We need more than stories for the unheard

Writing offers a way to understand our community and ourselves.


Sitting at a table in the Kino Border Initiative’s Migrant Aid Center in Nogales, Mexico, before the afternoon meal, Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy for the faith-based binational organization, explains the rules for volunteers working in the dining room or comedor. In addition to telling us how to distribute dinner plates, baskets of tortillas and fresh fruit drinks, Williams has four precepts for interacting with migrants: Don’t promise anything you can’t give. Don’t answer questions if you don’t know the answers. Don’t offer money. (It’s the responsibility of the KBI staff to assess individual needs.) And don’t give personal information; it might be interpreted as a promise to stay in touch or get personally involved with an asylum case.

Sitting under a colorful banner that reads “Bienvenidos,” Williams explains that she does not want to create more stress or disappointment for the men, women and children already caught in immigration limbo. Listening to Williams, we worry about our own presence on the border as writers documenting the consequences of racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as the decades of U.S. policies in Mexico and Central America that favored the wealthy and powerful over the majority. But how can we ever say all that needs to be said? What is the ethical way to tell the migrants’ stories?

As images of children in cages and reports of the desperate conditions faced by migrants in Customs and Border Protection custody galvanize national attention, many of us have gone to the border as writers, volunteers or concerned citizens. I first visited the comedor in 2017 as co-coordinator of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Field Studies in Writing program, which seeks to amplify and diversify stories from the border. We send three graduate creative writing students to Patagonia, Arizona, for two weeks each summer to engage in reciprocal research with community partners and write about issues unique to the region. But as Williams reminds us, even with the best intentions, we run the risk of harming the people we want to help.

My students explain they don’t want to extract stories from migrants as if they’re mining natural resources; these travelers have lost so much already. They don’t want to reduce migrants’ struggles to mere human-interest stories. They fear telling stories is not enough.

Days after our visit to the comedor, I talk with my students over lunch in Patagonia, where work trucks from the controversial Hermosa mine cruise the streets. Against that backdrop, my students explain they don’t want to extract stories from migrants as if they’re mining natural resources; these travelers have lost so much already. They don’t want to reduce migrants’ struggles to mere human-interest stories. They fear telling stories is not enough.

These are the challenges all documentarians face. When James Agee went to rural Alabama in 1936 with photographer Walker Evans to write about sharecroppers, he staggered and stumbled through his representation of the tenant families. Early in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the resulting book, Agee declares:

I realize that … I am liable seriously, and perhaps irretrievably, to obscure what would at best be hard enough to give its appropriate clarity and intensity; and what seems to me most important of all: namely, that these I will write of are human beings … and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings in the employment of still others, who have picked up their living as casually as if it were a book. …

Agee broke the barrier of objectivity, revealing his own perspective as partial and incomplete. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he lays out his worries, imaginings and misgivings amid his meticulous depiction of the sharecroppers’ existence. In doing so, he produces a wildly experimental — often lyrically stunning, tender, sometimes infuriating  — map of his personal struggles. I hold Agee as a model today, as my students and I write about the border, learning to become cartographers of our relationship to the migrants and our government’s immigration policies. Because the best writing not only tells a story, it helps us change the stories we sometimes tell about ourselves, our region and our nation.

Two years ago, when I first visited the migrant aid center, single men on their way to or recently deported from the United States filled the comedor’s tables. Before the afternoon meal, they watched a video about human rights and listened to a lecture on how to stay safe in Nogales. (Don’t borrow anyone’s cellphone, a nun warned them. Don’t stay anywhere but the shelter. Don’t take taxis.)

In May 2018, as the Trump administration’s new policy left increasing numbers of asylum seekers stuck in Nogales for weeks or months before they could present themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the comedor’s tables began to fill with families. On the day we were there, Sister Cecilia Lopez Arias began the afternoon meal with a song instead of a video: “En el arca de Noé, todos caben, todos caben. En el arca de Noé, todos caben y yo también.” (“In Noah’s Ark, there’s room for everyone. In Noah’s Ark, there’s room for everyone — including me.”)

