions and a teenage sister who is, not surprisingly, mostly interested in boys.
The Cruz family left the poverty and failing farms of southern Mexico to find work in the States. Mari, born in Mexico, is Tyler’s counterpart and it is through her that we come to know the Cruz family. She has two sisters (both born in Carolina del Norte where the family had previously been working), two uncles, a father and a beloved mother who recently returned to Mexico to care for a dying parent. Alvarez uses translated text to allow the reader, in an easy and surprisingly inclusive way, to become as familiar with the Spanish of the Cruz family as the English of the Paquette family.
Mari’s story is told through letters she writes to her mother (Queridisima Mama) and then to Our Lady of Guadalupe (Adorada Virgen de Guadalupe). We experience the interaction of these families for a period of one year, beginning in Chapter One, Uno, Summer 2005, and ending in Chapter Nine, Nueve, Summer 2006. Alvarez moves the families through the seasons of life on a farm. Mari and Tyler have more than schoolwork in common. While Tyler worries about his father’s fate for hiring undocumented workers, Mari lives in constant fear that her father and uncles’ status will be discovered and that all of them will be jailed and returned to Mexico.
Their lives begin to mirror one another as they struggle with issues both within and beyond their grasp. How Tyler deals with the death of his beloved grandfather and Mari with the fear that her mother may never find her way to Vermont is at the heart of the story. It is Tyler’s grandmother who moves past the loss of her husband to lead the way for both families to understand and support one another.
Alvarez does not turn away from tough and realistic situations in Return to Sender. The return of Mari’s mother comes at a terrible price, but there is also hope. The barn swallows (golondrinas) who leave the Paquette farm every fall and return from their migration to Mexico every spring become a mysterious and fitting symbol of that hope.
As an addendum to this review written more than four years ago, I’d like to doubly recommend Return to Sender at this time when legislation regarding immigration is still front page fodder for the news-mill. Return to Sender, for those of us on the West Coast or in the South, is a poignant reminder that families like Mari’s and Tyler’s are no longer found in any one particular part of the United States. Return to Sender is still a great read. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Alvarez: In the Time of the Butterflies; How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents; Before We Were Free; How Tia Lola Came to (Visit) Stay; Finding Miracles; A Wedding in Haiti; In the Name of Salome; Something to Declare; Yo!; A Cafecito Story.