In this interview with the Colored Girls Hustle blog, CultureStriker and New York City-based youth activist Sonia Guinansaca speaks truth about her art, her activism, and why the two are distinct and yet intricately intertwined.
This summer, Sonia and other writers from Undocumenting will be launching our first-ever intensive writing program. Our aim is to bring more undocumented voices onto the public stage and give emerging young artists space to hone their craft. Learn more about it and get application information here.
“On Her Hustle” Interview: Sonia Guinansaca, Artist & Activist
Colored Girls Hustle: Who is Sonia G?! What’s your life’s passion and purpose?
Sonia Guinansaca: Sonia G is a poet, artist, activist, community/youth organizer…it is really hard to single out my passion as one thing. I am many things — my identity keeps growing and expanding. I think the best way for me to say who I am is by taking it back to my origin: I am the oldest of 3 children. I was born in Ecuador in 1989. I migrated to NY to reunite with my parents who had previously migrated to find work, and support their families. Raised in Harlem, I attended P.S. 161, and went to Frederick Douglass Academy for middle school and high school where I graduated top of my class in 2007. I always knew I was undocumented and I also witnessed my parents’ experiences in the labor force and in society as immigrants. After falling into depression and attempting suicide I realized that my passion and purpose was to reclaim and tell my story, stand up for myself and with my community, and fight for migrant rights.
CGH: You’re a Board member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC). Tell us more about NYSYLC. How did you get involved and what is your role?
Since 2007 I decided to start sharing my undocumented story to others. In February 2008 I joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the first undocumented youth-led, membership-led, organization that empowers immigrant youth to drop the fear and challenge the broken immigration system through leadership development, organizing, educational advancement, and a safe space for self-expression. As a core member I coordinated the Media and Outreach committee; and coordinated the NY E.N.D. (Education Not Deportation) campaign, which worked on stopping dozens of deportations of undocumented youth and parents. During the 2010 push for the passage of the federal D.R.E.A.M. Act, I participated in a ten-day hunger strike, and in the second recorded civil disobedience action done by undocumented youth. In 2011 I helped launch the Dreaming In Ink creative writing workshops and soon after founded the NYSYLC’s Arts and Expression Program. Currently I serve as a Board Member where I handle the public relations, arts and media initiatives, and advise in many projects and direct actions.
CGH: NYSYLC does a lot of direct action to have your voices heard. What has been one of the most rewarding/fulfilling actions you’ve participated in, organized and/or witnessed?
I have participated in many direct actions ranging from hunger strikes, rallies, civil disobediences, to attempting to infiltrate a detention center in Alabama. I have also organized many of these direct actions. But the most rewarding/fulfilling thing has been organizing the Coming Out of the Shadows rallies for the past 3 years in NY (Union Square Park) for March National Coming Out month. During this time I witness youth and parents coming out undocumented. I witness people dropping fear/shame and being unapologetic about having to migrate and being undocumented. I find this the most revolutionary act: the empowerment that comes from undocumented people reclaiming their story and sharing it.
CGH: How do you define your art practice and how does it connect to your activism? How do you envision the role of artists in movement building work?
My poetry makes room for dialogue that my activism does not allow me to do. As a person who has burnt out doing organizing I have turned to poetry to heal. Being undocumented, being a woman of color, being queer, surviving in this country—is very traumatic and emotionally draining at times. My activism has allowed me to feel empowered and to directly work with my community to fight anti-immigration or so called “pro” immigration work that hurts our community. A lot of my activism has been on immigration and education legislation. My activism has revolved heavily on shifting the discourse around immigration so that directly impacted people (undocumented) are at the forefront and at the table of these discussions. My activism has been about organizing other undocumented youth as well as creating and maintaining undocumented youth led spaces.
For many years I saw my poetry as something that is separate from my activism; this notion is reflected on many organizing and activist spaces. Art and artist are not seen as being part of activism or doing activism; the idea of artists is removed from movement work. But that is so incorrect. Art and artists are part of the movement; there is no movement, no social change without artists and creators. It is not ok to think of artist as just flyer/poster-makers or poets that can fill in your 5 minute press conference hole. We are as important as those working on legislation; we are shifting culture, we are creating and not just being reactionary. My poetry is connected to my activism because both are connected in my survival, in my telling my story, in my resistance, and just being.
CGH: Tell us a bit about your hustle philosophy: What does the word “hustle” mean to you and how does it apply to your life and professional practice?
When I think of hustle I think of my parents. My parents have hustled all their lives to provide for me and my siblings. They have worked multiple jobs at a time, and have given to this country (without getting anything back, not even health care).
But this is not where hustle comes in; my parents’ hustling is reflected in their resistance and their strength. My father loves to cook and nothing makes him happier than feeding our family and playing soccer and volleyball. My mother is the most educated person I know, even though she never finished high school. Till this day she takes courses at City College to improve her english and to wants to some day enroll in college. She is also a fierce femme. Both continue to work multiple jobs, they continue to push through this harsh economic times, they have survived in a country that constantly criminalizes them. Their passion has become us: their kids. Their happiness is being with their family. Thus I have applied all of this in my life and professional practice. My professional is my personal; everything I do is about migrant rights. I have multiple ways of earning to sustain myself. Having multiple hustles is part of being undocumented, a woman of color and as an artist. I make sure that what I do is making me happy, and that my passion is reflected in the work I devote myself to. My hustle is something that I will never be ashamed of. Hustling doesn’t mean I am just focusing on making money; it means emotional/political/social/physical maintenance through practices that reflect my values and nourishes my being.
