Newbery Honor–winning author Patricia Reilly Giff tells a vivid, contemporary story about a remarkable boy who risks everything for his family and a bold girl who helps him. At home in Mexico, Mateo knows where he belongs: with Mami, Abuelita, little brother Lucas, and big brother Julian. When Julian leaves to work in el Norte, the United States, Mateo misses him. And when the family stops hearing from Julian, Mateo knows he has to find his beloved brother.
With only his old notebook and a backpack, Mateo heads for the border, where dangers await: robbers, and the border police, who will send him back home or perhaps even put him in prison. On his journey, Mateo meets Angel, a smart, mysterious girl who can guide his crossing. Angel is tough; so is Mateo, and his memories of his loving family sustain him. Because no matter what happens, he can’t go home until he finds Julian.
An Excerpt fromUntil I Find Julian
I’m in the worst trouble. How can I tell Mami and Abuelita what I’ve done?
I sneak along the alley and sit at the back of the house, leaning against the splintery boards, so angry with myself. I sweep up a pile of stones and toss them into the green creek, skipping them like frogs jumping from one slippery rock to another.
Sometimes the stones miss the water. My friend Damian says my aim is terrible. And he’s right. With the next stone I hit a tree branch almost over my head, just missing my brother Julian’s wooden birdhouses. Four or five finches fly up and scatter as a stray cat watches.
“Sorry,” I whisper to the birds, and to the cat, who watches with great tawny eyes, ready to pounce on anything that moves.
I turn my head. Between the uneven boards of the house, I see Mama and Abuelita at the kitchen table, their heads bent over squares of cloth. They never stop working; they make scarves and quilts to sell at the market. Sometimes they sew red and yellow pieces together, or sunny greens and blues, reminding me of the creek.
They never stop talking either.
How can I go in there without any money?
Not one coin!
I close my eyes. Today, instead of sweeping at the car factory after school, Damian and I played catch with motor bolts while the foreman, Miguel, was eating in his office.
I missed, and the bolt flew over my head, denting a car door.
Damian slapped his head. “I should have known, Mateo.”
Miguel came from his office, his mouth still full, pointing with his fist. “Out!” he yelled.
I couldn’t stop laughing at first, thinking he was joking. But Miguel almost never joked or smiled. “Go on,” he said, red-faced and furious. He didn’t even pay me for last week’s work.
Twelve years old, and I’ve been fired from my after-school job. A small job, but still . . .
Now I watch Mami and Abuelita stitching. I’ll never be able to tell them!
I listen to what they’re saying. It’s the end of the month; my brother Julian will have sent money all the way from Arkansas. There’ll be meat for dinner. Chicken, maybe, or small pieces of shredded beef mixed with rice and gravy.
Which will I pick? It doesn’t do any good to tell myself I don’t deserve a good dinner; my mouth waters. Chicken! I almost smell it stewing in the pot, with a pinch of one of Abuelita’s spices that grow tall on the windowsill, and a carrot or two, chopped and soft.
“Enough to give you a handout,” I whisper to the cat, and rest my hand on her grimy head.
The rap on the front door is loud. Someone is pounding hard; it must mean trouble. Mami stands up so suddenly the chair clatters and falls behind her.
I peer through the open spaces in the wall, to hear a voice calling. A moment later, Julian’s old friend Tomas fills the kitchen doorway.
Mami pushes a chair toward him. I can see the worry in her face. Why isn’t Tomas with Julian in Arkansas? They crossed the border to work in America together. What’s brought him back here?
Abuelita goes to the sink and pours a glass of water for Tomas. He sits at the table facing them, slowly shaking his head.
I knot my fingers together, afraid to hear what he’ll say.
When he speaks, his voice is low, his words slow and spaced apart. “Julian,” he begins. “All of us. We worked on a building that would be the tallest one in town. Ten floors. Hard work. Satisfying.”
“Please--” Mami says.
“Everyone knew we had no green cards.” He looks up. “No permission to work in America. No permission even to be in that country.”
Mami’s hand covers her mouth as Tomas tells of la migra, the border patrolmen, surrounding the construction area where they worked. “The illegal workers were loaded into the truck and sent to a detention center.”
Abuelita sits straight, almost as if her back is made of iron. “And Julian?”
I hold my breath.
