The Remarkable Story of a U.S. Born Daughter of Mexican Immigrants
My Side of the River: A Memoir Book Cover My Side of the River: A Memoir
Elizabeth Camarillo Guiterrez
St. Martin's Press
February 13, 2024
Ebook, Hardcover, Audiobook

Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez reveals her experience as the U.S. born daughter of immigrants and what happened when, at fifteen, her parents were forced back to Mexico in this galvanizing yet tender memoir. Born to Mexican immigrants south of the Rillito River in Tucson, Arizona, Elizabeth had the world at her fingertips. She was preparing to enter her freshman year of high school as the number one student when suddenly, her own country took away the most important right a child has: the right to have a family. When her parents’ visas expired and they were forced to return to Mexico, Elizabeth was left responsible for her younger brother, as well as her education. Determined to break the cycle of being a “statistic,” she knew that even though her parents couldn’t stay, there was no way she could let go of the opportunities the U.S. could provide. Armed with only her passport and sheer teenage determination, Elizabeth became what her school would eventually describe as an unaccompanied homeless youth, one of thousands of underage victims affected by family separation due to broken immigration laws. For fans of Educated by Tara Westover and The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande, My Side of the River explores separation, generational trauma, and the toll of the American dream. It’s also, at its core, a love story between a brother and a sister who, no matter the cost, is determined to make the pursuit of her brother’s dreams easier than it was for her.

In her memoir, Elizabeth Camarillo Gutierrez offers the reader a raw and powerful look into the lives of Mexican immigrant families in Tucson, Arizona.

Gutierrez was born an American citizen, a choice that her Mexican immigrants parents made so that she could have the security and opportunities of American citizenship. They then settled on the south of the Rillito River, a river that “seemed particularly useless apart from the fact that is divides the city of Tucson in nearly half, politely segregating the immigrant households south of it from the pristine white manicured homes of the north.”

From an early age, the author had a keen awareness of her surroundings — social, political, and environmental. The prologue of the book is nearly poetic as Gutierrez sets the scene for life in Tucson.

In many ways, the river taught me about life: that wealth and poverty are in proximity, but always separated; that people don’t like what they can’t control, preferring instead to reward you only when you fulfill their narrative about who you are supposed to be; that there are seasons of lack and plenty, of drought and flooding.

Photo of the Tucson, Arizona skyline. Credit Manny Pacheco on Unsplash.

Gutierrez’s story is remarkable. As I read about her growing up, I was reminded of so many privileges that I take for granted. My heart broke for young Elizabeth and the choices she had to make. After the U.S. government denies her parents’ visas, Gutierrez (a 15-year-old at the time) faces the decision to stay in Mexico with her family or continue her education in Arizona. Knowing that education was her pathway to get her family out of poverty, she chooses to return alone. While living on someone’s couch for over a year and a half, she is hungry and neglected. It wasn’t until some teachers and guidance counselors at her high school noticed her grades slipping and behavior change that she gets help.

For the first time since coming back to the States without my family, I felt like I had people watching out for me, paying attention, noticing what I had forgotten: that despite convincing myself that I was a young adult, I was still a child who needed sustenance; a child who, like all humans, deserved to have her hunger satiated.

The majority of the book shows Gutierrez’s endless determination to succeed academically and professionally. She admits “through sacrifice, I had made sure that I was [the best]. I stood out, beat systems, and cracked codes. I was an exceptional daughter, and exceptional example of immigrant success.” I could feel her drive and understand how what she did never seemed like “enough.” Her writing hummed with a palpable resentment toward the injustices she faces daily, the systemic racism that denies her family so much, and the unmet expectations she had of what an Ivy League education would gain her. I appreciate her invitation to the reader to glimpse into what is broken and who is left vulnerable.

Through her writing, Gutierrez dives into a lot of detail about her endless study hours, college applications, extracurricular activities, budding political interests, scholarship and internship pursuits, and finally her first job in corporate America. Toward the end of the book, I could feel the exhaustion that she felt.

Admittedly, it was at times difficult to read what seemed like a very long list of goals and achievements. There were moments of self-reflection throughout but, in my opinion, not enough to provide variety in the narrative. The latter half of the book felt hurried. Her storytelling became less careful and included more profanity. As a reader, I started to disengage at this point. There is some redemption at the end when she leaves her job and travels to Mexico for a reunion with her family; however, it left me feeling a bit wanting.

Gutierrez’s memoir is a conversational and candid read. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in stories of immigrant families in general and the experiences of Latino immigrants in the U.S. in particular.

This book was provided in exchance for an honest review graphic