Um, what does it mean to be “undocumenting?”
The Stories Being Told About Us
Anti-immigrant rhetoric and the broader migrant rights movement have experienced simultaneous growth over the past decade. As the stories of undocumented people continue to find their way into the media spotlight, a national narrative is being built around the undocumented experience in the United States. Yet this narrative too-often leaves out the perspective and authentic voice of its very subject: the undocumented community.
We often hear of singular narratives, cherry-picked for use in talking points and sound bites:
The broader non-profit-led, campaign-focused immigrant rights narrative that narrowly deems exemplary people who want to give back to American society - Dream Act superstars and high-achieving students, the gainfully employed and able-bodied, the high-skilled STEM workers - as the ones worthy of citizenship.
The societal narrative, driven by mainstream media, of the border-wall-jumping criminal alien, the drug cartel-funded gang member, the societal scapegoat seeking services, the dangerous terrorist OR the extreme pole of the harmonious melting pot as a nation of (properly assimilated) immigrants. In other words, the continuous equating the immigrant with the notion of the Other, whether in a positive or negative light, and thus continuing to couch the conversation in “Us vs. Them.”
The limited and often biased histories taught in the education system that fail to reflect the full history of U.S. mistreatment of immigrants - from the Chinese Exclusion Act, the bracero program and Japanese-American internment, to the wave of hate crimes against Muslims post-9/11 and the resumed deportations of Haitians after the devastating earthquake of 2010.
But why are these narratives told? Who do these stories serve? With such a large population of undocumented immigrants, politically and in the absence of a legislative solution, the problem needs to be reconciled by attempting to explain it away. Hence storytelling occurs within a politically-driven bubble and many aspects of the undocumented experience are excluded for their inability to jive with messaging. Sometimes to assimilate is an act of survival in and of itself, and that process of fitting in can be played out through regurgitating these limiting narratives, akin to ironing the accents from our tongues. Also, by using these narratives to paint a damning and derogatory picture of what it means to be undocumented, fear and shame become useful tools to keep immigrants “in the shadows,” for worry of exposing themselves to be that which has now been deemed taboo.
The Stories We Are Telling About Ourselves
Many have fought back against this one-dimensional telling of our experience, through coming out as undocumented, working tirelessly to stop countless deportations, using civil disobedience, establishing local grassroots groups to provide a support and safety space, and so on.
But there are other stories about ourselves that we would like to tell - the awkwardness of dating; our struggles with depression and mental health; the lack of visibility of the non-Latino undocumented population; sexuality, sexual orientation, gender and gender expression; navigating academia…
There are many ways we tell these stories - in conversation, through art, through political action, through working to survive and exist outside of the system which denies us full participation. For example:
We are multifaceted and greater than the sum of the parts (and the papers) that we lack. We are not defined solely by that which is missing in our lives. This notion of being more than just undocumented has been reflected in the conversations around moving past the DREAMer identity, and the parallel evolution of undocumented, unafraid, unashamed, unapologetic, and undocuqueer.
Through greater visibility of community college students, dropouts, and alternative education seekers, propelled by the diversification of stories within deportation case narratives and projects like 67 Suenos, we continue to push back on the notion that only high-achieving students are worthy (of inclusion, of opportunity, of citizenship).
Our stories are becoming more intergenerational, evolving past the Criminal Parents/Innocent Children dichotomy of past messaging. Through the participation of parents in civil disobedience actions and projects like Dream Moms and the UndocuBus, the wisdom and history within our families are being woven into our collective narrative.
We are moving our vision beyond legislation, and now beyond borders even, and challenging the systemic faults migration lies rooted in - imperialism, the proliferation of neoliberalism and globalization, trade agreements, predatory and discriminatory state & local level policies, white supremacy, a massive detention and deportation machine, and the non-profit industrial complex, amongst other things.
These stories, and many others, are being told to establish and strengthen a counter-narrative, to ensure that stories about us are being told by us, directly from our lived experiences as people affected by lack of legal status. We use storytelling as a tool of empowerment, as a way to guide dialogue in the direction that is desired and needed by our communities, not the direction forced upon us for other motives. We also use these stories to be more inclusive and intentional of the various needs and priorities of those within the undocumented community whose voices are most marginalized.
Through self-initiated blogs, artistic expression and the production of creative works, collaborations with independent artists and media makers who highlight our direct experiences within a formal framework, and direct action that carries with it a new message, we are reframing, reshaping and taking back these conversations around our experience. It is in these various ways that we participate in undocumenting, and immigrants have been undocumenting since they have been on the move, leaving stories in the footprints behind them.
Photo credit: Favianna.com
The Vehicle of Art
Art, through its many mediums, is one way we can lift our stories and our voices. We want to use this platform to highlight the creative work that has been and continues to be done by undocumented people around any and all subject matters (not just migration), and in our own way, contribute to shifting the narrative about our community to a more authentic and holistic one.
Undocumenting aims to really explore and critically analyze the evolution of these parallel narratives - the stories told about us and by us. The spirit of undocumenting, to me, is captured in these counter narratives that are based on personal and direct experience. It is important that we document and archive our own process of undocumenting, to ensure that our stories and history are not easily replaceable by those who work to silence us. We should also celebrate and collectively share our own modes of self expression, so that we may learn new forms of resistance from one another.
The goal of this project is seven-fold:
1. To collect, curate, uplift and centralize, in an accessible space, the body of creative work around the undocumented experience.
2. To highlight the multidimensional nature of the undocumented population and to reinforce the point that we are capable of telling our own stories, in a myriad of ways.
3. To listen to the different answers of “Why create?”
Some of us have come to art as a way to grapple with our undocumented reality, while some of us have used art as an escape from that same reality. For others, the inspiration to create may come from an entirely different place. To better understand why (and how) we create is also to dispel stereotypes of what it means to be an artist.
4. To explore the many uses (and benefits) of art: as a means of survival, a political tool, or a mode of self-expression, amongst other things. In the same vein, we’d also like to explore the links between art and activism, and the role art plays in movement building.
5. To explore the dichotomy of art created directly by undocumented people as opposed to art that touches on the undocumented experience by documented folks.
6. To compile relevant and accessible resources for artists looking to grow in their craft or polish up on a skill subset.
7. To act as the base of an undocumented creative collective, where artists and activists alike can network, share their work, receive feedback, collaborate on original content and build community.
We also hope to explore the various ways in which documented people have approached the storytelling of the undocumented experience, and to ask ourselves - Is this perspective harmful or helpful? When is it supportive and when is it problematic? How can these voices work in harmony and not dischord?
Chimamanda Adichie has warned of the “danger of a single story.” The undocumented experience is neither homogeneous nor monolithic; its beauty lies in its variety, in its complexity and sometimes in its contradiction, in its stubborn refusal to be easily defined and thus confined, and in the many songs that make up its soundtrack. We are migrants yet we are more.
Lastly, we would like to hear from you - what impact has art had on your undocumented experience? Are you wanting to start a creative process but unsure of where to start? Are you already creating yet looking for resources and support to take your work to the next level? Do you have an opinion about a body of creative work that explores the migrant experience? Let us know!