Illegal by Bettina Restrepo – Inspiration that led to the novel

Illegal by Bettina Restrepo
Book Cover of Illegal by Bettina Restrepo

Inspiration for Illegal

Many experiences and news items inspired my writing of Illegal.

I used to be an auditor at a chain of ethnic grocery stores, Fiesta Mart, Inc,  headquartered in Houston, Texas.  I drove around the city visiting the stores on a daily basis.  I came to know the clientele and their financial life cycle very well.

Many immigrant customers would arrive with their weekly paychecks.  After paying their utilities bills (overdue), a bag of bus tokens, and sending a few hundred dollars abroad (via Western Union), I would watch them walk into the grocery store and carefully pick out their groceries.  When they went through the checkouts, they only had enough money left in their pockets to exchange for quarters (for the laundry mat).  It was a vicious cycle of survival.

I found Nora at Fiesta Mart on Quitman Avenue.   A girl standing on the side of the road staring at the grocery store.  Her face haunted me.  I wanted to know her story.  How did she come to stand on that corner?   Where was her family?  Was she hungry?

Those questions became a story which turned into a novel.  I modeled the neighborhood in my book after the neighborhood surrounding Moody Park on Quitman Avenue.  The market Nora visits is a Fiesta store.

Here are pictures of the “real” Quitman Street.

The town, Cedula, is fictional, but based on a town I visited in Mexico as a child.  Cedula is just a piece of slang referring to the older Mexico voter registration card (a prime piece of ID in Mexico)

Chapter 11, Highway 59,  was written after a terrible crime was committed in South Texas.  A truck driver left 77 immigrants in a truck in the middle of a field.  18 people cooked to death.  The Houston Chronicle did extraordinary coverage of this horrific incident.  The images haunted me—especially the one of a foot hanging lifelessly out of the back of the truck.  Chapter 11 is one of the original chapters of the book that hasn’t changed.

Mr. Mann was created from a photo I saw advertising the North Texas Food Bank.  I imagine him to have paranoid schizophrenia with periodic moments of lucidity.   Many people who choose to live in the street are mentally ill ~ that doesn’t make them less human.

I named the main character Nora because she is a Viking forging into the new world.  The Greek origin of the name means “bright one”.  Aurora, her mother, means sun.  The sun feeds and burns.  Grandma Isabel was named after my own Colombian grandmother who passed away.  Manuela, Jorge’s wife, is named after my own mother.