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Santiago's Road Home


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About The Book

Three starred reviews!
“Harrowing but deeply illuminating.” —School Library Journal

A young boy gets detained by ICE while crossing the border from Mexico to the United States in this timely and unflinching novel by award-winning author Alexandra Diaz.

The bed creaks under Santiago’s shivering body. They say a person’s life flashes by before dying. But it’s not his whole life. Just the events that led to this. The important ones, and the ones Santiago would rather forget.

The coins in Santiago’s hand are meant for the bus fare back to his abusive abuela’s house. Except he refuses to return; he won’t be missed. His future is uncertain until he meets the kind, maternal María Dolores and her young daughter, Alegría, who help Santiago decide what comes next: He will accompany them to el otro lado, the United States of America. They embark with little, just backpacks with water and a bit of food. To travel together will require trust from all parties, and Santiago is used to going it alone. None of the three travelers realizes that the journey through Mexico to the border is just the beginning of their story.


Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1

Estado de Chihuahua, México

Santiago watched Tío Ysidro walk by him and the three toddlers as if they were nothing more than rocks in the yard. Not that the toddlers even looked up from their mud pies at the arrival of their papá. Just as well, or they would have seen an expression like a lightning storm ready to strike on their papá’s face.

He jumped to his feet as the front door slammed behind Tío, ready to urge the kids to safety before the storm broke. Except he wasn’t quick enough.

“What do you mean you got fired?” Tía Roberta’s voice came clearly through the closed door.

“Have I told you the story of the singing zanate?” Santiago whispered excitedly as he pointed to a fence post. He whistled at the bird perched on top of the rotting wood, ready to make up a story on the spot. The children—Jesús, Apolo, and Artemisa—who normally loved hearing Santiago’s stories, were too interested in their mud projects to pay attention to anything else. Including the shouts from the house. But the mud wasn’t enough to keep Santiago from hearing everything.

“I mean, you insulted the boss’s wife, and now I’m fired,” Tío Ysidro shouted back.

“When have I met your boss’s wife?”

The viejita from next door opened her window a bit wider. Since she did not have a TV, her main source of entertainment was eavesdropping on everyone up and down the calle. Santiago would have given anything to be entertained by a TV instead.

“Apparently you met her this morning, while she stood in front of you waiting for the bus.”

“¿Patas flacas?” Tía retorted. “That was her?”

“¡Patas flacas!” Artemisa screeched, as if calling someone “skinny legs” was the funniest insult in the world. For a two-and-a-half-year-old, it probably was.

“You called her that? To her face?” Tío exclaimed.

“She cut in front of me!”

Tío Ysidro let out a string of bad words, which Santiago covered up by splashing his hands in the mud and getting the kids to follow suit.

Still, Tío’s next yell remained completely audible. “How could you say that to her?”

A crash like a pot being thrown to the floor erupted from the kitchen. This time, Jesús and Artemisa looked up from the mud.

“Great, that was our dinner.” Tía Roberta’s accusations came out so loud and clear the viejita next door must have been grinning at the great reception. “Unless you want to pick up the rice from the floor, we have nothing else to eat tonight, and we’re all going to starve.”

“How can there be nothing to eat? I gave you money for groceries two days ago.”

“Yeah, and it’s gone. You barely gave me enough for one meal.”

“Fine. You go look for a job and see how much you earn after working twelve or fifteen hours a day.” The door banged open and slammed shut after Tío Ysidro. If Santiago and the toddlers were invisible before, they were nonexistent this time. Tío stepped on a stray shoe one of the kids had taken off and didn’t notice it under his foot before he crossed the street in the direction of the local bar.

Santiago waited for Tía to run after her husband, but the door stayed shut.

A stray curl fell over Apolo’s eye. Santiago brushed it away, careful not to get mud from his own hands onto the boy’s face.

“Too bad these mud pies won’t taste as good as they look,” he said softly to his charges. “Maybe we’ll just need to gobble you guys up instead.” He smeared mud on Jesús’s bare belly and got a giggle in reply.

Apolo and Artemisa wiggled their hands at Santiago and did the butt-bounce dance. He tickled all three of them until they were pushing themselves up on wobbly feet to run away with shrieks of laughter, only to slip and land back in the mud.

