Academic First Year Experiences

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The Far Away Brothers: Faculty and Staff Resources

Far Away Brothers Cover

The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham will be CSUN's Freshman Common Reading for 2019-2020. During spring 2019, faculty and staff joined colleagues for a series of workshop-style book discussion exploring ways to teach and discuss the book. Workshop handouts, notes, and assignment ideas from those discussions are available below.


Resources for teaching and discussing the book

With your help (and contributions from book discussion leaders and participants), this collection of resources will continue to grow. Please suggest additions by emailing susanna.eng[at] 

About the book: reviews and more

Selected articles by Lauren Markham

Related newspaper articles and resources

Personal stories

Mental health issues

CSUN Information

Book Discussion Notes - Facilitated by Jennie Quinonez-Skinner

March 12, 2019. Facilitated by Jennie Quinonez-Skinner, Oviatt Library

Jennie began the session with an icebreaker activity that highlighted the importance of creating networks in your life.

Immigration can be tricky to talk about in the classroom as we never know students' experiences. It helps to create ground rules; in fact the students can help create those rules for themselves. If the material is difficult, Jennie recommends talking to students about student services on campus like University Counseling Services, DREAM Center.

Some of the themes from the book include civil war in El Salvador, US immigration laws, Sanctuary cities, violence, trauma. Jennie suggested a classroom activity using the QAR method to help discuss the book with students. 

Jennie shared the following resources to help discuss the issues in The Far Away Brothers:


Book DIscussion Notes - Facilitated by Dario Fernandez

March 26, 2019. Facilitated by Dario Fernandez, CSUN DREAM Center

Freire’s Limit Situations and Limit Acts

A limit situation, quite simply, is any situation which limits you and is an obstacle to your development, survival, pursuit of goals and ambitions. In the context of Freiere, it is those limiting situations that prevent us from becoming fully human.

In response to a limit situation, people can either accept the limiting nature of it, or they can plan and carry out an action to counter the situation. This is the Limit Act – doing something to see what is beyond the obstacle.

Themes from The Far Away Brothers

  • Fragmented Family Dynamics
  • Dynamics of family reunification
  • Adultification of childhood
  • Language Access
  • Push / Pull migration factors
  • Contrasts of urban / rural life
  • Living arrangements
  • Trauma
  • Everyday tasks are risky
  • Costs of migration
  • Ethics in Storytelling

The group discussed some of the themes from the book that Dario shared. They talked about how the immigration experience is a spectrum and how to become advocates for our students.

Consider including campus resources, like the Dream Center in course syllabi. Put wording in syllabus about the fact that we'll be reading and talking about a difficult topic.

Dario recommends being careful about assigning reflection pieces. If you do, consider NOT doing this as a canvas discussion, so as to maintain students’ privacy. Faculty should create norms and guidelines for how to discuss difficult topics in the classroom. Differences of opinion are fine, but how do you deal with it when it's about a person's ability to exist in this country.

Dario Fernandez
DREAM Center Director
EOP – Ext 7070

Book Discussion Notes - Facilitated by Celia Simonds

April 3, 2019. Facilitated by Celia Simonds, Department of Central American Studies

Celia began the discussion with this quote from Bishop Romero: “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried” Bishop Romero (recently declared a Saint by the Pope). 

She also shared lyrics from the song "Canción para los refugiados" (Song for refugees): "It is night and very cold. Who will pick up my pain?"

Celia asked the group to consider what does author of The Far Away Brothers want? To lead to a complex understanding of why immigrants leave their country. What are the struggles immigrants face while getting beef while settling in a foreign land. How do the wounds of war affect immigrants?

Celia Spoke about transnationalism and how it’s a part of the culture, how migrants have to cross multiple borders to get to the US. It’s about how they have a life in multiple places, in which they might send home remittances while simultaneously paying for life in the US.

Question: What is America? Who is American? Central Americans? South Americans? It's one giant land mass. There are political borders. But historically there was mass migration throughout the landmass. Migrants are a vulnerable population. The immigration system doesn't let someone be a migrant, moving back and forth between countries. To be undocumented means to be persecuted.

Question: Why is it important to consider different perspectives of migrants?

Exercise for students. Ask students if they are you for or against immigration? And the ask them to write about the opposite of their actual opinion. It may help students learn more about different perspectives other than their own.

Question: How does non-fiction make you feel? Different from fiction? How does the fact that this book is non-fiction help create your perspective on the topic of immigration? Does it help you have a sense of what it would be like to be in the shoes of the twins or the parents?

Question: To what extent does this book create sympathy? What does it say about transnationalism? How does it shape ideas about different groups of people? (class, documented vs. undocumented people).

Book Discussion Notes - Facilitated by Isabelle Ramos

April 8, 2019. Facilitated by Isabelle Ramos, Oviatt Library

Isabelle led the group in a discussion about different themes from the book including innocence lost, chance / luck, immigration system, mental health, trauma, education, the US responsibility for the current situation in El Salvador. The group discussed how they might have handled being in the same situation as the Flores twins. Many said that it is impossible to know how you would react until you're in the situation.
The group discussed the structure of book and how it weaves statistics and information about immigration in general between twins' story. Nobody's story is representative of everyone. This allows the reader to place their story in context.
Isabelle shared the following discussion questions.

