Tag Archives: memoir

THE SUN IS A COMPASS : a 4000 mile journey into the Alaskan Wilds

There is always a certain level of risk involved in negotiations with wild places and wild elements. Even those places that seem tame, or familiar. . . The key is finding a balance – trying to determine whether the risk is worth the reward. Caroline Van Hemert

Caroline Van Hemert and her husband, Patrick Farrell have reached a pivotal point in their lives. Life-long naturalists,  experienced wilderness trekkers and residents of Alaska have found themselves defined by their jobs and miserable. Caroline, after years of academic study is a research wildlife biologist “locked” inside a science lab peering into a microscope. Patrick, a home builder, yearns to see the trees still rooted in nature and simmers with repressed wanderlust.

They now face the end of what I call their “immortal” years. That spry time where you dream of what you want to be when you grow up and live life to its fullest pushing decisions that must be made aside for the time being. Unencumbered by children or full-time careers, Caroline and Patrick were free to dream and travel the world at leisure to experience the thrill of discovering what lies around the next bend.

But now they have reached their mid-thirties and they discover themselves sitting at the top of the roller-coaster staring down at all those weighty thoughts they put off thinking about.  Do we want a family? Have we reached that point in our lives where we live day-to-day repeating our activities like Ground Hog Day? They realize that they can’t answer those questions without taking time off to reflect. They are still strong and capable of physically challenging adventures and if they are to take one last fling at living life on the edge, it is now or never.

A long neglected plan created by the duo to travel over 4000 miles from the rain forests of Washington state to a remote point on the frozen shores of the Alaskan Arctic Ocean was dusted off, reexamined and with the help of family and friends carefully laid out. They were planning to “go where no man had gone before”. Traveling wild areas, some uncharted and vaguely described on maps. Testing their mettle in ways they could not have imagined. Meeting strangers and experiencing kindness and generosity unimagined.

Armchair adventurers, you are in for a treat. Caroline has a gift for writing that will have you breathless with excitement, slack jawed with awe, and dumbfounded that anyone would take on such a challenge to face starvation, marauding bears, and extreme weather conditions. Her descriptions of awesome beauty found in a single flower or the burst of birdsong flood your mind. The words so carefully chosen that the reader is engaged fully in Caroline’s journey physically and emotionally. She lets it all hang out and it is her honesty and sincerity that makes the book so special. The uninitiated backwoods traveler will be surprised that within the isolation and raw weather extremes, the mind slips into a zone where the issues that led you into the wilderness will surface giving true meaning to the phrase- finding yourself. We share her tears, laughter, joy, sorrow, thrill of discoveries, and love of life shared with her partner and husband, a man whose incredible skills seem to good to be true.  Everyone needs a man that can look at a fallen log and see a canoe – and makes it so!

The epilogue is icing on the cake; it would seem she found the answers to her mental questions. Recommended reading.

ARC provided by Edelweiss in exchange for my opinion and review.

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EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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FOLLOWING ATTICUS

A friend of mine who is not into mountains or nature or the simple blissful feeling that comes from wind in your face once asked me, ” What’s the big deal? You get to a mountaintop and you see the same view you did from the last mountaintop. I don’t get it.”

While I was looking out on . . . the forty-eight [mountains] we’d encountered. . . I had my answer. How many times can you look upon the face of God?    Tom Ryan, Following Atticus

FOLLOWING ATTICUS

FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG,
AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP

Much like a good country western song packs as many red-neck images as possible in the lyrics, Tom Ryan in Following Atticus reveals a full life packed with heart-wrenching drama complemented by the discovery of the healing nature of the natural world and the power of friendship.

This memoir of an out-of-shape newspaper reporter and his dog, Atticus, is a love story. A love story that opens as Tom Ryan, eleven-years into a one-man community newspaper operation, has grown weary of gathering gossip and political dander in his adopted small town. He struggles with a fractious relationship with his father and yearns to find a source of peace and harmony within himself to counterbalance all the stress in his life.