“We were on a scaffold, two flights up. Any minute they’d see us. I grabbed Julian’s shoulder. ‘We have to run. It’s the only way.’
“I saw him peering over the edge.
“ ‘No, Julian! We can’t jump.’ ”
Tomas puts a small roll of bills on the table. “Just before I backed off the scaffold, Julian reached into his pocket and asked me to bring this to you.”
He spreads his hands wide. “The owner paid us good money. A generous boss. But now it’s over. I don’t know what my family will do for food.”
Mami can hardly speak. “But Julian? Is he all right?”
“I don’t know. I managed to climb down and run without being caught. But if he jumped, he may have been hurt. Maybe he’s in prison. Or in hiding. I wish I could tell you more.”
And what will we do? I lost my job with Miguel. Mami and Abuelita will have to sew long into the night.
I picture Julian just before he left: his hair was so dark it was almost black; his teeth were white and straight when he laughed. I looked up at his strong face. “Don’t go! Stay! Mami said it’s a dangerous trip. Thieves will take your money. And what about the desert, that huge river? What about the police on both sides of the border?”
He grinned and hugged me. “I’ve read so much about America--the mountains, the sea, the tall buildings. The prairie grass that waves in the wind.” I could see the excitement in those dark eyes. “I want to be part of it, to paint all of it. I can’t forget the money either. I’ll work at anything and someday I’ll find a place where I can draw, sketch--” He broke off. “In the meantime, I’ll send money home. You know there are no jobs here.”
He rested his hands on my shoulders. “This is the way I’ll go. I’ll walk miles to the train and climb on top . . .”
“You can’t do that!”
He raised his hand. “After the train, I’ll find someone to take me across the north of Mexico and the river.”
“You mean a coyote.” I grabbed his collar. “Mami says they’re desperate men. They rob the travelers, and sometimes they even kill.”
“I’ll be all right. Once I cross the border into Texas, I’ll stop at our cousin Consuelo’s house. And then, at last, Arkansas.”
“But why Arkansas?” I ask.
“Tomas says there’s work up there. And I read about it. It sounds like a beautiful place.”
Nothing I could say would stop him.
The next day he and Tomas were on their way.
At the table now, Tomas is still talking. “I have a long way to go. Home first. Then miles of walking to find a job. Any job at all.”
Abuelita scrapes back her chair. I know she’s going to pack what little food we have for his journey.
After Tomas has gone, I still can’t make myself go inside. I rest my hand on the cat, feeling the burning in my throat.
Mami bends her head over the squares as colorful as macaws, her tears dripping onto the fabric. Abuelita picks up her needle and begins to run stitches through two red pieces. Her eyes are almost closed. She won’t let herself cry.
Julian has to be all right!
What will we do without the money he sends to the bank for us each month? Even worse, how will we know where he is, or how much trouble he’s in? Letters hardly ever reach our town.
But we have to know.
I have to know.
I have to find him, save him, the way he saved me once.
And I know the way.
Tonight there’s no chicken stewing in the pot, no shredded meat in our bowls. “It’s been a long day.” Abuelita tries to smile. “We’ll have a little rice, a little bread instead.”
I tell them about losing my job, but they hardly listen. Mami swipes a cloth over the counter in great arcs, her eyes swollen. She isn’t speaking, she isn’t singing. It’s strange with no music in the kitchen. There’s only the sound of the frogs croaking as they float on the water, their throats puffed into iridescent bubbles.
Mami doesn’t want to tell me about Julian, not yet. I know she can’t talk about it.
My little brother Lucas reaches out to me as if he knows something is wrong. I grab his hands and swing him around, just missing the table; he laughs, a smear of something across his cheek. The kitchen spins with us: the table with the bowls of rice, the wide window without glass, the green trees outdoors.
I put him down and sit at the table. I can’t eat the rice in front of me. I’ll do what Julian did: walk that long way to the train, then somehow cross the north of Mexico to the Rio Bravo. Texas is just on the other side of that river. Once there, I’ll find Consuelo. I’m sure she’ll tell me the rest of the way.
I take a forkful of rice. It has no taste; I’m not hungry even though I haven’t had anything since breakfast.
