Report from the Field: “Legal Residents Only:” The Undocupoets Campaign
Various Undocupoets from throughout the nation recently have been working on a petition against the unjust discrimination imposed by first book contests. In the poetry community, too many publishers ask for “proof of US citizenship or permanent residency” prior to publication. This small but strong statement serves to exclude 11.7 million undocumented people from fully participating in publishing opportunities.
Since beginning the Undocupoets campaign, my colleagues and I have garnered 400+ signatures from various poets, publishers, critics, and friends who stand in solidarity with Undocupoets. We have published those signatures alongside an article in Apogee Journal, detailing the discrimination faced by Undocupoets (and proposing that immediate action be taken place).
This interview with Cristian Flores Garcia serves to extend the discussion about issues pertaining to poetry and documentation status.
— Christopher Soto
CS: Throughout the process of organizing with various Undocupoets, we have had to be conscious about various people’s abilities to “come out” as undocumented. How has this process been for you?
CFG: I am right now at a different, stronger, place in my life than a few years back. My legal status hasn’t changed, but I have. I have reached out to friends and fellow poets/artists I’ve met through poetry and the literary and art worlds and I feel like part of a great, empowering community. I still fear repercussions as the result of my personal essays, though not so much from poetry. Poetry feels like a safe home. My poetry is about the undocumented experience, but I have yet to have someone react in a negative/hurtful way. We are all entitled to our opinions, and I can only write what I would love to read about, be honest with my feelings when I write, and hope for the best. Just like our actions have consequences, our words have consequences as well. Our words are actions. I feel at peace with myself and ready to take on whatever else comes my way.
I have lived undocumented for over twenty-two years, this has been life to me, it is what I know. (I don’t know what it is like to walk out the door and not feel a pang, see a tinge of fear; I don’t know what it is like to drive and not plan ahead of time what will be the proper words to use when giving my excuse for why I’m driving; I don’t know what it is like to go into a store and use a credit card or try to open an account without being certain that I will be turned down for lack of official ID; I don’t know what it is like not to plan on a daily basis for hiding places in case the day comes when immigration knocks at the door.) And yet, I have learned to love life even when harsh. I have been taught by my sister, my lover, and my best friend that life is complicated, hurtful, and unfair and at times we must grieve this, but they have also shown me that life is mesmerizing, satisfying, and worth savoring. My parents’ love gave me the courage to “come out.” We came to this country defeated and empty-handed, they sacrificed their lives for their children, so we could have a better future; and we did. There wasn’t a day when we went to bed hungry, or at least with a completely empty stomach; they had always had a job, their children didn’t have to leave school to work for survival instead.
Poetry gave me life. Poetry gave me a world I never knew I could have. Poetry is my passport that I don’t need any government to stamp. I do wish my life didn’t revolve around my legal status, but I also know that my poetry can grow regardless of any status. Maybe one day I will have it all: papers and poetry.
CS: Prior to this interview, we talked about the poetry community and issues pertaining to US citizenship. Can you elaborate on how immigration status has affected your involvement in the poetry community?
CFG: While I was in a creative writing MFA program, I avoided social interactions as much as possible. Aside from the interactions I had with a few close friends who either knew about my legal status or suspected it, I rarely ever “hung out” with my peers. I couldn’t go out to get a drink, or spend the weekend on a road trip, or go out to dinner after class, or go out of town to a reading, because I always had to work the graveyard shift at a donut shop, and I knew I shouldn’t drive more than necessary because of having no driver’s license. I thought, if I didn’t make small talk about my daily life with people then they wouldn’t have a chance to ask about why I never participated in class or why I always had to run. That’s why I was never really involved in the poetry community, because I didn’t have the time, and I was afraid of being fully exposed or of having someone who didn’t like me cause trouble for me, or of getting caught driving while going to a reading or a writing group or to a friend who had offered to help. I was also still struggling a lot with my English and it worried me that if I had to defend myself I wouldn’t be able to. So, for the most part, I shielded myself from the poetry community and academic world over all. Whatever writing I did do and shared was always with those friends I felt safe with. It took a while for me to submit my writings to a magazine or journal or to apply to an artist’s residency because I was terrified of getting hurt, exposing myself to unnecessary threats. I dreaded having to explain my legal status to be able to partake in a project of, let’s say, volunteering, or as the recipient of an award, or dealing with anything that offered financial aid or financial recompense. Poetry consoled me and that was enough to accept the isolation.