The story begins when Tom is asked to help find someone willing to adopt an elderly dog no longer wanted by its family. After failing to find anyone else, he reluctantly agrees to adopt the dog himself.

For days we stared at one another thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Although Max was with Tom for a short time, it was time enough for Tom and Max to bond; to share a friendship and to experience love. Tom was ready to take the leap into the next chapter of his life.

Maxwell Garrison Gillis had opened a door,
and Atticus Maxwell Finch was about to walk through it.

ATTICUS TILTED

Together, Atticus and Tom would take the world by storm. The tiny Miniature Schnauzer with an independent streak and the dispirited out-of-shape human became bonded by respect and an intuitive language known and understood only to them.atticus perched.png

A serendipitous opportunity to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire opened a new window in the lives of this oddly paired couple. Day after day, year after year, this unlikely duo forged ahead climbing unimaginably difficult summits in the most extreme winter weather. Their adventures are accurately and vividly described. I’ve been there.

MN and SS on washington[A friend asked me if the winter climbs were actually as arduous as depicted – I assured her they were. See me on Mount Washington with my husband, grasping the summit sign to avoid being blown over.]

Tom found he had deep personal reserves both mentally and physically. He learned he was capable of achieving the nearly impossible.  It never got physically easy for him. But he never quit. Plagued by life’s sorrows and unfair burdens, Tom found the strength to overcome emotional defeat while alone with his thoughts in the isolation. His lifelong fear of the dark traveled with him in the stark dark of night surrounded by things that go bump in the night. He survived these terrors because he wasn’t alone – he had Atticus for company and comfort.

For Atticus, his role changed in the mountains. In town, he played by civilization’s rules; he allowed Tom to be his guide. Surrounded by the natural world, Atticus took charge, roles reversed. Puffed-up proud, the “Little Giant” strode ever onward, stepping instinctively toward each summit, seemly oblivious to the possibility of failure. With one eye on Tom and the other on the way ahead he led Tom ever on and ever upward in more ways than one.

Off the mountain, the emotional rifts and causalities continue in Tom’s life.  Life is a line graph and not every point on the grid is an uptick. There are some seriously Debbie-downer moments; this is true life not fiction. You can’t write away reality. Have tissues nearby.

I was awed by the compassion and affection of strangers when life hands the “guys” a life-altering blow. I was gripped with a sense of Déjà vu over Tom’s dysfunctional childhood. And I share the need to become one with the universe; to be part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion, I  found this book fabulous for so many reasons. There’s something for everyone – small community dynamics, dealing with aging parents, child abuse, puppy farms, mountain climbing, geography, weather . . . et al.

Highly recommended.

Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

 

 

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Wrong Place, Wrong Time: a true story

WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME :
a true story

I think it is every parent’s nightmare that your young adult child will make some regrettable choice that will affect the rest of their lives. Having raised a wild child myself, there were many sleepless night worrying for his safety and future. Once they have tipped over that spillway of regret and misdirection, there comes the hope that they can pick up the pieces of their lives and find their way back to their better angels.

by DAVID P. PERLMUTTER

SELF-PUBLISHED | 2013
217 pgs
MEMOIR / TRUE CRIME
BEST SELLER IN CRIME & BIOGRAPHY

★★★★☆

 

in the wrong place at the wrong time :

in a situation where something bad happens to you because you are unlucky, not because you do anything wrong 

Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary

SO. What happens when indiscretion is mixed with unlucky circumstance AND you are in a foreign land? David Perlmutter tells us – NOTHING GOOD!

It’s London in the 1980s. David, a young buck in his twenties, is a highly successful real estate agent. One fateful night leaving work, he joins a friend for a pint at the local pub. With a heady glow of success suspending his better judgement, he unwisely extends a friendly pint into a late night revelry that lands him in a London jail. The crime of “driving-under-the-influence” costs him his job, his future and damages his relationship with his parents.

Running away from his shame, he heads to Marbella, Spain to spend the summer there to clear my head and to try and regain my almost shattered confidence. 

His father’s parting words exude caution. There’s little more that a parent can do when an adult child walks through a mine field.

