The paradox of the indispensable outcast
Kikito by JR. Photo: EFE
Speech delivered at the Speaker Series of Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago, Water Tower Campus, March 23, 2018
I remember the night, the distance, the endless stretch of hills and valleys between Tijuana and San Diego, which is long. Very long. And it is as treacherous as it is beautiful. It is unlikely that anybody who has ever crossed it will easily forget it. Its desert-like landscape is bound to carve itself equally onto body and soul. Once this turf is trodden, the tiredness, the awe, and the terror experienced along these trails become permanent memories. Some take away a cactus scratch that eventually scars. Others momentarily succumb to the sheer magnitude of the heavens, the number of stars, the depth of night. A few are left behind to join the landscape. I remember that night as my first hike, ever. It was also my first view of such broad sky, my first communion with the infinite. It was probably under pristine and glittering skies like those that Immanuel Kant, bewildered, conceived his mystical dialectic between the starry heavens above, and the moral law within. With no philosophical insight at the time, I was fascinated by that visual mystery, and wanted to stay there and contemplate that fragment of galaxy, maybe even reach out for it. But the coyote had other plans, and we kept pressing forward.
There is a moment of pause when, from a neighboring hill, a series of lights turns on simultaneously. Some come from trucks parked at ground level. Others descend, flickering rapidly, like a furious shower of shooting stars. They are hunting down a group of unfortunate souls for whom the American Dream has reached a premature end. In my own group, the coyote gesticulates wildly and points to the ground. I land on my stomach and crawl my way into a narrow space between a big rock and a thorny bush. I feel a pointy rock stabbing me right in the stomach. I am panting heavily and fear that my breathing will attract a rattlesnake. And there we hide and wait.
We eventually descend that hill and I am glad to hear to coyote say, “¡Ya estuvo!”, “¡Ya la hicimos!” I share in the collective enthusiasm. People say, “¡Órale!” and “¡Chido!,” and “¡Ya chingamos!,” but I still don’t understand how we have actually made it. This valley looks as deserted as any other we have passed. Reaching the bottom of the next hill, the coyote takes out a flashlight and points it with his commanding right hand. And then I see it, the miracle of this Mexican Moses who promises to deliver us from the Jaguar’s oppression materializes right in front of me─a dark circle opens up ahead, like a surreal toothless mouth threatening to devour us.
Had the other group made it this far, the migras would have never caught up with them. No migra would ever go down this pipe. Nobody with any human dignity would, so we leave ours behind. We enter the dark cylindrical hole, and I say to myself, so this it, this is what it means to have made it. The pipe is about five feet in height. We duck and enter the filthy bowels of San Diego where rodents make their home and humans are unwelcome invaders. The air inside is heavy and damp, and there is a pungent stench to it. I stretch my arms to the sides to find support on the inner walls of the pipe. My hands feel wet and sticky. I feel helpless. Amid the constant sound of shoes hitting the metal below, I sob quietly. Traveling in the same direction, narcotics on their way to give a high to those who vilify my journey are transported in a much more humane and sanitary fashion. The humiliation I experience is so deep I promise myself that if I am ever caught, I will never try crossing again. Eventually, the darkness ends. We come out, and one by one we all collapse on the ground. I feel exhausted and sick. My back hurts, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to stand straight up again.
I am still trying to stand straight up, to recover my lost sense of dignity. It was Baruch Spinoza who once said that dignity is the basis of freedom. Twenty-five years after I first crossed the border into the land of the free, I am still looking for that mythical freedom. Have you seen it? I keep trying to find it, but it keeps escaping me, like some slippery thing I can’t get my hands on. First, I had the idea that learning English would give me a certain degree of anonymity, that is, that by speaking your language, I would be able to pass as one of your own, so I signed up for ESL classes. Then, my GED books gave me that hope─just as all other previous waves of immigrants, my story would one day be part of the larger American narrative. Later, I thought that going to college would better prepare me for my eventual integration. Then I thought that getting a master’s degree would definitely help me be fully assimilated. Now, that I am about to finish a PhD program, it occurs to me that maybe this is all an illusion and that my search for freedom is nothing more than a chase after the wind.