“Why are my children playing in the mud like some huérfanos?” Tía Roberta stood in front of them with her hands on her hips and a scowl across her red face.

Santiago ignored the orphan comment, like he did most of the insults his tía sent his way. Sure, the kids were dirty, covered from head to diaper in mud, but they were happy, entertained, and safe. A rarity in this house.

“It’s so hot, I thought they might enjoy it. Don’t worry, I’ll clean them up.” He picked up Artemisa to head to the outdoor water pump, but Tía blocked his path.

“You don’t have time, the last bus is leaving soon.” She reached into her apron pocket and handed him some peso coins, just enough for the bus fare. “We can’t afford to keep you anymore. Give your grandmother our regrets.”

Regrets didn’t even begin to explain it. Santiago let the toddler slide down his body, leaving a trail of mud on his own bare chest and pant legs. His hand absently rubbed the burn marks still visible on his arm as he remembered the pain of the cigarettes from his last stay with his grandmother.

“But what about the babies? Who’ll take care of them?” Santiago spoke without thinking. A shadow darkened Tía’s eyes. He jerked his head back, and in that split second her hand missed contact with his cheek. Missing her target only raised Tía’s anger.

“I’m their mother. You think I can’t raise my own hijos? I got along de lo más bien before you got here.”

This time Santiago kept his mouth shut. They obviously had a different understanding of “just fine.” He remembered the last family wedding, during which the three kids had yelled continuously, been dragged out of the church kicking and screaming, and broken free to shove six greedy hands directly into the wedding cake, all while Tía had cried, swearing to Dios that she couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, she got along de lo más bien.

It was she, biologically his grandmother but better known in his mind as la malvada, the evil one, who thought up the golden solution: send Santiago to his aunt and uncle’s house to take care of the toddlers. Tía (though technically a second cousin, and not Santiago’s aunt) had jumped at the idea of having a free babysitter, and la malvada marveled at getting rid of the grandson she despised.

Santiago hadn’t complained. Honestly, this suited him just fine. Sure, Tía blamed him for everything—the kids getting chicken pox, lice, diaper rash, runny noses, still not talking in full sentences, waking up in the middle of the night, not eating, eating too much—but at the end of the day, it didn’t compare to the abuse of living with la malvada.

“Please, let me stay.” Santiago held out his hand to return the bus fare, but his tía ignored it. “I’ll take care of everything tonight; you relax. I’ll bathe the kids, feed them—”

“There’s nothing to eat, idiota,” she reminded him.

“What if I get a job?”

“What job are you going to get when your uncle has no work?”

No answer came to Santiago. No one had work to offer; no one had spare money to pay someone for work.

Tía folded her arms across her chest and nodded to the calle. “Lárgate. Unless you want to walk the two hours all the way to your grandmother’s house, you better go.”

Santiago stared at the house that had been his home for the past seven months. In the room he shared with the three kids were clothes too small for him. His one possession, a small pocketknife, had been found in the road. The blade was dull, the scissors didn’t open, and the toothpick and tweezers were missing, but it was his. Like all good pocketknives, it remained with him at all times.

He washed the mud off his hands and chest at the outdoor pump and pulled on the T-shirt he’d taken off before playing in the mud. Apolo stood up and lifted his arms, expecting to be carried, but Tía stepped in front of her children, blocking them from their babysitter. Artemisa scooped up a particularly gooey handful of mud and flung it at her mother’s shoe. Tía didn’t notice. Her attention remained on Santiago.

Santiago looked into the faces of each of the kids, faces that had worked their way into his heart. He raised his hand in good-bye. “Listen to your mamá, chiquitines.”

No longer able to look at them, he turned down the same road his tío had traversed moments before. In perfect synchronicity, the three kids broke into cries.

“Tago, Tago, ven.” Jesús called out the nickname he’d made up for his babysitter.

Apolo and Artemisa didn’t say his name but kept up with the cries. Santiago slowed his pace, waiting for Tía to call him back, to say she would figure something out, just as long as he quieted the kids.

But his tía said nothing. Next door, the viejita shut her window.