Son, have fun but please be careful, you’re in a foreign country so don’t do anything silly. . . Just watch out for those Spanish cops. He paused for a second, looked into my eyes then went on, Some of them are cunts. I was taken aback. I’d never heard my father swear before.

Take a nearly penny-less hormonal twenty-something young man with a damaged ego and place him in a foreign city famous for topless beaches and an extravagant lifestyle – what could go wrong? To go any further would spoil the story for the next reader.

Personally, I was impressed that the author would be so candid and open about this period of his life. If you have a child clambering for that fun filled summer abroad, make them read the book. There are lessons to be learned here.

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Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

DIMESTORE: A WRITER’S LIFE

by Lee Smith

Algonquin | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-502-7
Genre:  Memoir
Review Source: Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia- mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My Uncle…used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, ‘Sun on the mountaintop’!  – Lee Smith

Author Lee Smith extends an offer to join her on the porch swing to share intimate details of her life growing up in the heart of coal-country of southwest Virginia. Known for her fictional down-home Appalachian characters in popular fiction such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Dimestore: A Writer’s Story is her first work of nonfiction. Smith lets us know right away that Dimestore is more than a memoir. As the sub-title tells us, it is a writer’s story.

She begins by leading us by the hand into the mountains, down the side trails to hollers and into town where we share her love of the mountain music and the old time religion steeped into the souls of the people. She introduces us to, later famous, musicians that she knew as just “local talent”. It’s not long before you want to be adopted into the larger extended family… a family that accepts you warts and all.

We step inside her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store and peer with her through the one-way window as she sees life in its most candid moments.

Upstairs in my father’s office…[I stood] observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass…Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator…it was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

 We chuckle with her at her mother’s desperate attempts to tame the tomboy and provide instruction on lady-like behavior..often involving extended trips to genteel family members …[Mom would send] me down to Alabama every summer for Lady lessons.

And I will admit that the lengthy list of southern cooking treats prized by Mama and her bridge club made me hungry.

But there is a darker side to her life that will surprise you. Both of her parents suffered from mentally debilitating illnesses. Smith turned to intense reading, writing and usually a dog when her parent’s frailties would leave her lonely and dislodged while they were away at local hospitals.

About midway through the book, Smith shifts away from anecdotal stories and introduces the teachers and mentors, not the least of these being the author, Eudora Welty, that help her develop as a narrator of characters gleaned from her own cultural background.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book more… it is rich with life stories and portraits of small town life that resonated with my own small town past. But for aspiring writers or those curious about what draws some people to a life of imagination and storytelling, this book will perhaps tickle a budding idea that will lead to your own short story or the next great novel.

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I’ll Push You

ill-push-you-cover
camino-collage

★★★★

I’LL PUSH YOU :

a journey of 500 miles, two best friends, and one wheelchair.

by PATRICK GRAY and JUSTIN SKEESUCK

Tyndale House | June 2017
Hardcover: 272 pages
ISBN: 978-1496421692
Genre: Personal Memoir
ARC e-book from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.

Every once in a while a book jumps off the shelf into your consciousness and you realize it will change your life in ways you never expected!

Two best friends, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck, headed to Spain in 2014 to hike the El Camino de Santiago (also known as The Way of St. James). There was print and video press coverage of their journey but I don’t watch much TV and frankly I missed it all. When I saw this book offered as an advance read, I eagerly checked out the synopsis and investigated clips of the video coverage on You-Tube. I was hooked.

It all began in 2012 when Justin watched a travel program featuring the El  Camino and became inspired to hike it. He shared the taped program along with his desire to do the trail with his best friend, Patrick. Without hesitation, Patrick responded, I’ll  push you.”justin

Why do you ask would he need to push Justin? Justin has a rare progressive autoimmune/neuromuscular disease that has left him unable to move his upper and lower limbs.

The friends realized that this was going to require extraordinary effort on both of them to pull this off.  Justin’s daily medical and personal care would have to be undertaken by Patrick. That full time job would be accomplished after grueling day pushing, tugging, lugging, and carrying Justin through mud holes and over steep mountain terrain.