CS: Are there any grants, residencies, book awards that you would like to apply to but cannot?
CFG: I slowly discovered that for the most part I could apply and accept artist’s residencies without my legal status standing in the way of my participation. My issue continued to be money. I have never, to this day, worked a job that allows for me to save up as much as I would like so that I can take time off to get away and spend time just writing. Before the next payday comes, every cent is already calculated and assigned to the next bill on the list. Yes, there are those times when I spoil myself on a special occasion and buy myself a book, or a pair of shoes, or I go on a shopping spree at the Salvation Army; what is life without some fun? However, I have been lucky enough to have been accepted into residencies that have offered me financial help by way of a private scholarship or by providing room and board, which has been heaven for me.
As for grants and book awards, well, right after I finished grad school I started to explore the “official” poetry field, and I encountered the dreaded words almost every time: “Proof of US Citizenship,” “Legal Residents Only,” or “Applicants must be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States.” NEA Fellowships, Walt Whitman Award, The American Poetry Review award, the National Poetry Series, and on and on and on. Perhaps because I was aiming high, I kept thinking. Maybe if I looked for smaller presses, smaller awards, maybe … I got discouraged so I stopped investing time in this search. I had no control over my legal status but I had control over my writing. So I invested my available time in reading and writing instead of searching for places to go write, or money that would allow me to write more freely. I worked, I dreamt, I wrote some things. Eventually, for a while, I stopped writing because every time I sat down to write I ended up writing about my personal experience, about what my family and I were living at that moment and it was retelling, it was remembering, it was reliving, it was rehurting.
CS: Is there any way that the poetry community can be in solidarity with you and other Undocupoets?
CFG: I am lucky to be part of a poetry community that is in solidarity with me and other Undocupoets. I have yet to meet a poet or an artist who has not been willing to offer a helping hand. For example, when I was accepted into CantoMundo and I wanted to go but was ready to turn my space down because I hadn’t save enough money for travel and lodging, my friend and fellow poet Eduardo Corral gifted me my trip there. When I’ve been short on money for a bill or food, my lover who is also a writer has wired me money without asking if I need it or how much. My best friend has sent me gift cards for bookstores. Many of the artists I’ve met at residencies have helped me out with reference letters when needed. My friends have sent me articles, research ideas, book suggestions and a lot more information to inform whatever subject I’m working on. I have had poets like David Tomas Martinez, Nickole Brown, Jasmine Jina Ortiz, Kate Durbin, Erika L. Sanchez, Juan Felipe Herrera offer to read and help me with my poetry. I have been truly blessed with the poets I’ve met. And yet I still think more can be done. For example, the Undocupoets Petition Against Contest Discrimination is the perfect way for the poetry community to show its solidarity to all Undocupoets. Promoting Undocupoets’ work, helping out with a word of encouragement, and educating others about why it is important that we treat all humans with respect and dignity is the best way to be in solidarity I think.
CS: Any closing thoughts?
CFG: Thank you for the work that you’re doing to bring Undocupoets to the front stage and to advocate so that there is more equality in the poetry community regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, and/or legal status.
Cristian Flores Garcia was born in Mexico City and raised in Southern California. Her poems and essays have been published by The American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, HerKind.org, and others. She is a Fellow of CantoMundo, The MacDowell Colony, The Millay Colony, and the 2013 LetrasLatinas writer in residence (as well as a XXXVII Pushcart Prize winner).
Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latin@ punk poet and prison abolitionist. They are currently curating Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color in collaboration with The Lambda Literary Foundation. They have work published in Columbia: A Journal , MiPOesias, Apogee Journal and more . They are an MFA candidate in Poetry at NYU and the 2014-2015 Intern at Poetry Society of America .