Reading Group Guide

A Reading Group Guide to

Santiago’s Road Home

By Alexandra Diaz

About the Book

Fleeing a physically abusive home, twelve-year-old Santiago finds an unexpected family in María Dolores and her young daughter, Alegría. Together, they decide to make the dangerous journey across the border to el otro lado, the United States. The path is full of danger, but nothing prepares Santiago for what awaits him on the other side. Santiago’s Road Home takes readers inside an ICE detention facility, shedding light on the challenges children like Santiago face, while affirming their resilience, strength, and determination to work hard for better lives.

Discussion Questions

1. A book’s prologue is often used to establish setting and provide details that will connect to the main story. What questions about Santiago’s story do you have after reading the prologue? As you read, try to find the answers to these questions. Which questions would you like more information about?

2. What do Santiago’s memories of his mother reveal about her? Why do you think the memory of dancing in the rain made such an impression on him? What is your favorite memory of a loved one? How does reflecting on it make you feel?

3. Why does María Dolores decide to go to the United States? Why does Santiago ask to go with her? Why do you think María Dolores decides to let Santiago accompany them on the journey?

4. Describe María Dolores’s plan for crossing the border into the United States. What is dangerous about this plan? Why do you think she does not try to immigrate legally? Why does Santiago remark later that “the possibility of [immigrating] the ‘correct way’ hadn’t even occurred to him”?

5. María Dolores tells Santiago, “‘Even though I don’t have much, I like to support hardworking people trying to make a living.’” What does this statement reveal about her values and priorities? Explain your answer. What do you most value in your life? How do you act upon or share your values?

6. How does Santiago’s willingness to work hard and help others allow him to gain the trust of those he meets on his journey, such as Don José, Domínguez, Consuelo, and Señor Dante? How do these adults help him in return?

7. According to the glossary, coyote is a term for a person who smuggles immigrants into the United States. How does Santiago find a trustworthy coyote? What does Dominguez say about the difference between good coyotes and bad coyotes? Why do you think he considers what he does “an honest living,” even though what he is doing is illegal?

8. Which part of Santiago’s journey across the desert do you think was the most dangerous? Where do you see him having to be strong for others? When do you see others looking out for him? Explain your answers.

9. Describe Santiago’s favorite childhood story: La princesa y el viento. What do you think is the moral of this story? Why do you think this particular story means so much to Santiago? What was your favorite fairy tale or folktale when you were younger? What did you like most about it?

10. When Santiago first sees the detention center, he notices that it “resembles a prison instead of a sanctuary.” Later, his friend Guanaco notes that children in detention “‘have fewer rights than murderers.’” Describe the conditions in the detention center. How is it similar to and different from a prison? What kind of atmosphere does this create for the children inside?

11. How does learning to read and write impact Santiago’s life? Señor Dante says that the government has decided to stop funding educational programs in detention centers because it is a “luxury they can no longer afford.” Do you think that education is a luxury or a necessity? Do you think all children should have access to an education? Explain your answers.

12. Santiago, María Dolores, and Alegría claim that they are siblings even though they are not related by blood. What does Santiago mean when he says that admitting he has two sisters is “the internal truth”? Do you have people in your life who you consider to be family even though you are not related? What is your definition of family?

13. What does it mean for someone immigrating to be granted asylum? Why does Señora Bárbara say that Santiago has a great case for being granted asylum in the United States?

14. Señor Dante tells the boys in his class that even though they cannot control the future, they can control how they respond to what comes their way. How does Santiago demonstrate this ability to control how he responds to adversity? How could you apply this advice to your own life?

15. What makes Santiago think that María Dolores forgot about him? What does he find out to understand what really happened?

16. It is often possible to analyze a story as a hero’s journey—a type of narrative with specific steps. One of these steps involves the hero being tested. How many different tests does Santiago face on his journey? Consider events that tested him physically and emotionally, as well as times when he had to use intelligence and creativity to solve a problem. What characteristics helped him overcome these challenges?

17. When we talk about words, we say that they have both denotative (literal) and connotative (associative) meanings. What are different meanings for the word home? What do you think the title Santiago’s Road Home means?

18. Read the author’s note and resources sections at the end of the novel. Santiago’s Road Home is a work of fiction, yet it is based on true accounts of people immigrating to the United States. Does knowing that information change the way you think about the story? Explain your answer. Why do you think the author, Alexandra Diaz, wrote this novel? What do you think she hopes readers will understand after reading it?