My eyes go to Abuelita, the lines in her forehead deeper, then to Mami, staring out the window. She looks the way she did that terrible day Papi died. Our neighbors carried him home from the fields where he was planting in heat that soared over one hundred degrees. “His heart gave out,” his friend Paulo told Mami. “The heat was too much for him.”
Now, long after dinner, I go to bed and listen to the ripple of the creek and the faraway sound of a dog barking. I wait until the house is still.
The money I’ve saved to surprise Mami on her birthday goes into my pocket. I shrug into my old sweater and wrap a piece of cloth around my waist for a blanket.
Abuelita has left a new notebook for me in the kitchen closet. I copy Consuelo’s and Julian’s addresses from her pad, even though I’m sure I’ll remember them.
I rest my hand on the notebook. Ah, Abuelita!
Once I told her, “I might write a book someday.”
She nodded. “I know you will, Mateo. Everyone has something, and you have a way with words, mi amor.” In the kitchen, she cut paper into squares. With rough fingers, she stacked the pieces with a blue paper cover and stitched them together with string. She handed me the book, my first notebook. “Write down your memories: good ones and bad ones. Someday they’ll turn into stories.”
Now I slide two bottles of water and a few bits of food into my backpack. I tear a page out of the notebook and write quickly: I’ve gone to find Julian. I put it under Mami’s breakfast plate. They won’t find it until morning. Then I tuck the little book and a pen into my pocket.
I’m ready. I climb out the window and glance back at the sleeping house. Rain patters on the tin roof, and a mist rises up from the creek.
The cat is curled up under a tree. She’ll have to hunt for every bit of her food from now on. I reach over and run my hands along her rough sides. Then I begin to walk.
Behind me, there’s a voice.
I turn. Abuelita!
“You’re going north across the border,” she says.
I swallow. What can I say? “You found my note.” I wonder if she’ll tell me to go back inside.
She surprises me, though. “No, I haven’t seen a note. But I knew you would go. I saw you outside listening when Tomas was here.” She touches my cheek. “It’s a very dangerous trip. But I’d do the same thing if I were younger. We are alike, Mateo, you and I. We have great love for our family; it makes us strong.”
We sit on the ledge next to the creek. “You must watch everyone and everything constantly.” Her voice is stern. “Think before you act. Move slowly, carefully. Be deliberate.”
Her eyes fill. I’ve never seen her cry, not even when Papi died. “You are everything to me.” She slips a medal on a chain around my neck and money into my pocket. The medal matches the one she wears: Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“The lady, the Blessed Mother, appeared to a boy,” Abuelita says. “She left her image and a spray of roses on his cloak. You can still see that cloak in Mexico City.” She puts her hand on my shoulder. “She will protect you.”
I watch her go back to the house, her head up. My tough Abuelita!
“I’ll come back when I find him,” I call after her.
And then I’m on my way.
I reach up to touch Abuelita’s medal around my neck. It’s been so long since she put it there. More than a week? It seems forever.
My eyes are closing as I listen to the sound of the motor and try to breathe inside the truck’s close, dark air. I’m almost asleep.
Dreaming, Mateo. That’s what it is.
I’m lost in dreams. I see our house that tilts against the creek, covered with Julian’s paintings. It’s miles behind me now. I hear Abuelita’s husky voice as she reads to me.
Behind her, Lucas dances around the kitchen waiting for the beans to simmer in the enamel pot on the stove; his eyes are the color of walnuts and his hair grows every which way, just like mine. He sings a song he’s just made up.
I feel Mami’s floury hands on my cheeks.
And Julian: long ago, as I sleep in bed, creek water plinks on my cheeks; more slides down my neck. Green water, with the smell of weeds and fish! I reach up and grab Julian so he drops the cup, still half filled. We wrestle over the bed, onto the floor, laughing. He’s eight years older than me, my best friend.
I’m in the back of a coyote’s truck now; I concentrate on his red baseball hat, which stands out in this rusted heap as we try for the border.
In the beginning, I promised him money. “I’ll pay you back someday.”
He was chewing on something, ready to walk away, when he saw the watch on my wrist. Julian’s watch. Too big for me, a little battered, but all I had left of him.
A moment later, the watch was off my arm, onto his. And I was crowded inside that truck with six others, holding my bare wrist.
Now the motor gives a dry cough. The truck heaves forward, then rattles to a stop. “We’ll have to walk,” the coyote says.