This may all sound very abstract, but I assure you, it is not. In my search for freedom, I have crossed this great city of Chicago, from one end to the other. I know it back and forth, from the very last street bordering the south suburb of Blue Island, to Howard Street on the north, from Lake Shore Drive in the east to O’Hare airport in the west. And yet, I remain a stranger to this city. After a quarter of a century, I still inhabit its peripheries, not in the physical sense, but in the legal sense. In that respect, I am no different, nor do I want to be perceived as different, from the hundreds, perhaps thousands of people working right here in the Magnificent Mile making beds in the hotels, preparing meals at restaurants, and cleaning offices. People whose work is an essential component of this vibrant economy but who, for all practical matters, remain outlaws, just like me. Let’s think about that for a minute, about the paradox of the indispensable outcast.
Some of you might be thinking, how is it possible that so many years have passed and you are still in this situation? That question might get even more complicated if I told you that I have been married to an American citizen for almost eight years and that we have a six year-old daughter. And your question would be quite understandable. In fact, if before departing from my native Guadalajara, someone had told me that after 25 years of living in Chicago I would still be an undocumented immigrant, I wouldn’t have believed it. But then, if someone else had told me that I would be speaking to a room full of people in a prestigious university in downtown Chicago in a language not my own about a problem affecting not only our respective societies, but the entire world, I wouldn’t have believed that either. And yet, both of those things are true──I am a person who has spent most of his life living in the shadows and one who has found a certain degree of redemption in writing and speaking about one the main problems in contemporary society─the problem of mass movements of people around the globe, specifically, of undocumented immigration.
Back in 1993, I arrived in Chicago at 19 years of age with nothing more than a ninth-grade education and knowing only a few English words. I was complying with expectations; I was fulfilling my role as a poor Mexican young man. Just the same way that for many of you getting your driver’s license or moving out of your parents’ house represents a rite of passage, just so disappearing into the endless American night was a rite of passage for me. I was following on the steps of my relatives, of my maternal uncles. This was consistent with my background. I knew, from a very young age, that the day would come when I’d have to break through the border and materialize in this city in order to offer my services. I would come here to work with my body, to invest the vigor of my youth on my knees scrubbing your toilets.
But because things change, because we live in a postmodern world where, according to Lyotard, all grand narratives come to an end, instead of being forever destined to perform menial jobs and lead a clandestine existence, I find myself here today, in this academic setting, trying to illustrate for you a problem full of complexities and misconceptions, a problem caused by misguided policy, a problem that is often, way too often, seen only through the prism of passion, nativism, and prejudice.
It is perhaps no accident that, in their discourse on undocumented immigration, one of the elements that is often left out by conservatives is also one of the greatest strengths of this country─its inherent power to transform itself. When I left my home country, I thought I was coming here to pursue riches, but eventually I found books, I found libraries and institutions of higher learning. And some of those books I came across showed me the United States as the epicenter of social and human change. I learned that this was a country capable of questioning itself, of reinventing itself, even if this meant continuous confrontation, or maybe because of it. I read American history, and looking closely into some of its darkest chapters, I felt deeply shaken and disturbed. But then I discovered the works of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Ellison, and the stoicism of the African-American spirit and the supreme act of generosity and compassion expressed in its musical tradition, a tradition forged under extreme and adverse circumstances. And all this gave me reason to believe that the best of humanity was still to come and that adversity can impel our better selves to grow and mature and reach for unprecedented heights.
I was invited here today to speak about my experience as an undocumented immigrant. But I also want to take this opportunity to pay homage to your tradition. I look at this audience today and I image each one of you as part of the ongoing transformation I was just speaking of. Octavio Paz, the great Mexican thinker and inspired poet, would have seen in each one of you the embodiment of the tradition of rupture. In the case of the Jesuit tradition, this rupture takes the shape of a caring community confronting hegemonic powers, disrupting dominant narratives, in order to intervene for the poor and the dispossessed. That is the idea that has been circling around my head since I learned about this college and about father Pedro Arrupe, the man the college that invited me is named after and whose life and work was devoted to the neediest people, those who, like me, inhabit the peripheries of society.
That is in keeping with the long Jesuit tradition of looking out for the poor and engaging in movements of social justice, which, in previous centuries, has subjected you as an institution to expulsion from places like Spain and Mexico. And yet, ironically, here we find ourselves today─in a Jesuit home bearing the name of a Spanish man, a home that welcomes, embraces, and shelters Mexico’s most recent expulsion, her own children. Three countries, the US, Spain and Mexico, that have been at war with each other and which today, at Loyola’s Arrupe College, come together with a very different mission─not to conquer a people and exploit them, but to liberate their mind and enrich their spirit.
