In a letter to his mother, undocumented and queer writer Marco Flores describes his recent ride on the UndocuBus—and overcoming fear through art, activism, and community solidarity.
Tengo tiempo sin escribir. I’ve put off writing to you for several weeks now. As I write, I regret not staying up to admire the light of the blue moon from a few nights ago. All I was able to write were two laborious lines for the moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui. There is something about the moonlight that gives me the strength to answer the question that haunts me most—why does writing about being undocumented feel so unnatural to me?
It’s not easy writing this letter, but I want to share some of my most recent experiences with you. I write to you because I want to give you what has taken me years to bring to voice, my own truth of living undocumented in America. So I began by writing you a poem, but it felt forced—without meaning. How can I convey urgency without the excessive theoretical jargon my UC Berkeley education has instilled in me? To be able to write without the manipulation of rhetoric—rhetoric that cannot convey what I feel in my flesh. I decided to write a letter because in the act of writing, I can share my most intimate thoughts with you. Remember how abuela would write me letters desde México? It’s now that I’m able to understand the power of her writing. Her palabras are vivid memories of a distant homeland, the home we had left behind. You and papá always wrote letters to each other during his time in prison. You’d stay up all hours of the night and respond to the endless pages he had written. So I’m writing you a letter because you know letters. Because you and I know that in the act of writing we can own our words, by giving life to the unnamed.
I recently got back to California after a four-day trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. No, I didn’t mention the trip to you because I know how you get about these things I do. You’d have called me every day and told me that you’ve lost sleep porque los nervios no te dejan dormir. Pero en fín, a few days ago my friend Julio asked me if I was interested in flying out to Alabama to spend some time with the riders of the UndocuBus. I agreed. Y mamá, you know all those stories you’ve shared with me about experiences that have moved you in infinite ways? Those moments that have touched you in ways both unpredictable and unimaginable? Well, I’m beginning to understand just that. The feeling of being acknowledged by a community you feel is close to your heart, and the possibility of making familia. And it is without a doubt that my time in Tuscaloosa was a blessing, a learning experience that let me embrace the unimaginable.
During my trip, I met a beautiful queer woman, se llama Chela. I had seen a video of her artwork, but a video can only tell you so much about the person you’re sitting next to at dinner. As we shared a few words over a bowl of vegan chili, the images of her artwork replayed in my head—el caracol, la unión y el corazón. Pieces intertwined with la energía del universo, the same life energy that brings us together as people who, despite our struggles, continue to be inspired by everything around us. Her beauty was striking, as was her ability to be so gentle with the world, despite having to fight for (and against) so much in her life as a queer, undocumented woman. She is a woman with eyes ready to consume the world, chaparra pero plantada firmemente in her philosophy.
We were at ease discussing our existence as familia, our life as queer gente within the movement. Because within the undocumented movement, our queerness is often pushed aside, and at times, even erased. The fear of adding more complexity to an already difficult fight leads to our own exclusion from the fight for immigration justice. We are asked to downplay our jotería for the public, because there is no room for sexual politics in the undocumented movement. We have to choose one self over the other. We can never be queer and undocumented, because to be both simultaneously would be a “sort of distraction” that would weaken the movement. But in the midst of the UndocuBus riders, I could for once exist as my undocumented and my queer self. It meant piecing myself together for the first time; I felt whole within my own fragments.
I learned about justicia, the need for justice in addressing the many faces of immigration. My experience on the UndocuBus was a reminder that the struggle of undocumented immigrants goes beyond that of undocumented youth in higher education. As women from California spoke about the unjust conditions in the places where they work, many of the women from Alabama joined in. The stories went beyond having to work upwards of eight-hour shifts in order to feed three mouths at home, or bearing the cruel treatment of their patrones, who dismiss or sabotage them for being women. It reminded me of the many stories you’ve shared with me, sobre las largas horas de trabajo que te dejan más que muerta. In listening to these stories, I remembered something that I once read by la maestra Cherríe Moraga: “Coming to terms with the suffering of others has never meant looking away from our own.” So I am reminded of what it means to be compassionate for those whose lives I may see as being significantly different from my own. For me, being undocumented is not simply tied to my own experiences of injustices within higher education; it’s also about being able to acknowledge experiences I view as far removed from my own.
