The author on asserting personhood as resistance, the connection between activism and essays, and being 'aggressively bilingual'.
Photo courtesy of the author
A sticker on the rear bumper of a Toyota Corolla parked outside Deluxe Pastries in Iowa City reads, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier.” The sticker looks brand new. Inside, José Orduña looks tired. He drinks iced coffee and rubs his jaw beneath his full beard. Pinned to a blue plaid shirt, he wears a red button stamped with the number 43, for the 43 Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ college student who were kidnapped from Iguala in Aguero, Mexico on September 26, 2014. After the Mexican government conducted an investigation (which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found seriously flawed) the exact fate of 41 of the Ayotzinapa 43 remains unknown.
When Orduña was a kid, his parents took him to the National Museum of Mexican Art on 19th Street in Chicago. The family had moved to the city from Veracruz when Orduña was two years old. “It was,” he says of the museum visits, “their way of not only immersing me in representations of our culture and ourselves, but of exposing me to histories and contexts that were often missing in the lessons I learned in school.”
Orduña’s first book, The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement, blends the author’s trenchant examination of class, race and culture with his personal narrative to chronicle the fraught process of becoming a naturalized citizen in a post-9/11 United States. Richard Rodriguez says the book “violates—in a most exciting way—a number of literary borders,” that it is a manifesto “enclosed within a novel.” It is an important book, and beautiful: painfully researched, painful to read, and impossible to put down.
Orduña graduated with an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing program in 2013. His work has appeared in TriQuarterly, BuzzFeed, and After Montaigne, an anthology of modern takes on the 16th Century French nobleman’s essays. This fall, he will be the 2016 Joseph M. Russo Endowed Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. He lives in a red barn in Iowa City, IA, with his partner, the poet Caitlin Roach.
—Gemma de Choisy for Guernica
Guernica: Your book’s title, The Weight of Shadows, echoes its dedication: “To all those who refuse to live as shadows.” Who are the shadows you’re writing about?
José Orduña: There’s an epigraph to one of the chapters that references a Reagan quote where he talks about his reasons for [offering amnesty], which was to “help people come out of the shadows.” Reagan had this policy that was doing something ostensibly good for immigrants but at the same time Reagan was the key figure behind all of these atrocious interventions throughout Latin America [Ex.: The 1903-1999 control of the Panama Canal; The 1915-1934 occupation of Haiti, the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS, AKA the 1954 Guatemalan coup; Henry Kissinger and the Nixon Administration’s support of General Pinochet during the 1973 Chilean coup; the Banana Wars; the Iran-Contra Affair] that destabilized a lot of countries, outright toppled governments, funded death squads. And those are the things that really drove a lot of migration from Central America and continue to drive migration. So it was an interesting quote in that he uses the magnanimous image of “living in shadows” or “coming out of the shadows” when in fact he was blocking a good deal of light.
I wanted to play with that imagery. To me, people who refuse to live as shadows are slightly different from people who refuse to live in them. I think that that specific wording—“refuse to live as shadows”—references the State’s desire to make people redundant and shadow-like, and people’s resistance to that by asserting their personhood. And anyone who does that, anyone who’s engaged in that struggle, is part of why I wrote this book.
Guernica: Reagan’s rhetoric evokes the kind of coming out narratives—a good many were publicized in support of the DREAM Act—wherein an undocumented immigrant “confesses” what is ultimately perceived as deception or trickery. As it often is for queer folk who come out, the process seems to cater to the “safer” person, whether they’re straight or cis or a naturalized citizen or whatever, as if that person has the power to absolve the confessor of something. Your book is not, in this way or in any other, what people talk about when they talk about “confessional” memoir.
Mass surveillance is now a an undeniable fact of our lives, you know? Identifying oneself has to be rethought and recalibrated as a tactic.
José Orduña: There are different modes of confession, one being primarily a way of addressing the political paradigm of coming out as part of a marginalized group. There’s also the question of confession in essays or nonfiction writing. Both of those things are modes or paradigms that I wanted not necessarily to react against, but not engage in directly.
The paradigm of coming out is something that has been useful in different civil rights struggles, but I think that the context in which these struggles happen has changed dramatically. Mass surveillance is now a an undeniable fact of our lives, you know? Identifying oneself has to be rethought and recalibrated as a tactic. I didn’t want to engage in that aspect of confession.