Two years later, on June 3, 2014 this awesome twosome set on their life altering 34 days journey.

This deeply personal memoir interlaces the arduous hike with personal vignettes of their shared childhoods, personal struggles with addiction, marriages, spiritual growth – and most importantly their love and loyalty to each other. Their relationship defines the meaning of friendship.

As a long distance hiker myself, I acknowledge the bonds and community of fellow pilgrims that develop in the intimacy of a long walk. The reader will be amazed at the selflessness of others to slow their own Camino experience to lend a hand when needed. I personally wasn’t surprised when complete strangers were willing to discuss their reasons for hiking, often exposing their life warts, and to share their difficult internal journey toward personal peace. It happens on the trail but it will probably come as a surprise to the non-hiking community.

Recommended.

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Clancys of Queens

clancys cover.jpg

by Tara Clancy

tara-clancy-1

Hardcover: 256 pages
Crown Publishing | 2016
ISBN: 978-1-101-90311-7
Genre: Personal Memoir

★★★★☆

Print ARC won via LibraryThing/Early Readers and e-copy via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased honest review.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
queens

Recipe For Self-Deprecating
Coming-Of-Age Memoir

Take one five-year old Irish-Italian school girl from New York City (Queens) with the energy of the “Roadrunner” and the mischievous bent of “Wile E. Coyote”; a self identified whirling dervish with a penchant for mayhem.

Pass her around Queens like an invitation to a “progressive dinner”.

Start her out weekdays in the care of her Italian grandparents, Rosalie and “Ricky” Riccobono and their geriatric relatives and neighbors on 251st Street in Bellerose, Queens. Indulge her free spirit and fill her days with love and a generous dose of Rosalie’s Italian salty invectives.

[I enter the kitchen and sneak up on Grandma as she is about to tell me to do something.] I’m a few feet below Grandma’s sight line…her head slowly swiveling left, then right, then left again with a fixed, fuming gaze, looking like a cyborg in a housedress. Right before her eyes start pulsing red and she turns real-life Terminator, her head tilts down and there I am, standing at her heels and choking down a laugh…[She starts her instructions as she always does with her favorite opening cussword. She means nothing by it, it’s just her catch-all punctuation.]

Weekday evenings hand her over to her loving and patient mother for the quiet solitude of each other’s company. As quiet as life can be with a dervish in the house.

Two weekends a month gift her to her caring father, a dirt-poor Irish-American police officer and his pull out sofa bed in his one-room converted boat shed near Jamaica Bay. Saturday evenings, the two sit high above the crowd in the Crow’s Nest at Gregory’s Bar and Restaurant in Broad Channel, Queens collecting treats and high fives from the regulars.

ps133-logoThe other two weekends place her in the back of a stretch limo, alone, to arrive at the luxurious Bridgehampton estate of her mother’s boyfriend. Incongruously parked at the formal entrance of the main house is her plastic electric Power Wheels pickup charged and ready for her first tour of the estate grounds.

Stir together blending all characters into one big extended family that protects, loves and supports our little dervish as she crashes and blasts her way through grade school, middle school and into high school. Tara goes through schools like Imelda Marcos does shoes.

Tara tells her story as if she is riding the subway sharing anecdotes over time to a seatmate. Each story awash in a fresh memory that exposes more of herself not deeply but openly and often with humor. Along the way we learn a lot about Queens and meet some wonderful people with colorful nicknames such Uncle Jelly, Mumbling Joe and Jimmy the Hat. (Wait until you meet Rosemary. Sorry no hints. Won’t spoil the surprise.)

The story is not all fun and games. She openly shares her darker issues such as alcohol abuse and the struggle for sexual identity but she always finds a way to tell it with tongue-in-cheek humor. In true New York style everything and everyone feels larger than life but the overall emotion that rings through the clatter and clutter is unconditional love. Tara has a way of expressing her love for her parents, grandparents and extended family in all her stories that makes you want to head to Grandma Rosalie’s for Christmas dinner.