And it was the women who taught me most about fear, lo que es vivir sin miedo. The day after my arrival, a demonstration took place at the Federal Court House. “No papers, no fear!” “No minute men, no KKK, no racist USA!” “Undocumented, unafraid!” It was the women who chanted without hesitation, sin pelos en la lengua. “Undocumented, unafraid! Undocumented, unafraid!” Upon returning to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, we formed a circulo to begin a collective plática among Alabama residents. Marisa Franco, a community organizer, spoke to us about fear in our communities, el miedo de ser indocumentado. ¿Cómo podemos perder el miedo hoy y en el futuro? It was this moment that allowed me to understand fear in a different light. Many shared stories of the fear we must confront every day as undocumented immigrants—the fear that at any given moment we can get caught living without papeles. The fear that at any given moment we can be forced out and be inhumanly stripped away from our families.
You often tell me that at times “es dificil ver lo que esta en frente de nosotros.” As I began to think about my fears, I began to understand that overcoming fear is a process that goes beyond just me. I am not alone. Mamá, I made a family in Tuscaloosa. I was able to learn about lo que es ser familia en la lucha. We want to transform fear and create a path towards healing. We overcome fear by finding solidarity amongst ourselves, porque es transformativo ver a la comunidad unida en la misma causa. Like Natally, “es poder quitarnos el miedo de encima y decir ‘soy indocumentado’ a los cuatro vientos.” For her, it has meant embarking on a path of no fear, for her son back in Arizona. Learn to be fearless in the midst of danger, and be able to speak against injustice. Y tenemos que regar las semillas, porque una población informada es una población armada con conocimiento. And perhaps this is our life’s work, learning to reimagine the impossible in order to transform ourselves. I know there is a purpose for us in this path to conocimiento—to create a road for ourselves that aims to empower our communities.
Y entiendo que el miedo no simplemente desaparece. Todo tiene su tiempo. But our silences will not protect us. So I come back to all those moments of fear we’ve experienced together, when you told me, “Marco, muerdete la lengüa.” Mamá, silence can only get us so far. Y creo que es bonito perder el miedo. Even when I find it most difficult to talk about being queer and undocumented, I must be able to speak my own truth. Because every word I speak may lift this heaviness I carry. It means learning to speak against those experiences of injustice I encounter, and listen to that gut feeling that tells me, “No, this isn’t right.” And after twenty-four years of being consumed by fear of my undocumented status, after this trip, I am beginning to understand that I can learn to transform my demons with self-affirming acts, and continuously ask myself “what work is left to do?”
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the significance of the arts in the undocumented movement. Art has provided a vital energy to this trip. I firmly believe that we are all artists, and we have the right to create art. Our life depends on our ability to be able to tap into a creative world that can give us tools for change. Art is being able to re-create our humanity in the face of people who deem us only as “illegal.” The power of art to nurture collective activism is immense, and such were my nights with the UndocuBus riders, who would stay up until sunrise to complete banners, posters, speeches, cuentos—the stroke of a brush on a canvas or the rolling of words off one’s tongue inspire us. Together, we, as undocumented artists, create the tools necessary for each day’s struggle. Art became more than a language; it too becomes our instrument of growth and empowerment.
Art must be lived, and we have to learn to find beauty through the most heart-breaking of experiences. Art is our happiness and it calls upon us to live our lives truthfully. Art teaches us to re-imagine ourselves because it is necessary for our own survival. Y siempre, es saber hacer arte con todo corazón because art strengthens our hearts.
Mamá, I’ve found myself going on long walks during odd hours of the night. There is something soothing about the moon. En mis noches de silencio, la luna calls me. La luna is my medicine, mi remedio. I need to continue writing, me hará libre. And even when I fear that I will not be understood, I cannot sensor my own truth-telling. I need to write. Because in writing, I give meaning to those sites of rechazo–find the heart of the pain and see the beauty in being queer and undocumented.
El miedo se quedó en la carretera.
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