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Why we need to listen to undocumented poets

When we talk about undocumented immigrants, who are we leaving behind?

That’s a central question for poet Sonia Guiñansaca, who was undocumented for 21 years after moving from Ecuador to Harlem. In 2007, Guiñansaca came out as undocumented and began organizing migrant and undocumented communities of color. Several years later, she launched Dreaming in Ink, the first creative writing workshop for undocumented youth in New York City, and founded the UndocuMic series, an inter-generational performance space for undocumented writers.

These efforts were aimed at creating a rare space for undocumented and migrant writers to speak out about their experiences, she said. “The few stories that are written about migration, or the few poems, have always been from an outsider’s point of view, so from people who are not directly impacted, or have never been undocumented,” she said. “There’s an injustice to that.”

These writers bring a unique, vital perspective to conversations on literature and on immigration, she said. “When we look at the migrant writers that are being acknowledged … I wonder specifically how many voices are being left behind, and how much of the history is being erased,” she said.

Guiñansaca co-founded and organized the first retreat for undocumented writers in the U.S from a national pool of more than 100 applicants in August 2013. From that retreat, the group created an anthology, “Home in Time of Displacement,” which is currently seeking a publisher.

Their work contradicts the idea that there are few undocumented writers, she said. “The [excuse] is always, ‘There are no undocumented writers.’ That’s a myth — there are,” she said.

But many literary spaces remain difficult to access for undocumented immigrants, she said. Some contests require submission fees or have citizenship requirements, both barriers for many immigrants. And literary conferences, which open opportunities for poets to meet each other and share their work, are expensive and time-consuming.

Last November, when Guiñansaca gained legal immigration status, she was able to return to Ecuador. She documented her trip with a series of posts on Instagram with the hashtag #20yearstoolate and is working on a series of poems around the same theme.

Her piece “Bursting of photographs after trying to squeeze out old memories” addresses physical markers of the stories that are lost in migration.

The poem is unconstrained by a traditional form, which Guiñansaca said is a statement on reclaiming space as a migrant.

“I’ve been growing up a brown, femme, queer woman of color. The idea of taking up space has always been challenging. You’re not even supposed to be here. You’re supposed to be quiet,” she said. “A lot of the space in my poetry has been intentional about taking up space … That’s just me saying, I’m going to do whatever I want with the page. That is a radical thing, for me.”

Read the poem or listen to Guiñansaca read it below.

Bursting of photographs after trying to squeeze out old memories

They don’t tell you this when you migrate:

Old Polaroid’s are never enough
You are left tracing the silhouette of your grandparents
Or what ever is left

Of them

How many years has it been,
5,10, or 20?
It’s been 20


In those 20 years you have been asked

To hide your accent

Sow your tongue

So that no more Rrrr’s roll out

Straighten up
So that white Jesus accepts you

So that the lawyer helps you

Dig out the roots

Of your home

From underneath your nails
Cut your trenza

Pledge allegiance to the flag
And when you cannot,
Each thread will cut through

Every inch of you
To teach you, your kind was not meant

For this country

Dad told you that they will measure your success based on how smart you could be
So, you tried to be smart

Books after books you chased vocabulary for value
Legislation to give you meaning

Yes, sir. I am a skilled worker
Yes, sir. I can contribute
No, sir. I haven’t committed any crimes

Pinned. Against One. Another

You remember that your mother almost didn’t make it through the Border
Or any legislation, this time around

She won’t make it into health care packages
She won’t be remembered during press conferences

She will be dissected, research
How much she doesn’t belong will be published

They don’t tell you this when you migrate

Sonia Guiñansaca is an activist, organizer and writer. She is a board member of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC) and coordinator of the Undocuwriting Project and the Artist Network at Culture/Strike. She is currently editing the first undocumented poetry anthology, “Home in Time of Displacement.”

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