Believe me you are in for a surprise when you read what turns her life around at the end!

Recommended.

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The Weight of Shadows

THE Weight of Shadows cover

The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement

by José Orduña
Beacon Press | 2016
ARC e-Reader copy
Paperback: 240 pages (978-0-8070-7402-2)
Genre: Adult/Memoir/Immigration/Latin America

★★★

An advance reader copy was provided by Beacon Press through
  in exchange for my honest opinion.

 

“This is America.

Each passage and inscription of a human being as “illegal” is a reiteration.
We are in the zone where justice reaches its vanishing point,
sheds its veneer, and reveals itself fully as punishment.”

José Orduña

José Orduña was born in Veracruz, Mexico.  His mother, Yoli, was a semester from graduating with a degree in agronomy when she found out she was pregnant. Unmarried, Yoli was forced to quit school and summarily disowned by her parents.  Martin Orduña , José’s father and his parents gave her a home.  After they married, Martin left his wife and new baby with his parents while he joined his Aunt Hilda in Chicago hoping to find work. When José was 2-years old his mother and he joined Martin entering the United States on a tourist visa.

Yoli and Martin struggled to make a life for themselves and José in the US.  Limited by legalities and language, lived in shadows; caught between two worlds.  Yearning for Mexico but needing the US for for a life.  Fearful of ignoring the need for “papers” and fearful of living under the radar just one small mistake from the unimaginable without them. 

José as a child was aware there was tension in the home but growing up “American” he really didn’t grasp the dangers facing his family.  He knew that he wasn’t one of “them” facing bullying and discrimination in the community and school but he couldn’t remember any other life. Their labor class income limited their options, but nonetheless, his parents were determined to make a better life for their child and they did the very best they could for him.

It must have taken extreme courage for Martin and Yoli to begin the process of obtaining their “papers.”  Once they step out in the open and into the system they would be exposed as “undocumented” and subject to the arbitrary whims of every “politically correct authority”.  The smallest misstep- running a stop sign, failing to signal a turn, anger a neighbor – could result in displacement.    

Orduña relates his life’s story with a sharp edge in The Weight of Shadows .  Every sentence conjures a raw emotion.  He holds nothing back in explaining his ambivalence at having to “earn” his right to be here; a place he feels he already had a right to be.

He lays his story and the story of friends and relatives all out straight with every wart and wrinkle exposed. The hypocritical history of immigration into the US is laid open across the path of every “undocumented alien”.  An immigration system so unwieldy, unpredictable and arbitrary that is often safer to just stay in the background.

It’s a tough story to read.  Every page sizzles with his unrestrained emotion.  The descriptions of the desert crossings, the inhumane treatment of detainees, the despair, the fear, the hunger, the pain, and the desperation. You cringe at what you know to be the truth that an employer would take advantage of an undocumented status to pay inadequate salaries or withhold time off with the threat of job loss.

“We’ve been used as disposable, malleable bodies that can be drawn in and purged according to labor demands and cyclical xenophobic trends.”  

“It is difficult to establish happiness and a necessary sense of communion with members of a society that allow for you, in actuality and in representation , the space of a maid, a nanny, a janitor, a day laborer, or a landscaper, and nothing else, and who barely meet your eye.”

And in the end, following the rules, José Orduña was sworn  in as a naturalized United States citizen in July of 2011.  It is not a day to celebrate.  The piece of paper just makes him legal.

He says, “I feel a[n]…ambivalence about being here [at the ceremony]…because being here doesn’t feel like a celebration or an accomplishment.  It’s something of a relief, of course, but it also feels like acquiescence – like I’m tacitly agreeing that this is necessary and legitimate…I am one of the ‘good ones’ and that I have ‘done it the right way’.

At times I didn’t think I could read on…The use of Spanish in the beginning without context felt purposeful.  The described trip to the Philippines was unnecessary and salacious.  But, as a debut work, it’s a truthful chronicle voiced by one who knows too well what it means to be an “illegal alien”.  There is no doubt Orduña’s voice will be heard again and again.

 

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