Language of the Border
Growing up young, Filipina, and undocumented in Southern California, I naturally had a monstrous appetite for the various news feeds transcribing and sensationalizing the “crisis” of illegal immigration in America. And, because I lived so close to the U.S.–Mexico border, I was guaranteed a story every three or four weeks—sometimes less if it was a summer month and the number of deaths spiking in the desert were at an all-time high. More times than not, I could easily predict what I would find in the edition of the Los Angeles Times or the Press-Enterprise spread on the kitchen table first thing in the morning. When it was election season, for example, many of the headlines read along the lines of “Driver License Issue Returns” or “Bush Touts Guest Worker Program Proposal.” The headlines of articles written during the months of high school graduations more somberly read, “When No Green Card Means No College: Students in California who are undocumented must pay nonresident fees. To many, it is a heartbreaking barrier.” Every once in a while, a journalist reinvented what we knew of the landscape of the world just south of our backyards. In an article printed on May 10, 2005, for example, Richard Marosi explored the many unusual toponyms given to the various trees and rocks used as “both landmarks and warnings for those who cross the border illegally” (headline). Within Marosi’s telling was the very vocabulary of poetry: El Arbol de los Calzones (the Underwear Tree), El Arbol de la Virgen (the Tree of the Virgin), and El Valle de los Perdidos (the Valley of the Lost Ones). Unfortunately, articles like his that examined the border in a nuanced lens were relatively rare.
An article published in the Los Angeles Times on December 13, 2003 best summed up what I felt was the narrative privileged in those articles. Three months after a bill granting undocumented immigrants the right to obtain driver’s licenses was signed into law by recalled Gov. Gray Davis, another signature repealed it. Hector Becerra and Chris O’Connell wrote about the angry demonstrators who stormed by the hundreds onto the streets of Los Angeles in a “daylong boycott of the classroom and workplace” (par. 2). The headline of the article read, “Latino License Protest Hits Schools” (emphasis mine). Though I was hardly surprised (and anyone who was just wasn’t paying attention) that the newest governor, former actor and body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger, had rescinded the law, it was a disheartening day even for me. I was, after all, twenty-one years old without a license, let alone a valid form of identification, in a state where the legal age a minor could obtain a learner’s permit was 15 ½. I was disappointed in solidarity. Though the bill authored by Sen. Gilbert Cedillo certainly would have allowed all undocumented immigrants the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license, its public loss was associated with only one community.
As illustrated by the Becerra and O’Connell article, the epicenter of the issue of illegal immigration in America was the U.S.-Mexico border, and I, as a tago ng tago (TNT), or undocumented person from the Filipino community, was not a visible constituent in the dialogue. This focus was not, of course, unbeknownst to me nor, it seemed, to anyone else. In the syndicated comic strip Get Fuzzy, Darby Conley pokes fun at the association made with the word “alien.” Rob, the hero of the strip asks his cat, “Hiding from aliens, Buck?” Bucky the cat, wearing a hat made of what looks to be a combination of duct tape and trash, responds, “Oh, this hat has nothing to do with Mexicans, Robert.” Conley takes up an extra panel to show that Rob has understood Bucky’s misplaced association, but the reader already gets the point.
How had the conversation become so far skewed? It seems to me that the sheer volume of news reports fixated on the undocumented immigrant experience along the U.S.-Mexico border helped to construct a dominant discourse which “visually sort[ed] immigrants” further into the existing binaries of good (or eligible) immigrant and bad (or excluded) immigrant, with the bad ones always in the public eye (Pease 215). The center of the immigration problem was an inked line on a map, a haphazardly erected wall, a series of checkpoints, and where misdirected activists and journalists stood pointing at bodies crossing north into the U.S. The good immigrants quietly entered and assimilated, while the bad immigrants were invoked on an as-needed basis (e.g.: during an election year) as if they lived “outside of time” (McAlister 219). Worse, these bad immigrants, suspended in timelessness, were now reduced to a single entity—they were “individualized,” certainly, but ultimately “not distinguished from each other” (207).
To provide a little more background on the experience from which my work stems: I was brought to the United States with incomplete paperwork and did not find out until the day I, a graduating high school valedictorian, was denied all of my federal financial assistance for college. I was planning on attending the University of Redlands as a rare freshman admitted into their sophomore-level Interdisciplinary Studies College with in-house Presidential, Creative Writing, and Art merit scholarships, but could not come up with the other half of the tuition on my own and without the additional federal financial aid. That fall semester, I enrolled instead at the local community college, paying $11/credit hour, and commuted to and from school primarily by bus for two years. In 2003, two years after the first incarnation of the DREAM Act failed to pass, the license law was repealed and I earned my Associate in Arts degree from Riverside Community College (now Riverside City College), graduating with a 4.0 GPA. Another two years later I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree and graduate summa cum laude with Upper Division Honors from the University of California, Riverside, where I received the Chancellor’s Performance Award for Creative Writing. Shortly thereafter, I was awarded a generous, all-inclusive fellowship for my graduate studies at New York University after making one unforgettable phone call during an earthquake. I would continue, but by now you get the picture I am trying to paint.
