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Popular author, poet Sandra Cisneros interviews migrants

By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent

June 2, 2018: Poet and author Sandra Cisneros is working on a new project, coming to Northwest Ohio last week to interview immigrants. Ms. Cisneros, 63, will spend the remainder of the summer traveling the U.S. to interview Latino immigrants from all walks of life, along with the people from organizations willing to help them. In effect, she has turned into a journalist, on what she calls a listening tour to gather the stories of immigrants that will be transcribed and turned into her latest work by the end of this year.

“I feel that people are discussing the issue of immigrants but not allowing the immigrants to speak, so my idea is to listen,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Mexico.
 

“I think it’s time for me to listen. I feel that the issue is so volatile and everybody has a different opinion. What I’m not hearing from the community is a community that has one voice. That’s the one thing I think I’m learning is that there are many, many different stories—depending on when people came, how they came, and also what their ages and genders are.”

Her interviews so far have ranged from a husband and wife in Phoenix along with the DACA daughter, a former border patrol agent, a Cuban-American, and relatives of the undocumented. Besides the Toledo area, she has traveled to the San Francisco Bay area and San Antonio [which is celebrating as a city founded 300 years ago]; she will speak with migrant farmworkers in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has helped introduce Ms. Cisneros to people willing to share.

“One of things I’ve learned as a writer is if you come with an intention or a proposal, it gets in the way of your projects,” she said. “I’m trying to get out of the way. I’m just trying to listen.”

Ms. Cisneros alluded to politicians as part of the problem, because “they listen the least.” In her mind, they always “come with their sound bites and their message.”

“I think it’s easier for people to tell their story once you propose to be silent,” she said. “I ask my questions and simply get out of the way. I have to be very humble and disappear. I’m in a phase where I can’t tell you what I’m creating because I’m still collecting the stories and the voices.”

Ms. Cisneros received an Art of Change Fellowship from the Ford Foundation to complete her project. Past recipients have included famous Russian dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Native American poet Joy Harjo, and Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat.

“I’m really honored to be included with them,” she said. “I think they give it to about two dozen artists per year. There are many people whom I respect who are part of the awardees.”

“The problem with doing this work is I just can’t come up to someone. It really puts their life in jeopardy. I have to have the confidence of the interviewees,” she explained.

So, Ms. Cisneros asked an old friend to help act as an intermediary. FLOC founder and president Baldemar Velásquez helped introduce the writer to immigrants in the Toledo area and will assist with a North Carolina trip later this summer. But she only interviewed female immigrants here.

“I felt their stories are the ones who don’t normally get main stage,” she explained. “I feel that women talking to women would be more honest with one another. I thought women would be more comfortable. I have talked with men, but I just feel women have opened up more.”

Ms. Cisneros interviewed both U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants during her recent Northwest Ohio trip. She is using microphones and recording equipment for possible audio histories of the people willing to share their stories.

“One of the things I found was how courageous the women of Ohio are,” she said. “Women in Ohio work really hard, they’re incredibly industrious, and one of the things I found most comforting was their absolute faith in God. They were very spiritual women, women who trusted God and felt they were not doing any harm or breaking any laws. They were just not afraid to work hard and using their faith to help them do the work they had to do to support their families. They were amazing, made me feel like a coward and a weakling compared to their lives.”

But along the way, Ms. Cisneros has learned that one of her “most important tools is a box of Kleenex,” because as people have told her their stories, they’ve told her “things that they’ve never told anyone.”

“Men and women cry when they tell these stories,” she said. “And their stories come out of their eyes. I was not expecting that.”

Ms. Cisneros talked about how politicians have framed the immigration debate about people crossing the border “illegally,” sometimes in the dark of night. That has formed impressions in many people’s minds and hearts, including her own. So, she has had her own eyes opened a bit.

“I thought the most powerful part of their story would be the crossing. But that’s not the most powerful part of the story,” she admitted. “The most powerful part is their confessions of not being able to see loved ones, being separated from their family, their love for their family. That, to me, is just heartbreaking. I didn’t expect that I would be crying, too. Every person is on their own sacred journey.”

The timing of the project could not be more important right now, with the revelations of recent days of children living in detention centers and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions [born Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III] now targeting misdemeanor offenders for deportation, instead of the most hardened, violent criminals as first promised by the Trump administration.

“I already knew some of this by what I’ve been told about the inhumane conditions--how they’ve been corralled and kept in what they’re calling refrigerators, with very little way to keep warm,” she said. “It’s very sad. The stories I read in the newspapers just confirm things people tell me.”

Her interviews also involve people who hire undocumented workers, people working in refugee camps, as well as older residents who gained amnesty during the Ronald Reagan administration in 1986. She described her interviews as “a wide swath.”

“I’m talking with students, I’m talking with people who clean houses, all kinds of people,” she said. “Some of them have their residency now, but they’re willing to share their story.”

Ms. Cisneros recounted one interview with a Latina who was born in Ohio who related the reluctance of people in her own church to listen to her perspective on immigration.

The end result was the viewpoint of many congregation members that immigration is a black-and-white issue, not the shades of gray that permeate each individual immigrant’s experiences. She blames that on politicians who oversimplify the issue.

“I don’t feel like I’m a pioneer. I just feel like it’s my obligation at this point in time in history to do this story,” she said.

But as a Mexican resident who holds dual citizenship in the U.S., Ms. Cisneros blames leaders on both sides of the border for the long-term, unsolved immigration problems.

“The whole issue of borders is one where you have to cooperate with your neighbor. You can’t enrage your neighbor, just like when you’re living on a block,” she said. “You can’t enrage your neighbor, you have to work with your neighbor. The solution to me seems so obvious. I blame the Mexican president and the United States president for creating the situation because Mexico is equally guilty with its southern border by creating issues.”

One of the lingering problems involves migrant farmworkers and recent changes to guestworker visas by the federal government. The Ohio Landscaping Association, for one, is having trouble finding enough employees, partially because of the visa problem that is also plaguing migrant farmworkers.

“If we’re going to have free trade, we need to have migration that is legal, so workers can go back home and earn more money because they really don’t want to stay,” she said. “They just want to work and go back home. If they worked on fixing the legal migration of temporary workers, then we could focus on bigger issues like crime, rather than criminalizing all of the migrants that come through.”

Ms. Cisneros stated her hope that people will begin to look at immigration “in a more humane way.” She pointed out many of her interviews are “in the American heartland,” which she takes to mean a land of people “with a heart.”

“I’m learning a lot. Perhaps the person most changed by this project is going to be me,” she said. “That’s what I’m hoping this project will accomplish—that we connect each other through the heart.”

Editor’s Note: Sandra Cisneros is a Mexican-American, or Chicana, writer. She is best known for her first novel “The House on Mango Street (1984) and her subsequent short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). She is the recipient of numerous awards including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and is a major contributor to Chicana literature. In La Prensa photos, Sandra Cisneros addresses FLOC and Baldemar Velásquez, May 24, 2018.

 
Copyright © 1989 to 2018 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/05/18 21:49:07 -0700.

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