When they got to the border, Alan was asleep, and Margarita dropped him off at a safe house with Arturo. “I’m glad he was sleeping when I left him, because he would have been worried to see me,” she remembers. “I was crying and shaking a lot, and I couldn’t stop.” Arturo promised her that Alan would be safe and that she would see him again very soon, but Margarita couldn’t escape the feeling that something terrible might happen to her son.
Margarita’s crossing took longer than advertised. Her group spent two days waiting on the border because one of their guides got word that Border Patrol agents were swarming the area after a recent drug bust. Finally, on the third evening, the group navigated the canal and then waded through fields of alfalfa, with standing water up to their knees. Dodging the headlights of Border Patrol trucks, they continued walking until they came to a waiting van, which spirited them into the California desert, where another van was supposed to pick them up. They waited for another three days in the desert, sleeping outside in garbage bags. The guide had brought along enough chicken and water to sustain them, but Margarita was so worried about Alan that she hardly ate. Eventually, the second van arrived and took Margarita to the house in Santa Ana where Alan was staying with the smuggler’s family. It was there that Margarita learned how well Alan had taken to his false identity.
“He said that his name now was José,” she remembers. “And I told him, ‘No, you are Alan now,’ but he still kept saying he was José.” Days later, as they were preparing to land in Newark, Margarita asked Alan if he was excited to see his papá, and Alan told her matter-of-factly that he wasn’t going to see his father, because his father was named Arturo and he was still in California. When they landed, Rafael was waiting to greet them at the airport. He hugged his son, marveling at how much he had grown. Then Alan announced again that he wasn’t really named Alan and that Rafael wasn’t really his father.
“Imagine your own son says that he has a different father!” says Rafael. Alan’s parents still aren’t sure whether he was joking; after all, he hadn’t seen his real father in two years. But after a week his memory of Arturo faded and he began to acclimate to life in America. It was difficult at first. Margarita summed up her impression of her new neighborhood in one word: feo. Ugly. Alan didn’t much like the cramped, urban setting either; there wasn’t as much room to play. But it wasn’t long before he was speaking English without an accent, eating Happy Meals at McDonald’s, and watching Pokémon on TV.
Alan’s home in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park is small and crowded. It’s a basement apartment, with two small bedrooms that seem large compared with the common room and kitchen. The living space has so many odds and ends stacked against the walls that it looks like one long hallway. In all, eight people live here. There are Alan and his 4-year-old sister, America, and their parents, plus Alan’s aunt Elizabeth and her husband, Guadalupe, and their two children, Adriana, who is 13, and Angel, just 6 months old. Each four-person family shares a single room. All of the parents are undocumented immigrants, as is Alan. Adriana, Angel, and America, born after their parents moved to New York, are U.S. citizens.
“When they told me I needed to hide in a bag, I thought I wouldn’t live,” says Alan. “I was real, real nervous.”
The important institutions in Alan’s life are all within walking distance. His school, which is two-thirds Latino, is half a block from his apartment; his church is three blocks away; and there’s a Salvation Army nearby, which has a basketball court where he and Daniel play with the kids in the neighborhood.
He gets along well in school and especially enjoys math, but when the topic turns to reading, he furrows his brow like a person three times his age. “Language is my worst subject,” he explains. “Last year, I was real worried ’cause I didn’t think I’d pass the reading test, but I got a three, which is pretty good. I think I might not pass this year, though.”
Only once has the school called Alan’s parents because of misbehavior. According to Alan, a group of Puerto Rican students regularly teased and sometimes hit him. “One day, I got hit in the back during class, and so I hit the kid.” The teacher witnessed the second infraction—Alan’s—and called his father. Rafael was angry, but not with Alan. “Why did they only have a meeting with me and not the parents of the other kid that hit Alan?” he asks. Rafael suspected that the teacher was biased against Mexicans. He made Alan promise to never hit anyone again and to tell him when he was having problems, so that he could speak directly to the teacher.