Round Table: 3 Writers on the Emotional Toll of Being Undocumented

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When did you become aware of what it means to be undocumented?

JOSÉ OLIVAREZ My dad became a citizen when I was in fifth grade, and it wasn’t until I saw him studying for the civics test that I realized that my parents were undocumented. For years before that we would spend every Saturday in the basement office of an immigration lawyer. My parents wouldn’t tell us why; I just knew every Saturday we had to go to this office, and my parents would talk to the lawyer. When I found out, I was like, “How is it that me and my brothers are citizens but almost no one in my family is?”

My high school had a poetry slam team, and it was the first time I saw that you were allowed to write stories about all these questions I had been collecting — big questions I had been taught, as a survival method, not to ask.

ARCE When I found out I was undocumented, I was 14, and I was bugging my mom about going to Mexico for my quinceañera. I kept bugging her, and, finally, she blurted out, “You can’t go to Mexico because your visa is expired, and if you go, you can’t come back.” Because I was 14, I couldn’t process the weight of the thing my mom had just shared with me. To me, I was a normal teenager, like everybody else at my school.

That’s why this young adult book was so important for me. When I was in middle school I never read a book about undocumented people or in which the protagonist is a Latina. Today, I went to a school, and I talked to 200 fifth graders. We talked about what “someone like me” can do. These kids were like “Someone like me can become a doctor” and “Someone like me can become a biologist.” Some of those kids were undocumented, and I really wanted them to feel like someone like them can — even if they don’t look like the people in all of the books they’re reading.

VARGAS I found out I was undocumented when I was a freshman in high school, and by then I was like, “I’m undocumented, so what’s the point of trying?” Then, I learned that when you get a “byline,” your name would be in the paper, and that’s literally the only reason I became a journalist — just so my name could be on a piece of paper.

ARCE It’s so interesting. Jose, you found out you were undocumented, and you wanted your name to be on a piece of paper, that meant something to you. When I found out I was undocumented, I decided, “I am going to get rich, and when I am rich it’s not going to matter that I’m undocumented.” It’s what you do when you find out your status — think of how you are going to solve it or be able to live with it.

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