Poetry As A Passport
The story of the only undocumented writer to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program.
My family of six immigrated from Tepechitlán, Mexico, in the spring of 1993 and crossed the border through the desert. I had just turned 5 and my mother was pregnant with my youngest brother. I always knew I was undocumented and I knew I wasn't supposed to talk about it. In the second grade, I worried over state tests not for fear of failing, but for fear they required a valid Social Security number. Being undocumented means you have to monitor everything you do because one mistake can be catastrophic. Citizenship is a privilege many take for granted, and they forget that they use this privilege every day. Beyond racial and economic barriers, documentation creates an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that complicates even the most trivial tasks. Being undocumented means being multiply marginalized, but unlike other American born minorities, you experience tremendous hurdles essentially in secret. Sometimes I try not to think about it, but reality always sinks in, it's very difficult to avoid.
In 2008, on an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) surrounded our house and knocked on our door. They came looking for my father for unpaid traffic tickets even though he was deported back in 2003. They acted on a clerical mistake. By some miracle, they left peacefully without detaining any of my family. I was always reluctant to highlight anything that might point to my immigration and the events of that day cemented that feeling. I was determined not to see myself or my family in handcuffs. So I buried this part of me as deep as I could even from close friends. I never wanted anyone to know I didn't have papers. But the more I hid it, the more it became part of me. I knew being undocumented had nothing to do with my identity, but it was so pervasive that I couldn't help but think of myself through the lens of my status.
I began reading and writing poetry in high school because I was in love with a girl named Rubi. I absolved myself in poems. Poetry made sense to me in a way most things didn't. You didn't need a car for poetry, or a Social Security number, or a passport. It was there for the taking and it was beautiful. But I was alone with it. Early on I didn't have anyone to speak with about poetry because that wasn't what young, poor Latinos were supposed to do, according to the community I was raised in. My father is still confused about what I do exactly. His expectations for me, unlike my mother, were to finish high school and work in the fields.
Working two jobs to pay for college because my status kept me from applying for financial aid, I was determined to somehow use poetry as a way out. Even though I was studying at a diverse college, I was never exposed to the variety of diverse voices that would prove so fundamental in the years to come. My favorite poets at the time were white and male. At first it didn't bother me too much that I didn't see myself in their work — because I didn't see myself as belonging to begin with. I was content with loving their language from a distance rather than from within. I always considered myself a Latino poet but didn't know what that truly meant, and perhaps still don't. I felt that I couldn't say too much about myself for fear of ridicule or worse. To me the risk was real and I was constantly in survival mode. So when my professors asked me why I didn't use more Spanish in my poems, or write about the border, I wanted to scream at them. As with my life, I made myself invisible in my poems. I hungered for lyric rather than narrative because I was afraid of telling people who I was. I made myself invisible as a way of coping.
I applied to graduate school even though I didn't know if I could enroll if accepted. I took a leap in the dark, hoping they would figure something out if I got in. I only applied to the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa, not because I was confident in my sample (far from it), but because I could only afford to apply to two schools that also didn't require a GRE. After four months of waiting, I received the email many young writers dream about. Michigan accepted me. I sat in a Starbucks next to my wife, Rubi, to whom I wrote my first poem in high school. We wept uncontrollably while strangers stared on. But the joy was short-lived. Reality immediately hit as I realized I needed to tell them about my status.
Traveling cross-country was incredibly dangerous whether I drove, took a bus, or flew. I decided to take the risk and fly from California to Michigan. I was terrified of being detained at the airport but I tried to remind myself that I wasn't doing anything wrong. I was merely going from A to B. B just happened to be graduate school and A was a life I was reluctant to continue. It felt surreal, as if somehow I was crossing another border.