For DREAM Activists, coming out is part of this process of affirming one’s civic self to the State. It’s a way of saying, “I am here and I demand to be recognized as a subject.” And there’s something to that. But there are also a lot of downsides. DACA, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” and DAPA, “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans,”for example, are not legislative measures. The first two letters in those acronyms are “Deferred Action”—for Childhood Arrivals and for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, respectively. [Ed: Deferred action is a function of prosecutorial discretion. If the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants deferred action to immigrants who either came to the US as children, or whose children are American citizens, then those individuals will not be placed into removal proceedings or deported from the US for a specified length of time. Homeland Security can terminate a DACA or DAPA agreement at any time.] That means it’s really nothing but a promise from a politician to not do something that they can do.
Guernica: So it’s a promise that can be kept or not kept according to its political benefit.
José Orduña: Exactly. At anytime that promise can go away, or change, and it does go away and is changed all of the time. Here in Iowa City there was a man named Max Villatoro who was a pastor, an active member of a community, who has I think four children, a wife. He received a DUI that was something like 15 years old. ICE was sent to his home. They picked him up for this ancient DUI, and within the month he was deported back to Honduras, which is currently in a state of violent turmoil—again, because of US policies and interference in Central America, that vicious cycle.
And then, in nonfiction and in essays, especially, the confession can so easily become the thing. The whole thing. And there were a lot of other things I wanted to do with this book besides confess to something that I don’t even consider a transgression.
Guernica: You resist accommodating the reader’s automatic “right to information” with the book’s language, too. You don’t italicize non-English words, and you only rarely translate phrases or dialogue from Spanish. One Amazon reviewer called you “aggressively bilingual.”
I don’t think non-English language needs to be offset, even in a book written primarily in English. I think that people should learn more languages.
José Orduña: I loved that. I think I’ve used that exact phrase when describing it, also. Aggressively something, at least. I said to people, while working on the book, that I wanted this to feel aggressive. In the right places, at least. To be honest, I really just followed Junot Diaz. I remember reading something where he had this hilarious quote. He responded to an interviewer who asked him why he didn’t mark “different”—non-English—language in some way, and Diaz said something like…
Guernica: …“Motherfuckers will read a book that is one-third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.”
José Orduña: Exactly! So that was inspiring. When I think about who the audience for this book is, several things go through my mind. I do understand that, especially in literary markets in the United States, many readers are white and primarily English-speaking. But I don’t want to presume that all my readers are white, and I’m also not writing to white, English-speaking readers exclusively. I don’t think non-English language needs to be offset, even in a book written primarily in English. I think that people should learn more languages.
Guernica: Right before the scene in which you go through your Naturalization Ceremony, you write about committing acts that could be construed as “crimes of moral turpitude.” That’s a vague phrase. What does it mean, practically, for immigrants?
José Orduña: “Crimes of moral turpitude” is an actual legal category, at once vaguely defined so that there’s some latitude. It’s essentially any crime that has a morally lascivious element to it. So, murder and robbery obviously. But the actual legislation also mentions gambling, prostitution, polygamy, and I think drug offenses, too. Which is hilarious, but mostly quite terrifying.
In the case of crimes of moral turpitude, you’re held to a different moral standard—you have to go above and beyond to be a good subject in order to simply remain here.
I remember one of the naturalization interview questions, a ridiculous question. This lady asked me, “Have you ever committed any crimes for which you were not arrested?” Essentially, you know, “Are you a human being?”
Guernica: What did you say?
José Orduña: I kind of hesitated for a moment. I wondered whether I was supposed to answer honestly, because, duh, or whether I was supposed to lie. But then, who wouldn’t know I was lying? But they are essentially asking you to lie. I said, “No.” And we moved on. No follow-up questions.
“Crimes of moral turpitude” is an interesting category because it points to this really strange double standard that non-immigrants have in this country. If you’re any designation other than a citizen you are held to a different standard that has very real consequences. In the case of crimes of moral turpitude, you’re held to a different moral standard—you have to go above and beyond to be a good subject in order to simply remain here.
Guernica: You write that to either have or not have documentation is a way of proving that America exists, that the idea of the place exists. What does that mean?