The turning back of asylum seekers and the administration’s determination to build a wall mark a deviation from political precedent as well as an end to one of the stories we’ve long told ourselves about our nation, especially the West. In his book The End of the Myth, historian Greg Grandin writes: “All nations have borders, and many today even have walls. But only the United States has had a frontier, or at least a frontier that has served as a proxy for liberation, synonymous with the possibilities and promises of modern life itself. …” Of course, the idea of the “West” as a liberating space has not been available to everyone. For Native Americans, the expansion of the frontier signified the contraction of freedom. This is true for the Japanese Americans who were held in internment camps, as well. For many others, the possibilities of the frontier may not have looked promising at all.

Learning to stay with the uncomfortable moments of witnessing one another and our full range of experiences helps us to debunk myths propagated by hegemonic views. In these moments, we not only document, we learn. My friend, the essayist and poet Metta Sáma, once told me: “I like to remember that writing is not just committing words to paper. It’s committing the self to reflection, to percolation, to observing, to witnessing, to taking in, to dissecting, to organizing, to assessing, to synthesizing.” At the border, writing offers a way to understand the community we share with these migrants as well as our complicity as U.S. citizens with the system that punishes them.

That’s how reciprocal learning works for our students in the Field Studies in Writing Program. Just a few days before visiting the comedor, our students offer creative writing workshops to high school students participating in the Borderlands Earth Care Youth Institute. This yearly summer program, sponsored by the Borderlands Restoration Network, engages students who can trace their families’ histories to both sides of the border — and to a time before it existed — in hands-on restoration work of the local ecosystem. In what was once an elementary school classroom in Patagonia, students scribble in their notebooks or on the backs of recycled office paper. Maps of Coronado National Forest and the Sonoita Creek watershed hang on the walls around them. Not a sound can be heard beyond the hum of an air conditioner and the birds outside.

University of Arizona graduate student Logan Phillips asks the students to reflect on a summer spent rerouting water flows, removing invasive species and building retention walls. “Only you can write this,” Phillips says.

“I come from wide-open skies filled with bright and beautiful stars and a full moon,” one student writes. “This work is: We must preserve and protect everything … so others can be enlightened by it,” another adds.

After the meal at the Kino Border Initiative comedor, I bring a group of migrant children outside to color on the sidewalk. As the kids draw houses, princesses and hearts floating on strings like balloons, they remind me of my 8-year-old daughter, who selected the crayons, pads and coloring books I brought to Nogales. But these children face circumstances more difficult than anything my child or most of us can imagine. Coming from Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua, they left everything to travel to a place they’d never seen. They did so to escape life-threatening danger. And while theirs might seem like a familiar thread in the myth of the American dream — the myth that anyone can make a better life here — quick comparisons mask the particular kinds of racism and anti-immigrant policies this population faces.

“I come from wide-open skies filled with bright and beautiful stars and a full moon,” one student writes. “This work is: We must preserve and protect everything … so others can be enlightened by it,” another adds.

As writers and compassionate people, we need to acknowledge both our differences and connections, the dynamics of power and promise that run through all of our relations. U.S. immigration policies are not Noah’s Ark; they don’t make room for everyone: not the families waiting for their number to be called to request asylum, not the children held in cages. But if we cannot guarantee a place for them now, perhaps we can at least guarantee that their voices will be heard.

Before I leave the comedor, some children give me their drawings. I walk back over the border, under the concertina-wire-encircled sign that reads “Welcome to the United States Mariposa Port of Entry.” The drawings tucked in my canvas bag feel like messages to the future, the first in a series of images that will become part of these children’s stories, images that will arrive in the United States before they do.  

Susan Briante’s book Defacing the Monument, essays on immigration, archives, and documentary arts, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2020. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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