Poet On Helping Undocumented Students: Pass The Mic
Community colleges across the state have organized a week of action, starting Monday, to support students who are in the country illegally and call for a fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
To kick off the effort, Grossmont College invited poet Yosimar Reyes to speak.
His grandparents brought him to San Jose, California, from Guerrero, Mexico, when he was three years old. Now, Reyes is traveling the country to speak on how media frame the immigrant story.
Reyes sat down for an interview after his talk. The following has been lightly edited for brevity.
Q: You’ve been traveling the country and giving these talks, and in one of your pieces you talk about feeling bamboozled. What do you mean by that?
A: Sometimes the questions come with this assumption that the answer is going to be a certain way. We’ve been used to asking these same questions that when people ask me they think that the answer I’m going to give them is going to be like everyone else’s. I want to be able to create narratives that are not so serious. I think we’ve made immigration so serious and political when that’s not the case.
Q: What do you mean by that’s not the case?
A: When I was a kid, I migrated to the U.S. in 1991, and there was no language to talk about being undocumented. You weren’t out there saying, "I’m undocumented." You continued to build and grow and go to your job. So for me, there’s nothing undocumented about my body, nothing is undocumented. I think we forget a lot of times that it’s just a condition like poverty. It’s something you’re just growing up in, it’s not an identity. And I think the way we’ve politicized undocumented people’s lives — like we’re all out here being activists when most undocumented people just want to work and be left alone — that’s what I’m interested in exploring.
Q: So #UndocuJoy is your answer. Tell me about that.
A: We basically had this conversation about, when I was growing up the undocumented people that I knew were powerful. To build a life, to get a job, to learn the language, to continue to mobilize, I think there’s a certain power in that. How come when we’re showcasing undocumented subjects, there isn’t any of that? There’s no agency. There’s no will to say yes or no. We’ve stripped undocumented subjects of that because we want to just showcase the struggle.
In a way, it’s kind of like poverty porn. Like, somehow if we showcase enough repetitive images of how horrifying it is for us, then somehow this country will have a moral crisis and choose to act. I understand that. We saw that in the civil rights movement, when we saw African Americans being chased down by dogs, and the water hoses, and all of these really violent images. But at the same time, why do we have to go back to doing that? Has our country not reached the level in which human empathy is something that we all have?
I’ve been seeing these same videos repeat over and over and I just got tired of it. I was like, yo, I just want to showcase how powerful my friends are.
Q: You talk about how when you were a kid you had to translate for your grandparents, and you developed this agency. And that speaks to the strength that you and your friends have. Now, as more people are trying to march and rally on your behalf, it doesn’t quite jive with what you know about your community.
A: It’s interesting when people invite me to a panel and I happen to have two citizens sitting next to me and their label is “so and so, immigration expert.” And then you have me, Yosimar Reyes, and you have “DACA recipient.” Like, I’m the immigration expert. I'm the immigration expert because this is my life.
People think I can’t speak for myself or that I can’t articulate my own predicament, and because of it, they need to step forward. I appreciate that, but I think we’ve reached the point where the messaging needs to be led by the people that are directly impacted by that condition.
I think that’s why I loved the Black Lives Matter movement. They're very unapologetic about what they stand for, and that is for their survival and showcasing the power and resilience of black folks, and that’s beautiful. A lot of people got offended, but if you are really wanting to help, you shouldn’t take it personally. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that we’re trying to figure this out and, in order to figure this out, we need to bring the people that are directly impacted by it to the forefront of the conversation.
Q: In one of your pieces, you talk about the stress of “having to be public about where your spirit aches.” Can you tell me about that?
A: That line came from a lot of people asking me what are the hardest parts of being undocumented. I started noticing how people doing these interviews were getting desensitized. Like, if we make them cry, it’s going to get shared or get more clicks. I don’t want to be public about that. That’s the stuff I write when I’m alone and I put it in a poem or play.
I tell other undocumented people to guard themselves, because when you’re displaying that trauma it opens other things in your mental health. More undocumented people should be open about the triggers that happen for us when we watch these videos and all of our stories are based on deportation and doom and gloom.
Q: Do you mind explaining how being forced into that doom and gloom narrative affects people?
A: Sometimes it’s like, I need a break. News cycle after news cycle it’s, "This father is getting deported from in front of a house, this mother got deported from a hospital." I’m feeling like I can’t go out of my house. I have so many undocumented people who write to me to ask how I travel. Aren’t you scared?
It immobilizes us, and it really does have an impact.
Q: There are a lot of people in San Diego who are interested in supporting immigrants. Hearing this, they might feel at a loss as of where to go next. What’s your advice?
A: First of all, learn about your immigration system. And one of the biggest things is mentorship. If you have a skill and you happen to know an undocumented student that might need that, that’s a step in the right direction.
Q: We touched on people asking you to share where your spirit aches. What makes your spirit sing?
A: All these amazing undocumented people that I meet throughout the country — just beautiful people from Indiana to California, to Illinois, New York. All these people that are protecting their own communities by providing their own resources. Like, how amazing is it to have students in Indiana create a scholarship for undocumented students by selling their own clothes at a flea market? I think that's beautiful. I think there's a poem in there. There's a love story in there that's not being told.