Was I, then, an example of the good immigrant? Over a decade ago, a friend explained during a group dinner that the best way to deal with the “problem” was to “give all the rednecks shotguns and let them loose along the Southern border.” When I spoke to her after dinner, she assured me that she wasn’t talking about me, per se, as I “obviously” was different from “the others.”
Truth is, I was no different—the repealed driver’s license law, among countless others, had affected me too. I’d never crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on my path to becoming an undocumented immigrant—I came by plane and landed at LAX—and yet there it was, crossing through my life as an undocumented Filipina in America. Citing Edward W. Soja’s book, Thirdspace, Nedra Reynolds describes what I think perhaps happened—how my story exploded or transgressed the binaries of the established and understood lived space (Reynolds 16). Thirdspace, Reynolds explains, “outlines not the difference that geography makes but the geography difference makes” (16, emphasis hers). As I was being both categorized within and outside of the dialectic of the “illegal immigration problem,” I was being defined and ruled by the language of the border.
Of course, because much of the public discourse surrounding these issues never directly included me, I learned that I was made capable of redefining the rules of the border’s topographic grammar. I realized I had agency and could slip in, so to speak, while no one was looking. I found myself suddenly very capable of, to borrow from Derek Walcott, building in a situation that was “Adamic” (par. 44). And I was building “not only from necessity but also with some idea that [I would] be here for a long time and with a sense of proprietorship as well” (par. 44).
Recently, I had the privilege of facilitating a workshop for emerging writers with a celebrated poet. Over several days, I observed at the roundtable, happy to be a student again and taking page after page of notes about writing craft. As a group, we even revisited poems I hadn’t read since studying for my comprehensive exams, and I was able to appreciate the lines I didn’t think I’d have any reason to write about and therefore X’ed out in my handwritten study guides. By the end of our time together, I’d written down the names of a total of eighteen poets who came recommended by the workshop leader. Since I recognized only a little over a handful, when I returned to my office I went down the list again, entering name after name into Google.
As an educator who, for all of the reasons I’ve shared, genuinely wants her own students to believe that their work has a place in the world, I found myself—eighteen names ticked on my notepad—in a difficult position. All eighteen of the poets who came strongly recommended by—and I’ll say this once—our much older, white and male workshop leader, were also white.
I should mention that I had been the only writer of color in the workshop. I found myself in a difficult position. In a week’s time, I would be meeting again with the young participants to rehash the experience. I pushed my chair back, away from the computer with tab after tab open with the names of the poets who had come highly recommended and turned to face my new bookshelf. Eighteen.
Could I do it?
What we had was a heart-to-heart, a discussion about reading blind spots (including my own), about reading both widely and deliberately. “I’m going to be honest with you all,” I said and explained how I am both a person of color and a writer of color who would like to also believe the space I carved out for my work would and could be one day acknowledged, even recommended. What we had on the table were the books of exactly eighteen other poets of color. I could do it. I could have, in fact, kept doing it—I’d only started with books published in the last few years: Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Cathy Linh Che’s Split, Natalie Diaz’ When My Brother Was an Aztec, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Terrance Hayes’ How to Be Drawn, April Naoko Heck’s A Nuclear Family, Rigoberto Gonzalez’ Unpeopled Eden, W. Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies, Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, Philip Metres’ Sand Opera, Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium, Jamaal May’s Hum, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar, Monica Ong’s Silent Anatomies, R. A. Villanueva’s Reliquaria, and Javier Zamora’s Nueve Años Inmigrantes. As a bonus, I included The BreakBeat Poets anthology (Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, eds.).
I turned from the shelf when I reached eighteen and there still were many more books left to pull. There were many more still on my shelves at home and on my list of next books to buy. It didn’t (and doesn’t) take much effort to research or locate poets like those I’ve named to make a homogenous list of white poets into a more inclusive one.
Days later, one of the workshop participants stopped me on my way to class. “I may be broke now,” she joked. “I bought all of the books you put on the table.”
Becerra, Hector and Chris O’Connell. “Latino License Protest Hits Schools.” Los Angeles Times. 13
Dec. 2003. Web. 7 Mar. 2013.
Conley, Darby. “Get Fuzzy.” Cartoon. Los Angeles Times.
McAlister, Melanie. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Marosi, Richard. “Place Names Narrate Migrants’ Saga.” Los Angeles Times. 10 May 2005: A1+.
Pease, Donald E. “US Imperialism: Global Dominance without Colonies.” A Companion to
Postcolonial Studies. Eds. Sangeeta Ray and Henry Schwartz. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. 203-220.
Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Walcott, Dereck. Interview with Edward Hirsch. The Art of Poetry No. 37. The Paris Review No. 101
(Winter 1986). Web. 13 August 2012.
Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016), winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Kenyon Review Online, Hyphen, The Journal, Drunken Boat, Best New Poets, Zócalo Public Square, and elsewhere. Her commissioned work for the Houston Grand Opera (HGOco) stage includes a libretto, From My Mother’s Mother, and a song cycle, “On This Muddy Water”: Voices from the Houston Ship Channel. You can find her at www.janinejoseph.com