The university and the MFA program weren't sure how to handle my situation. I was setting a precedent that was developing as it went along. I immersed myself in my work and for the first time was exposed to the work of poets who shared my experiences. But I didn't know how long it would last. My enrollment wasn't guaranteed because I couldn't teach in my second year which was required to graduate. My only option was to defer until I "fixed" my situation. There just wasn't a model for me to follow. I will never forget being in a meeting and hearing, "you know, the only reason you were given a first year fellowship and didn't have to grade was because of your status." I was devastated. Often times I felt alone because I knew no one else was going through what I was experiencing. At one point the stress was more than I could handle. I had a break down half way through my first year and was put into therapy and prescribed medication to help with my anxiety. Fortunately, Obama passed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) exactly when I needed to begin teaching. I applied and was granted a work authorization permit for the first time in my life. I was allowed to stay, but I wonder what would have happened if that miracle didn't come?
Overall, I became a better poet and person after finishing the program. Michigan was good and generous to me when I needed it most. I was fortunate enough to have a diverse cohort who understood me and my poems, who loved me and supported me. However, most graduate programs continue to grossly lack diversity on all levels. Commitment to diversity extends only to writers of color that were born here or can be brought here on a J4 student Visa from abroad. Little attention is paid to increasing representation across citizenship. In the coming year, I will travel to traditionally diverse colleges in the midwest on a grant from the university in order to find other undocumented writers and writers of color. My goal will be to encourage them to apply to grad school and mentor them through the process. I want to find these young writers and tell them that they can attend grad school and they don't have to pay a penny for it. But mostly, I want to tell them not to hide as I did. Early on, I wrote safe poems and that was my biggest mistake. I want them to know that what they have is beautiful and that their work is important because it stems from them and not from what they read in the white canon.
I am slowly and reluctantly beginning to write about my experiences not because I don't want to but because they are too immediate. It's not something I only hear on the news or in my distant past but something I experience every day, and as such, I need distance before I can write my way through it. I am ambivalent about labels and categories because they tend to box writers of color into definitions created by white academia. I am building an image for myself through my work that lets me navigate the complexities of my situation. I've come to see that as soon as someone talks about "Latino poetry," they immediately make it Other poetry. They see my work as springing from the outside even before reading it. Binaries used to define an aesthetic (such as: is it Latino or not) serve only to limit and exclude creative possibilities and emerging voices. It's wrong to think there exists only one form of Latino poetry. People expect me to claim allegiance to something I already belong to, something I already own. I am tired of having to explain myself and show my academic credentials to other writers (and people in general) in order to justify my role in the conversation. There's always the "aha moment" immediately after when they've decided for me that I in fact do belong and can participate in the conversation. Mostly, I want to challenge the idea that I have to defend something that is already mine regardless of how it manifests in my writing.
It pains me to think of how many other people feel trapped and helpless in their situation. It hurts that there are people who do not understand the complexity of being undocumented and spew misinformed hate, or unintended micro-aggressions. I'm the first undocumented graduate student to come out of Michigan's MFA program, but it means nothing if I'm the only one. There are others just like me in other programs and some applying for the first time who need to be heard. Graduate programs have a responsibility to offer diverse representation, which includes representation of undocumented voices. Programs nationwide need to realize that they privilege those who are already privileged in life by cloning the same kinds of cohorts year after year. They need to acknowledge the fact that academia is modeled after the same systems of power that exist outside the classroom and it should be their priority to work to reverse it.
Recently everyone has been listening to the crisis of child refugees at the border, but there have always been children coming to the border. I was one of those children who was forced to make the best of my situation. I am certainly not alone, and mine is not a unique experience. Many do a lot more with a lot less. After 21 years of hiding, of negotiating how I speak, what I write, and even how I present myself, I will finally appear for an immigration interview this month. I will hold up my right hand and swear to many things. I know that there are many other people who need and deserve this interview more than I do. I won't celebrate because friends and family are still struggling, and when the interviewer shakes my hand to congratulate me and says, "Welcome to the United States," I will reply, "I've always been here."
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and is a Canto Mundo fellow, a Zell post-graduate fellow and the first undocumented student to graduate from the University of Michigan's MFA program. He's a Pushcart nominee and has received fellowships to attend the Squaw Writer's Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center. Recent work can be found in Jubilat, New England Review, The Paris American, and Drunken Boat, among others.