CGH: Describe yourself in 3 verbs.
Connect, encourage, scribble
CGH: How is storytelling and self-expression an integral part of your activist practice and philosophy?
Storytelling and self-expression have allowed undocumented people to take and own their stories. It has allowed for people to advocate for themselves, to take a step towards healing and feeling empowered. This is part of my activist practice and philosophy where I believe that the best people to advocate for migrant rights are those that are directly impacted. There is no movement without community; there is no community without people believing in their own story, strength and power. Storytelling and self-expression is one of the fundamental tools for social change.
CGH: A lot of our movement building practices operate in silos, making it difficult to have an intersectional activist practice; but you’re doing work at NYSYLC to organize at the intersection of queer liberation and immigration rights. Tell us more about the Undocuqueer project. How else are you working to ensure that immigrant rights are recognized as integral part of other movement building work?
The immigrant rights movement is majority led by queer women of color. The role of LGBTQ folks in the immigrant rights movement goes unacknowledged, and I am not talking about LGBTQ allies…I am talking about undocumented LGBTQ people and how they have radically always been at the forefront and organizing. A good article that examines this is “How Queer Undocumented Youth Build the Immigrant rights movement” by Prerna La. Prerna has been a very vocal queer undocumented person of color. Many folks across the country have been critical in the creation of Undocuqueer space and dialogue. I am undocuqueer femme woman of color and I am constantly working on exploring that identity where most times my identities are singled out and marginalized as individual issues, silenced or policed. People fail to see how they are interconnected. At the NYSYLC, I would give credit to Luis S. for taking lead on the Undocuqueer project , making it intentional part of our work and movement building.
CGH: You recently launched the (Un)documenting curational project. What are you hoping to accomplish and how can people participate and/or support?
Undocumenting is a curatorial project that seeks to collect and highlight the body of creative work by undocumented people, and to build community amongst art and culture makers and activists. Undocumenting also aims to engage in dialogue and reflection around matters of agency, identity, creativity, self-expression and intersectionality around the migrant experience and beyond. Undocumenting is a project started by Kemi Bello and I, and is powered by Culture Strike. We are both undocumented, artists, and women of color. We hope to highlight the fact that undocumented artists and creators have always been creating and telling their stories and resisting in their own ways. We were both at a point where we constantly came across this popular belief that everyone else but undocumented people can be able to tell undocumented stories. This idea of outsourcing stories was uncomfortable. We wanted to highlight the idea that in reality undocumented people are well equipped in telling their own stories and creating while also being intentional that we are not just undocumented stories or the idea that we are limited to an undocumented story. We create and tell stories beyond our undocumented lived experience. This gives room to explore those intersections and multi-layered identities that we all have.
To read more about Undocumenting and what we aim to do visit Undocumenting.com/About. We launched Undocumenting early this June by profiling undocumented artist for the next 30 days. One way to participate/support is by visiting Undocumenting.com reading the latest posts and spreading the word about it.
CGH: What advice would you give to people who are undocumented and feel passionately about radical immigration reform but are afraid to reveal their immigration status?
There’s this idea that revealing your immigration status can only be done in front of thousands of people. This is untrue. Coming out is a process. Revealing your immigration status comes in different ways: telling your best friend, changing your Facebook status, coming to terms with yourself — there is no one single way. Reveal and come out in a manner that you decide. For many it takes years, others can do it in front of rallies…which ever way you do it make sure to do it first for yourself. And never feel like your story has to amount to anyone else’s story. Your story is as important and valuable as anyone else.
For those that feel passionately about radical immigration reform I would advise to always be critically analyzing every legislation, organization, tactic, bill, etc. and to know that there is a community of fierce undocumented people that also are thinking the same thing (comprehensive immigration reform legislation sucks and will never be enough) even if it doesn’t make the commercial news outlet.
Last tip would be to put self care first, when I came out as undocumented I thought that I had to dive into everything and to multitask like crazy without listening to how tired my body was getting and how drained I was mentally. You come first! Balance your involvement. You are enough. What you contribute is enough.
Sonia Guinansaca is a poet that hails from Ecuador and since the mid ’90s was raised in Harlem, NY. Since 2007 she has been out publicly as an undocumented immigrant. In February 2008 she joined the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the first undocumented youth led, membership led, organization that empowers immigrant youth to drop the fear and challenge the broken immigration system through leadership development, organizing, educational advancement, and a safe space for self-expression. Sonia currently serves as a Board Member where she handles the public relations, and arts and media initiatives. Sonia has recently joined Culturestrike team as project coordinator of UndocuWriting. She is undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. Sonia is finishing up her studies at Hunter College where she is pursuing a double major in Africana Puerto Rican Latino Studies, and Women & Gender Studies. You can follow her on tumblr and twitter. (Images courtesy Sonia G)