The Jesuit tradition has a history of struggle and recovery, a history of nourishing the spirit in order to stimulate the intellect and transform it into social action. And at least a small portion of humanity, I think, is better off because of it.
I believe that is probably true of the humanity represented here today─I am referring specifically about this new generation that you are now educating. Just like your own ancestors, and just like me, I imagine that some of the students that you serve are the product of uprooting, of displacement, of expulsion provoked by economic forces that concern themselves only with growth and with the bottom line of business, but never with the higher order of humanity.
So, in speaking to each one of you, students who have been allowed to enter these halls, to sit in these classrooms, my hope is that you recognize the opportunity that you’ve been given. If your story is anything like mine, then, most likely, you are the very first persons in the entire history of your families to have a chance to go to college. After all, in the place where some of us come from, a world-class education like the one you are receiving here is reserved only for the very rich and powerful. Think about that for a moment.
But I am not naive. I am not going to stand here and tell those of you who might be in a situation similar to mine that getting a college degree will solve your immigration status. It certainly hasn’t solved mine. What I can tell you is that, even given all the legal constraints we encounter on a daily basis, a college education will help you be better prepared for life, either here or somewhere else. The place that some of you are in, the place that I am in, is not ideal, and it can be nerve-wrecking and exasperating and depressing. However, in my case, it is precisely when I find myself in moments like this that the role of higher education in my life becomes evident and provides much-needed comfort.
Whenever my illegality gets particularly difficult, I go back to the books I read in college. One of the authors whose ideas I keep going back to is Epictetus, the ancient Roman philosopher. According to Epictetus, there are two types of things in the world, the ones that are within our control and those that are out of our control. For instance, I might not be able to do anything if ICE decides to detain me, but I can choose how to respond to my detention. And that, in a nutshell, is the principle of stoicism, a philosophy that has helped me navigate through difficult times.
I bring up stoicism because, to me, this philosophical tradition is proof that higher education is much more than just acquiring a mere set of technical skills in order to find well-paying employment─higher education can become the very foundation of one’s character and humanity. I also bring it up because I think that one must be much of stoic to keep one’s sanity in times like this. Stoicism was the philosophy I encountered, but what’s important is that you be grounded in your own spiritual tradition.
Finally, since I’ve been talking about tradition and rupture and adversity, I’d like to end tonight with a couple of remarks about the traditional American narrative that says that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you work hard, you can get ahead. It is my opinion that that narrative is no longer true, or maybe it has never been true for many people, for many groups of people. The so-called American Dream of yore is no longer viable for many of us precisely because of who we are and where we come from. Ours is not the typical, quintessential American story of rags to riches─ours is a story of hardship and resistance. It is a life of uncertainty that is far from being ideal, but it is the life that we have, the life that we have either chosen or been given. And until Washington DC decides to pass sensible immigration legislation, this limbo will continue to be our home and we have to make the best out of it.
Fortunately, for all of you attending this wonderful and generous institution, you have the dedicated support of an army of professors and mentors and staff devoted to your intellectual and spiritual growth. And this, what you have here at Arrupe College, is exactly what any parent would want for his or her children─access to quality education. My hope for you is that you understand this moment, that you see yourselves as history makers, both within your respective families and out in the larger society. After all, as I said earlier, we find ourselves in a moment of transition, and the narratives of previous generations no longer work for us. Immanuel Kant once wrote that the human mind has an inherent need to impose order in the universe. Maybe that is the whole role of education, to help us realign the stars. In other words, to write our own narrative.
The tools you’ll be given here, the lessons you are receiving have the potential to do that. But, by themselves, they can only go so far. The same way that a book is never complete until you as readers give it meaning, just so the instruction you are receiving here won’t work until you apply it to the world and, by so doing, realign the social constellations around you. Each one of you possesses a unique perspective, a very particular point of view that no one else has; each one of you has a special place in society. Find it. Do not forsake it. Be loyal to it. Have the courage to be your genuine selves and the entire world will come back to you full circle.
Thank you all so much for your time.
March 23, 2018
José Ángel N., author de Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant