Real-life stories about immigration – told by real-life immigrants
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008
The book discussion for “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives,” an oral history published by McSweeney’s and edited by San Francisco State University writing professor and novelist Peter Orner, was a typical reading – with a slight twist.
A few minutes after the appointed start time at 826 Valencia, McSweeney’s editor Chris Ying stepped up to the mike. He thanked people for coming. Then he made a request. “We have to ask you, out of respect for the nature of the event,” he said, “please don’t take any pictures.”
The reason soon became clear: One of the featured speakers was a contributor to “Underground America,” a collection of interviews with undocumented immigrants. The book, one of four from the Voice of Witness oral history series, began with a conversation in a Mission coffee shop between the editor and Dave Eggers, the founder of McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia, a nonprofit devoted to teaching young people writing skills. Orner, who has a law degree, volunteered to represent an asylum seeker in 2005, and it made a big impression. When he lost the case (later reversed on appeal), it was “devastating.”
“It got me thinking about stories,” Orner said, “and the intersection of the law and stories. The law is fundamentally about how we tell our stories.
“Although, in the law, there has to be an answer – it’s an absolute world.”
The testimony in “Underground America” gives nuance to the often black-and-white landscape of immigration law. Many of the names and details have been changed to protect the interviewees, but their stories have been verified as best as possible. Hundreds of hours of tape were transcribed by Orner and a team of his students from San Francisco State.
One story is that of Lorena, 22, originally from Mexico and now living in Fresno, who fights to keep her dream of becoming a doctor alive in the face of daunting finances (even though she came to this country as a small child, she is not eligible for any loans or scholarships). Another is that of Adela, 45, from Modesto via Mexico, whose fragile balance of work, family and community responsibilities would be familiar to many American women. In between are millions of untold tales.
There are surprising stories (like that of Farid, a 62-year-old Los Angeles business owner from Iran, married for many years to an American, who is sent to a detention center after 9/11) and heartbreaking stories (like that of Olga, 39, whose transgender daughter died chained to a bed in federal custody), and many details of day-to-day life that serve as tiny revelations. Between 12 and 20 million undocumented workers live in the United States and, as Orner points out in the book’s introduction, although the majority of them are from Latin American countries, it’s a diverse lot.
Orner said that even though every interview was different – he and his team of roughly a dozen researchers conducted more than 60 interviews, whittling them down to 24 for the book – a few themes emerged. “They didn’t speak with one voice,” Orner said, “but probably everyone we talked to would agree that they don’t want to live in fear or constant worry.”
The U.S. economy’s dependence on cheap immigrant labor, coupled with its tendency to denounce illegal immigration, is a paradox not lost on Orner. Quite a few of the stories in the book come from Northern California. “Oh, it’s hugely important around here,” Orner said. “Farming is so utterly dependent on these migrant workers.”
But rather than pontificate on politics, Orner feels it is time to focus on individual immigrants’ stories. Although it was sometimes tricky to convince people to trust the interviewers, Orner said, “we didn’t have too many people who didn’t want to talk.”
“No one had asked before,” he said. “They were excited to be part of the series, which aims to expose human rights issues.” Still, “we were careful to not speak for them.”
To that end, Lorena took a seat on the stage at 826 Valencia to read a portion of her chapter. Clad in a business suit, she answered questions about how to help – by asking Congress to pass the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would facilitate access to college for immigrant students and provide a path to citizenship for hardworking immigrant youth through higher education and military service – and about her future plans. She recently graduated from college and is now looking into medical school.
In an e-mail, Lorena got more specific. Ideally, she said, she’d go to Stanford, but “any medical school is not too shabby!” She knows she wants to go into surgery, but is torn between ER and neurology. For Lorena, immigration status aside, the American dream looms large.
Other titles in the Voice of Witness series: “Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated,” “Voices From the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath,” “Out of Exile: Narratives From the Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan” (coming soon). All are $16 and published by McSweeney’s. For more information, go to http://www.voiceofwitness.com/underground_america.php.
Excerpts from an e-mail exchange between The Chronicle and Lorena, one of the featured storytellers in “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives.”
What was your first impression of the project?
At first I was scared. … I had done much protesting and thought (interviewer David Hill) was someone who did not like my protesting. … I did this because I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity many in my place would never get.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about immigration and undocumented immigrants?
That we’re all Mexican. That’s one of the most surprising and pleasant things about this book – there are immigrants from all over. For some reason, most people think all undocumented immigrants come here because they want to! They think, “Oh, it can’t possibly be that bad in their country!” As if we cross one of the deadliest deserts, risk drowning, being raped, kidnapped, getting, lost, getting sold, etc., just because we want to see what it’s like in the United States.
Have you read the book? What do you think of it?
The book is the only piece of literature that accurately and precisely depicts the life of an undocumented immigrant. It’s not edited to be a beautiful, inspirational story. It’s raw; it’s actual life told by those who know best.
What would you hope people would take from your story?
I would hope to relieve much ignorance about the subject. Undocumented Immigrants don’t want pity, just respect.
What is your advice for undocumented immigrants living in the United States?
Don’t let anyone, any law, any piece of paper, or the lack of a 9-digit number stop your dreams. Prepare yourself. Make yourself a productive part of your community. Go to school, learn English, get your GED, get your bachelor’s, your Ph.D. Undocumented immigrants always have things taken away from us, but when we earn an education, no one can take that away. Don’t cross the border and do nothing with your life. You can do that anywhere. … America is a place for prosperity.
E-mail Reyhan Harmanci at firstname.lastname@example.org.