Poet and activist Marilynn Montaño did not know what it meant for her parents to be undocumented until middle school.
Montaño, who was born in the U.S., witnessed her parents’ efforts to gain papers that would allow them to legally remain in the country from a young age.
“I felt frustrated because I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I was the only one that spoke English so I had to delegate for my parents when it came to meetings with lawyers, or even when we were trying to buy a house, to kind of be the adult at such a young age for my parents because of the language barrier.”
In 2010, Montaño joined the second year of the Barrio Writers program, a writing workshop founded by author Sarah Rafael García. The workshop, which meets in groups of 20-30 students for one week, encourages free expression and allows students to write in the language of their choice. It gave her the space to express anger at the U.S. immigration system as well as explore “more about my identity and what it means to be first generation,” she said.
Now, Montaño works as the program director for Barrio Writers’ Orange County chapter in the summer, where she said workshops have discussed topics like gentrification or police brutality, often sharing personal experiences that relate to those issues.
The workshop builds confidence among young writers, she said. “By the end of the week, we grow into a community. They come out confident and writing about their identity. We see a lot of growing throughout the week,” she said.
Montaño’s poem “His Machucada Hands” is a testament to the ways that being undocumented has taken a physical toll on her father’s body. The title, she said, came from noticing his hands on the steering wheel every morning as he drove her to middle and high school.
“It’s really hard for people like my dad, because they work under the table and there’s not a lot of protections for those people. … I always noticed his hands. They’re so overworked,” she said. “They’re black because of paint from yesterday, or sometimes they’re swollen. It’s a symbol of what this country does to people who are undocumented.”
The poem, like most of her other pieces, uses both English and Spanish, a reflection of the way she communicates in daily life. The piece is a “challenge” to the expectation that literary writing must be in English, she said.
Hear Montaño read “His Machucada Hands” or read the poem below.
His Machucada Hands
The grey streets that dingle in his eyes
As he drives in his white Toyota pick-up truck through the fog
The pondering cold weather in the morning like the anti-immigrant laws that drown this country
Yes, it’s possible to live in, a world without borders
So un cafecito and donuts that only seem to ease the desmadre
The sweeping men dressed in yellow, that reads “Caution”
But never really stopping to caution about their own health
Day and Night
The bones click and clack
Like the baby rattles in my little brothers hand
See to take away the pain at the end of the day
He must drink away his 40’s till he doesn’t feel 40 anymore
I don’t blame him for being an alcoholic at times
I blame the exploitation
I blame the emotional and physical borders
I blame the corruption and greed that haven’t done no deed
Too much back pain and machucada hands
He don’t believe in Western medicine but the natural remedies his mama gave him once before he crossed over
Standing for more than 2 hours on wait at Home Depot
After, hustle for more than 7 hours of underpaid work
Yes, he’s just trying to provide and survive
Not divide like the men in suits that play, ‘Poli-Migra’
What kind of living is that?
See our father
Is just trying to make enough
Yet still can’t even call it living
See his hands have been exploited enough that they aren’t recognizable to his eyes no more
They become rough
Deep with cuts like the nopales rooted out of la tierra
He has come to accepting that’s the way it must go
That’s messed up
No one deserves to be exploited
Not our father
Sometimes he just wish he can join the rallies and protests
He can’t put the fist up in the air
Cuz his hands has been in the fist for too long
Since the day he crossed la frontera
Why are we so consumed to being the chingones in the movement?
When its our parents whom we need to empower
So they must not fear and say no more to being exploited
But somehow we all seem to forget that he needs living too
The living to see his mother and homeland
The living to see his children graduate
The living to love his wife more
The living to just be
To really get that ‘American Dream’
What is the ‘American Dream’?
There are too many perspectives
Too many borders trying to divide this, ‘American Dream’
So why is our family just not the right fit?
Why must you cringe at the sight of seeing my father’s hand and skin?
Why must you put him down?
See my dad got more fuerza than the one you trained in the academy
As I sit writing away
Look at my hand
He has sacrificed so much so I don’t get his machucada hands
It is our family’s becoming
Written through the vein that circulates in his machucada hands
Passed so softly to the tips of my hands
The day he held me for the first time out of my mother’s womb
Marilynn Montaño is a young Chicana poet, community organizer and proud daughter to migrant parents from Puebla, Mexico. Her writing has been featured in “Mujeres de Maiz,” “Santanero Zine,” “Tortilla Power Zine,” “Seeds of Resistance Flor y Canto Zine,” “Barrio Writers,” and “Los Angeles Water Works: Histories of Water and Place.” In 2013, she received the “OC Press Club Award.” Currently, she is the Orange County Program Director for Barrio Writers and coordinates The People’s Data Project in collaboration with The Kennedy Commission at El Centro Cultural de Mexico in Santa Ana, California.