José Orduña: That particular passage references a letter I received from Obama. Some kind of form letter, of course. The letter said that my being naturalized was proof that the American Dream is alive and well, or something like that. It underwrote the idea that one must jump through these hoops and behave in these ways in order to be an American citizen. Yes, I have been good, yes, I was here on these specific dates, yes, I did this, and yes, I did that, so now I qualify to become an American citizen and have basic human rights?
The reasons why someone qualifies for American citizenship or doesn’t don’t make any sense to me. There’s no basis that isn’t arbitrary. So it was a process that I engaged in for my own benefit, but in bad faith. That was something that I felt again and again.
Guernica: Does having witnesses help you navigate a system with such high stakes and arbitrary consequences? In scenes that take place in Federal Buildings, you describe a kind of general fear, the origins of which you can’t place and can’t explain…and then sometimes there are friends of yours who are white, who are there with you, but who experience none of that dread.
José Orduña: I’ve talked to them about some of those events. It’s clear that they didn’t feel the same things I was feeling, and of course, they wouldn’t. But I think what I was trying to capture is the sense that, for immigrants, there’s this additional level of awareness of something at all times. I’m sure that as a woman you feel this in many aspects of your life towards something else.
Guernica: Yeah, that’s true. A fear that feels like a kind of vigilance.
José Orduña: For immigrants, that’s always there. There’s an awareness that every point of contact with the State carries the potential for ruin. It doesn’t have to be contact with an actual police officer, though that’s absolutely horrifying. A phone call—people are reticent to pick up their phones! A knock at the door. Opening a letter. Being present in certain buildings and just existing in one’s skin in these spaces. Once that awareness revisits you—because it does recede, sometimes—you can’t get rid of it. All of the vulnerabilities that you have for whatever reason, you’re reminded of those and it’s very uncomfortable.
Guernica: So that’s part of the psychological toll. What about the other costs? At one point you mention the price tag on an N-400 form, the paperwork that merely initiates the naturalization process, and it’s $680.
José Orduña: There are estimates for monetary cost, but in a certain way the total cost is impossible to calculate. The immigration process doesn’t begin when someone decides to file that first form or even when they decide to leave their home country. It begins when the conditions in their home country are made unlivable for various reasons. Each particular country has its own specific context and history. For example, Mexico was completely decimated by colonialism; after colonialism it was a smooth transition with the help of American impresarios and elites to an oligarchy; after that a farcical revolutionary party was in control for seven decades. Those things are the forces that set people in motion. For me, that’s where it starts.
Labor organizing in the United States has in some ways always had trouble with immigration. Even Cesar Chavez was notoriously against undocumented workers in his farm workers movement.
The people who are most negatively affected by whatever impetus to migrate are always the poorest and most vulnerable. People like my family who were, in Mexico, lower working class but still not living in rural poverty—I mean, my family came over in an airplane. We didn’t have to walk through the desert. We didn’t have to ride in the trunk of a car. People who come over on airplanes get to come over on airplanes because they’re able to apply for a tourist visa. To get a tourist visa to come to the United States from Mexico, you have to prove that, financially, you have no reason to want to stay once you get here. You have to show bank statements and pay stubs that indicate you are well off enough in Mexico that you wouldn’t want to move to the US. That already determines the kind of journey that people have to take. The rural poor are most affected at the point of origin, and then their actual journey to the US is levels of magnitude worse that the way my family got here, which was quite comfortably.
Once people are here in the US, economic origin continues to determine how you can move through every stage of the immigration gauntlet. For example, a lot of people don’t think about the language proficiency component of the naturalization process. It’s very easy to pass for people who speak the languages. All I had to do was read one sentence—“We pay taxes”—and then write that same sentence to prove that I was proficient in English. People who can’t do that are immediately disqualified.
Guernica: You write that the “immigrant experience,” as we talk about it in the US, is “a happy narrative, a myth,” that “never properly addresses the ways prosperity in the United States is intimately tied to misery elsewhere.”
José Orduña: I think that the production of certain narratives, even in academia, can distort history completely. There’s a lot of US-Mexico history that is not widely focused on by scholars. Like, for instance, the lynching of Mexican farm workers, or the historical period called the Mexican Repatriation. Most people don’t know that millions of Mexicans and Mexican Americans—lots of them citizens—were forcibly returned to Mexico during and after the Great Depression.
Guernica: And then there’s the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of the 1920s that limited the admitted number of immigrants from Europe and Asia, but didn’t really take Mexicans into account because they were—and still are—a seasonal labor force.