19. We discuss books about other cultural experiences as being either mirrors or windows. A mirror is a book that reflects your own experience in some way, allowing you to see a part of yourself in the story. A window is a book that allows you to look into the experience of someone whose life is very different from your own, and, as a result, helps you to understand things that others experience. Was this book a mirror or a window for you? Why do you think it is important to read both types of books?

Extension Activities

1. Consider the following comment from Santiago’s Road Home: “Not playing by the rules didn’t make someone bad. Especially if the rules were unjust to begin with.” Do you believe that there are times when it is okay to break a rule or disobey a law? Write a persuasive essay or speech about whether or not you agree with this statement.

2. Reflect on your experience reading a book that uses vocabulary from two different languages. How often were you able to understand what unfamiliar words meant based on their contexts? How often did you need to refer to the glossary? Try writing a short story or short autobiography that incorporates words from another language. Try to provide enough context for a reader to comprehend the meaning of these words. At the end of the story, include a glossary. Exchange your story with a partner, and then discuss your experiences reading each other’s work.

3. In chapter fourteen, the author reveals that both María Dolores and Santiago left Mexico to escape domestic violence. After spending time in the harsh detention center, Santiago thinks, “As horrible as staying here would be, it [doesn’t] compare with returning back there.” Research the reasons that people attempt to immigrate to the United States, especially women and children. What are the most common reasons? Are they similar to María Dolores’s and Santiago’s situations? Work in a small group to draft a proposal for measures that could help address one of the main reasons people like Santiago feel they have to leave their home countries.

4. María Dolores, Alegría, and Santiago almost die as a result of dehydration and heat stroke. Research the dangers of dehydration and heat-related illnesses, and create an informative poster or video for your school about the importance of hydration. Think about the audience you’d like to reach, especially athletes and others who spend significant time outside.

5. In the detention center, Guanaco explains the separation policy to Santiago, saying, “‘They say it’s to keep people safe. Personally, I think it’s to hold power. Only bullies separate you from your family.’” Research the government’s separation policy for people immigrating to the United States. What reasons are given for separating adults from children and boys from girls? What reasons are given by advocates who oppose family separation policies? What do you think the government’s policy should be? Explain your position using facts that you have researched from reliable sources.

6. Research the process for immigrating legally into the United States. Why is it difficult for someone in Santiago’s position to follow this process? What role do nonprofits like Ley Unido play in helping people like Santiago enter the United States? As a class, come up with questions you have about the process or the history of immigration. Then decide who might be best to answer these questions, such as a local immigration lawyer or advocacy group, and see if you can discuss with them via email or video conference.

7. One of the lawyers for Ley Unido tells Santiago, “‘There are over thirteen thousand youths in facilities all over the country, and this is one of the better ones.’” Alexandra Diaz also references the fact that the United States government spends more than seven hundred dollars per person per day to hold children in immigration centers. If you were to design a facility that could house two hundred children awaiting immigration hearings at a cost of seven hundred dollars a day per person, what would be your monthly operating budget? How would you spend this budget? What programs and assistance would you provide for the children?

Guide prepared by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

About The Author

Owen Benson

Alexandra Diaz is the award-winning author of The Only RoadThe CrossroadsSantiago’s Road Home, and Farewell Cuba, Mi IslaThe Only Road was a Pura Belpré Honor Book and won the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, as well as numerous other accolades. Santiago’s Road Home was an International Latino Book Award gold medalist and an ALA Notable Children’s Book. Farewell Cuba, Mi Isla was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, received the Teacher’s Favorites Award from the Children’s Book Council, and received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. Alexandra is the daughter of Cuban refugees and a native Spanish speaker. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but got her master’s in writing for young people at Bath Spa University in England. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (May 4, 2021)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534446243
  • Ages: 8 - 12

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Awards and Honors

  • ALA Notable Children's Books
  • Kansas NEA Reading Circle List Junior Title
  • Black-Eyed Susan Book Award Nominee (MD)
  • Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year Selection Title
  • YouPer Award (MI)
  • South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee
  • Rhode Island Latino Book Award Nominee

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More books from this author: Alexandra Diaz