I have a dream, a total fantasy, of what it could mean to be an immigrant artist. In this dream, I am still me, nothing has changed, but I can write about literally anything other than immigration. I can write about the homoerotic relationships of male bison—in my own voice, not in some plummy British baritone fixatedly narrating stories about alpha males and dominance hierarchy. I could write about the hard work of rehabilitating German shepherds after careers spent working as traumatized and weaponized K-9s for problem police departments. Maybe I could write about bees.
I would like to do all of this, but instead I am borne back, always, ceaselessly, to immigration. To policy debates and talk of solutions and stories, stories, stories.
First, the audience demands it: Because I am a formerly undocumented Latina writer, I am forever asked to play activist and talking head, to sing Greek opera about my childhood. After I released my first book last spring, I did what ended up being a year of press on Zoom, and for the first few months, I would deflect the inevitable questions about immigration policy or my early years in Ecuador before my family came to America with my signature loquacious demurring. Then I had my partner, a professor who doesn’t mince words, tell event organizers that I did not talk policy, particularly Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, and I did not talk about my own childhood separation.
I don’t do it because I don’t want to, and because it’s not my fucking job. I am simply not interested in policy. It is a language I do not understand. It is advanced calculus, and I went to a high school that stopped teaching at trig. And policy is pain. I turned off my Google notifications for “ICE” and “undocumented immigrant” because human suffering can send me deeper into my already committed relationship with Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut. As both a human and an artist, I want to be able to emancipate myself from what causes me pain instead of having to mine it for stories and then market myself by the bruises.
But other people like pain; pain is exactly what they like. They exalt my bravery when they read my work and then bring out the mounting pins for my bell jar—queer, brown, Latina, undocumented immigrant. Strangers delight in rolling the Rs in a name nobody I love calls me. Karrrla, said when Karla is a choice, overenunciating it like they’re trying to speak through marshmallows stuffed in their mouths.
I could decide to stop and try my luck at making a living writing about television. But I’m very good at writing about immigration. It helps that I remember we are people first, capable of the entire spectrum of human emotions and behavior. And I write because I consider my reporting and my art to be payment in motion to my parents for having given up their upper limbs, health, and right to self-determination so I could be able to make a living typing words in an air-conditioned room. That helps. If I weren’t writing about immigrants, in the way I write about immigrants, I would be drinking all the time, because there aren’t enough other people doing it.
This country’s treatment of immigrants has been so inhumane that there needs to be a record—not only of injustices and grave suffering but of deep humanity, dignity, humor, and character. Beat reporters, journalists, essayists, and documentarians have taken great care to document not only the injustices but also the lives that go on, the people that keep living, not in shadows but in streets that are under sun, shade, sun, shade—all on the same block even. With parents risking the possibility of their children’s death through migration in order to avoid the certainty of their children’s torture back home, we need a record.
And so I write. I’ve written tens of thousands of words, fiction and nonfiction, most with extreme levels of cortisol in my blood, to arrive at the same old plea: a plea to those in power to create a world in which migrants can be people. Then maybe migrant artists can be free.
That world begins with a path to legalization for undocumented Americans that is closer to amnesty than what the current Congress favors. It also requires a world in which open borders would not be treated as some far-fetched policy goal to be accomplished in our lifetime but as a worldview that informs how we approach all sentient beings, particularly those of our species.
I don’t like comparing human migrants to any migratory species. Human migrants should inspire a deeper, more complicated affect than the miraculous call of a goose flying at night. But, to that end, I know that any person I meet who gets heated about an “invasive” species of bird in a suburb is not a person I would feel safe around as a brown woman, a migrant, and therein lies a sameness. Some of us are considered pests.
So long as I keep feeding the baby starlings in my backyard, I will keep writing about immigrants, because neither of us are welcome—and I suspect that means forever.