José Orduña: Yes, very valuable. A lot of people focus on “cheap labor,” but I think the key thing to understand about specifically Mexican migration to the United States is that Mexican migrants are desirable, not only because of the low cost of their labor but because of that migratory pattern. When labor is needed, the labor migrates there; when the labor is no longer needed, then there can be a push to get rid of those people. You see that same cycle during the Repatriation, and you see it today. This xenophobic, anti-Mexican immigrant uptick coincides, as it always does, with an economic downturn, with the necessity of labor going down because of technological advances.
Labor organizing in the United States has in some ways always had trouble with immigration. Even Cesar Chavez was notoriously against undocumented workers in his farm workers movement. It’s a very difficult question from a labor standpoint, the issue of undocumented labor. For example, some of the things that people point out about Bernie Sanders are his opposition to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill. I was also not in favor of that reform bill because the bill that was being proposed was horrendous—in order to trigger any sort of immigration benefit whatsoever, there had to be a one-hundred-percent standard of security along the US-Mexico border! What that essentially meant was that funding was going to be pumped into the militarization of the US-Mexico border—just all out, bar none—and until that impossible goal was reached, no relief would even begin.
Guernica: Increased border patrol isn’t effective, but it is emotionally salient. I mean, the wall…
José Orduña: Anyone in a position of power with two braincells to rub together knows that this wall isn’t going to be an effective measure for the prevention of anything. But it will be effective in garnering political capital for another end. It’s the same sort of political signaling we saw with Bill Clinton’s crime bill. He needed to signal being “tough on crime” so he employed this bill that, as perhaps he knew, wasn’t going to do anything to address the problem it was supposed to address, but it would garner this political capital that he could spend elsewhere.
That movement that happens in really good essays between the personal, the abstract, and the particular is, to me, a beautiful thing, perfectly suited to engage with politics and justice.
I think a very similar thing happens with the various narratives and mobilizations around immigration. Take Arizona, for example.
Guernica: You’re referring to SB 1070, the law that allows racial profiling in instances of suspected illegal residency?
José Orduña: That’s the one. Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio were extremely draconian with immigration policies and enforcement. It became helpful for President Obama as a Thing He Could Oppose. But Obama’s policies were also horrendous towards immigrants—he now holds the record for the most deportations by any US president by leaps and bounds. He got to oppose this excess of injustice, this clear violation of rights, in order to retain progressive energy and support while at the very same time continuing to deport record-breaking numbers of people.
Guernica: As literary forms go, do you think essays are uniquely suited to grapples with and expose those sorts of political incoherences? Are activism and essays natural bedfellows?
José Orduña: Yes, very much. The essay has always been a form that is particularly adept at engaging with politics. That movement that happens in really good essays between the personal, the abstract, and the particular is, to me, a beautiful thing, perfectly suited to engage with politics and justice. Those are the kinds of essays that I want to write and that excite me when I read them. I really, really cringe when I hear the argument that essays are about nothing, or that they’re meandering in thought, not necessarily “about” a specific event or topic, like they’re a form that’s neither here nor there. That kind of essay does exist, but to me that’s not the only possibility for the essay. Certainly I like reading those kinds of essays, but that’s not my life.
Guernica: Tell me a little bit about the process of writing this book. It started as your MFA thesis in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction program, right?
José Orduña: Right…
Guernica: You look like you’re remembering being in a lot of pain right now. You’ve got that look on your face.
José Orduña: Yeah. It came time to write a thesis and I had no idea what I was going to write about. I was trying new things, experimenting with ways of writing that weren’t actually going to produce any finished product I’d be happy with, though I was happy to engage in stretching the bounds of whatever it was I wanted to write eventually. At the same time I was going through the Naturalization Process here in Iowa. I remember meeting with my thesis advisor and it was one of those situations where you’re, like, looking for your glasses and you can’t find them anywhere, but they’re on your face. “You need to write about the Naturalization process,” my advisor said. That was kind of a light switch that he flipped for me. So I started writing a couple chapters and I produced a shortish thesis.
The thesis culminated with the Naturalization Ceremony being the narrative’s pinnacle. As I read through that I felt, No, the ceremony is not what I want to make the climax. I felt such ambivalence toward it. At the same time, I was becoming more and more politically active because I had been naturalized. Before being naturalized, if I were arrested for something, it would be disastrous, so the ways that I participated in rallies or protests was suddenly unbounded.
