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'They call her Fregona' reflects on life on the U.S.-Mexico border

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What does it mean to be in the eighth grade and sure you're in love? How do you know? What do you do? How can you tell? Let's ask David Bowles to read from one of the poems that tell the story of Joanna and Guero in his new novel for young readers, "They Call Her Fregona."

DAVID BOWLES: (Reading) I'll be your girlfriend. That's what she said, so I haven't needed to define this relationship. We make our feelings clear with detallitos - all the little things that speak louder than words, like when I meet her outside of class one day and bend down to tie her loose shoelace. Or when we're walking home and I step too close to the road just as a semitruck speeds by and she yanks me onto the grass. Or when we stop at the dollar store to buy ingredients for spaghetti, which we cook together at my house because my family's at the dentist. Or when I find her standing alone one morning a block from school, looking sad, so I hug her from behind till she leans back into me, sighing. Or when one of Snake's minions trips me in the hall, but she catches me and everyone applauds, she slowly pulls me straight, looking into my eyes. I'm a poet, but all these small gestures say more than any words I could arrange.

SIMON: David Bowles, the award-winning author from south Texas, who has set his books in that special place along the Mexico-U.S. border, joins us now from the Rio Grande Valley. Thank you so much for being with us.

BOWLES: Oh, it's a delight, Scott. Thank you so much.

SIMON: The young woman at the center of the story, Joanna Padilla Benavides, has been in some of your other works, most notably "They Call Me Guero."

BOWLES: Right.

SIMON: What did she do that said to you, I need my - hey, over here - I need my own story told, too?

BOWLES: Part of it was readers. Early on, after "They Call Me Guero" came out and I was doing school visits in different places, young women would come up after my presentation and congratulate me and tell me how much they like the book, but then ask me if I was going to write a sequel. And when I said I was thinking about it, they said, you need to focus it on Joanna because she's the best character in the book. And when your readers ask for something, you'd be a fool not to follow their lead.

SIMON: And tell us about that nickname she carries - Fregona.

BOWLES: Yeah, Fregona in Mexican Spanish is a nickname that means tough girl. It comes from the verb fregar, which literally means to scrub, but has come to be a euphemism for other words and basically means to be tough, to be maybe a little annoying, to be hard. And she gets this nickname because, you know, she confronts life that way. She wants to protect the people she loves - her family and so forth - and it makes her seem a bit cold and distant to people. But Guero can see past that, at the special warmth that's inside of her, and their relationship is all about discovering each other.

SIMON: The story is sweet in so many ways, and it also gets tough. First day of eighth grade, something startling happens, doesn't it?

BOWLES: Yes, it does. Joanna's father is undocumented, and because of some outstanding warrants and things like that for speeding, he's picked up in an ICE raid and deportation proceedings begin. And it really puts a strain, obviously, on the romantic relationship between Guero and Fregona, but on the entire town. In the first book, I was really trying to explore, you know, Guero's love of poetry and how he uses it to celebrate his community and find solidarity, even though because he's a light-skinned Mexican American, he has more privilege than perhaps most people in his community.

In this book, I really wanted to flip that on its head and show, like, the stresses and cracks within the community that begin to show when half of the town is advocating for Mr. Padilla to be allowed to stay in the country and the other half wants him to be deported. So yeah, I mean, it becomes a story not just about the hardships Joanna goes through and how Guero has to learn that he can't fix her problems for her, but also a lesson in, no matter how much we love them, the communities we live in, if you flip those stones over, there are worms and cockroaches beneath.

SIMON: Guero really wants to be of help, but it's hard for somebody who's in eighth grade - or, for that matter, somebody who's 80 - to be of help in a situation like this, isn't there?

BOWLES: Yeah, it is really hard. And, you know, especially men - I don't want to generalize, but men tend to be socialized to be problem solvers, to fix things. I know that that's the way I was raised. And Guero has to find, just as I had found over the years, that that doesn't always work, that sometimes you just need to listen. Sometimes you just need to be there for the people that are hurting, and that your attempt to help them could actually make things worse. And that's what, you know, Guero discovers because he does make things worse, unfortunately.

SIMON: And that raises a question that the journalist in me has to ask. What happens to Joanna and her family is wrenching. But what are authorities supposed to do - and about half Border Patrol agents are from Hispanic families along the border...

BOWLES: Yeah.

SIMON: ...When well-known laws are violated?

BOWLES: One of the conversations I have with people a lot is the difference between breaking a law and being a criminal. Criminalizing people's search for a better life is problematic. And so, you know, for the longest time - I mean, my family on the Mexican American side has lived on the border for 2 1/2 centuries. And we have always had a place for people who needed refuge here. And it's only been in recent years that things have tightened up to the point where we can no longer provide shelter to those people - not easily, anyway. And so, yeah, I always argue in favor of reforming these laws and making it easier for people along the border to take care of their own - their own being people who come to the border in search of a better life.

SIMON: You write so vividly about communities around the border and south Texas. Do you hope that young readers in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Vermont find something in your verse and your story, too?

BOWLES: I sure do. I mean, obviously, when I write about the border, I'm writing for border kids primarily. But I'm a big believer in this essential fact that the universal rises from the specific, and that by writing about stories that are rooted in the geography and culture and language of this place, I am giving people outside of my community a glimpse at the very human lives that we live that will, I think, resonate with them just as their lives resonate with us. I'm a firm and staunch believer in avoiding this kind of homogenous, fictional, bland kind of version of the U.S. in favor of stories that are rooted in the specificity of each one of our variegated regions. We have such, you know, beautiful diversity, even within the white community, across the country, and it's really important to me that those specific stories be told because they will resonate.

SIMON: David Bowles - his novel "They Call Her Fregona: A Border Kid's Poems" - thank you so much for being with us.

BOWLES: Likewise. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.