The Far Away Brothers – Book Discussion

This book tells us the story of two brothers – twins – who leave their small town in El Salvador to escape gang violence that has been steadily encroaching in their part of the country. As we learn of the brothers’ journey to Oakland, CA we are given some understanding of the process of pursuing legal status – the complicated/convoluted steps that one must take – and how much more confusing it can be for an individual not well-versed in language of the country they’re trying to gain status in. We also learn about their personal experiences during their journey and how it has affected them and the subsequent decisions they make after arriving to the U.S.

Prologue: (xviii)

“The United States is still young and is ever reiterating itself as demanded by its people, both those who have lived here for a long time and those who have just arrived. Immigrants have always shaped our country’s future. Yet our country has not always done well in welcoming our newest immigrants or integrating them into society; this is particularly the case for newly arrived young men. Once it was young Irish and Italian men who, excluded from parts of the workforce and stereotyped as undeserving thugs, sought belonging, purpose, and livelihood in the tenements and organized crime rings of society’s margins…..”


  1. The thought & process of going to El Norte is the driving force behind this book. What did you think of how Markham structured the book?
    1. Would the students find it helpful?
    2. Would you find it helpful when incorporating the book into the class?
  2. Both brothers experienced their own harrowing encounters while making their journey north. How do you think you would have dealt with those same encounters?
  3. Were there any specific passages, or themes, that struck you personally?
    1. Personally, the theme of innocence lost; the harrowing experiences for each brother; having to grow up fast and take on big responsibilities. The added pressure they receive from their sister, Maricela. I understood both sides of the issue and it was hard to determine if there was a right/wrong
  4. Access to mental health was briefly mentioned in the book – at the detention center (Gerardo) and at the Oakland International High School.
    1. Is it possible the ongoing stigma of mental health in Latino communities might have contributed to Ernesto’s reticence to speak with the counselor at the detention center? Or was it more of the machismo in Latin cultures that has been ingrained in males?
    2. Did he not want to burden his brother Raul with what he experienced before they crossed the border?
  5. Were there any other services that could have, or should have, been provided to the Flores twins in their process of seeking status in the U.S.?
    1. Do you think their older brother Wilber & the other adults in their immediate could have provided more emotional support?
  6. A slice of life in El Salvador was provided at the beginning of the book. Do you think if there were more educational opportunities for the twins in their home country, would they have made their way to the U.S.?
    1. Or would their own migration have been within the country – to the capital of San Salvador?
    2. Would a higher level of education have better prepared them to understand the complex immigration process?
  7. Further too, if there was more education, better access to other resources, would Maricela have been better equipped to understand the immigration process? Or at least, be able to conduct her own research?
    1. This plays into overall access to resources (books/internet/information), how would you consider attempting to find information about migrating?
  8. The possibility of returning to visit El Salvador comes with information that the brothers can obtain Salvadoran passports; paperwork, green card and a fee. Ernesto certainly considers it in order to see his parents & family again. On the other hand Raul is against it.
    1. If you were in the twins’ shoes, given the opportunity would you consider returning to visit your home country right away? Or would you wait for the threats to die down/be forgotten?
  9. Beyond the pressures placed upon the twins from all sides, there is underlying resentment with their older brother Wilber, Jr. Do you think the author should have included more of Wilber’s views/stance on the situation included in the book?

Book Discussion Notes - Facilitated by Marvin Villanueva

April 19, 2019. Facilitated by Marvin Villanueva, EOP / College of Humanities

Marvin began this discussion session by sharing semita, a delicious Salvadoran pastry, with the group. He then shared some of his own personal family history, including when his own family fled El Salvador in at the beginning of its civil war. Marvin described The Far Away Brothers as powerful, personal, and at times difficult to read, more so because of his family's experiences.

The group discussed how they personally related to the book, and how we might help our students relate to it. How can they identify with this story and the brothers' experiences. He spoke about how all families, unless they are Native American, have an immigrant story, and that's something most of our students should be able to relate to.

Reading this particular book might make some students uncomfortable. What is our responsibility in guiding these conversations? The group discussed the challenges of asking for and receiving help, something the Flores twins struggled with as well. The group also discussed work ethic. For example, the Flores twins saw their parents' work ethics; they saw them work physically to support their families. Our students see that too, and have learned that kind of work ethic – in college they need to learn how to apply that same work ethic to their education.

We must allow students the space to process the content from the book. Consider inviting someone from University Counseling Services to come and talk to your students.

Marvin shared these discussion questions about the book:

  1. What was your overall impression of the book?
    a. Did the book impact you in any way?
    b. Have you gained a new perspective or did the book affirm your prior views?
    c. What type of feelings did reading this book invoke?
    d. Were there any quotes or passages you found compelling or resonated with you?
  2.  In what ways were you able to identify or connect with any aspect of the twin's lives?
    a. Did you find similarities between your family's immigrant story and the book?
  3. How do you feel about how the story was told?
    a. Do you feel the author effectively conveys the twin's experience?
  4. Describe an irony you identified in the book
  5. What were your thoughts about the way the book ended?
  6. How do you think first-year students will react to reading this book?
  7. Do you feel prepared to support a student that experiences difficulties with the book's content?
    a. How would you support a student who strongly identifies with the emotional struggles described in the book?

Book Discussion Notes - Facilitated by Amanda Harrison

March 26, 2019. Facilitated by Amanda Harrison (English Department; Queer Studies Program)

Amanda spoke to English 600A, to prospective TAs, who might consider teaching The Far Away Brothers, when they teach their own courses. She shared campus resources that can be be useful for the subject matter, as well as different types of assignments that would work with the book.