The actual trajectory of the book and the spirit of the book became a lot clearer to me after going to the desert.
And after, really it wasn’t a decision—I felt like I needed to go on this kind of pilgrimage and because the Supreme Court had just upheld certain aspects of SB 1070. I felt drawn to go there and just wade in those conditions. I just got on a plane and went to Arizona and stayed for a couple months, working with several humanitarian aid groups doing different kinds of work along the US-Mexico border. After experiencing those realities, that’s really when the book started coming together. Everything that I had already written then fit into a new context. The actual trajectory of the book and the spirit of the book became a lot clearer to me after going to the desert.
Guernica: At one point in the book, you spend a couple hours afraid you’re stranded in the desert, and you think you might die. Not an unreasonable fear—the number of people who’ve died crossing the border since 1998 is equal to the number of US soldiers who’ve died in the Iraq war.
José Orduña: That we know of.
Guernica: And then there’s sexual violence—a probable fate for any woman entering the country not by plane.
José Orduña: You know, people in the United States don’t understand that there’s a humanitarian aid crisis happening in this country, along the US-Mexico border.
That’s why I felt the need to go there in a very specific way. I’ve read texts by writers who go to the border and who ride with a border patrol agent and write from that perspective. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be taken on a guided tour and then have any number of things influence or pollute the way I was going to write about something that is literally life and death.
And yet, I’ve also read many texts along the US-Mexico border that pay a lot of attention to the gore of migrant deaths. And that’s something that I went back and forth on when writing this book. Do I render something in a very visceral and descriptive way if it’s going to be gory? That was something that I struggled with but ultimately I decided not to do it. There’s not a lot of visceral description of people dying or of bodies.
Guernica: What tipped your decision?
José Orduña: Maggie Nelson’s book, The Art of Cruelty. It questions the thinking of every artist working with high stakes material. For many reasons, I thought the same or a similar impact could be accomplished another way.
Or maybe it’s just because I know and love people who have walked across that border and I wouldn’t want to read about my loved ones as a piece of meat. And I didn’t want to do that to someone else, either.
Guernica: You write about meeting and falling in love with Caitlin, your wife, who edited much of this book. There’s an arresting scene towards the end of the book when you’re at her parents’ home in Solana Beach, California, and two Mexican guys show up to work in the garden. And she and her family—all white—don’t make eye contact with anybody for a while, especially not you. What was it like to render that moment, to have her read it?
José Orduña: Everyone continuously navigates moments like that, I guess. Caitlin identifies as queer, and misunderstandings and discomforts of that nature don’t only go from her direction to mine; they also go from me to her. It’s just a matter of how open one is to understanding what actually happened and learning to live among these moments.
That scene—I remember that after that happened, Caitlin and I didn’t talk about it for a very long time. Not until I was actually writing that scene. She’s my first reader, though, so she was reading that and she said, “I remember when this happened, I know exactly what you’re talking about,” and then we started talking about how interesting it was that neither of us had said anything to the other person or acknowledged it in any way until years had passed.
Guernica: What does that mean to you now, years after that conversation?
José Orduña: You know, that chapter, like the section I wrote about Friendship Park on the border with Tijuana, was my attempt to challenge the idea of friendship or amorous love as metaphors for productive ways that we could treat the Other. Friendship Park is this hopeful expression of treating someone on the other side of the border as a friend, but, so many of the people that we hurt in the most vicious ways are in fact our friends. Not strangers. I think the notion that friendship is something entirely good or safe is false. I wanted to speak to that. As far as interpersonal relationships, well, people will step on your toes all the time. It’s a process of acknowledging our own positions and the political realities that are always present in whatever space we’re in, to reckon with those openly and honestly.
José Orduña was born in Córdoba, Veracruz, and immigrated to Chicago when he was two. At nine, he and his parents traveled to Ciudad Juárez and filed for permanent residency. Having entered the US with a tourist visa, which had since expired, they were considered “removable aliens.” In July of 2011 José was sworn in as a US citizen. He is a graduate of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, is active in Latin American solidarity, and is the Joseph M. Russo Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico. His first book The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement was published by Beacon Press.
Gemma de Choisy is a contributing interviewer for Guernica. Her essays and journalism have appeared on BuzzFeed, LitHub, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa and Glastonbury, UK.