I did something I never thought I’d do.
I autographed a book written by someone else.
Oh, and it wasn’t just any writer or any book — it was Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.” And the truth is I did it proudly and repeatedly.
With Latino Writers Collective members Xanath Caraza, Gabriela Lemmons, Sofiana Olivera, and Jason Sierra, I helped lead a poetry workshop for Harvest of Hope. This college immersion program for migrant youth in high school lets students experience college life for three weeks. They take classes and learning how to set and manage their educational goals. As a former migrant farmworker and child laborer, I look forward to this workshop all year. It fulfills me.
We began this year’s workshop by sharing a meal with the students in one of the cafeteria dining rooms at the University of Kansas. I chose a table featuring mostly young women. I just felt comfortable with the energy they radiated. Besides being a Gay Latino, I’m never really quite sure how young Latino men will react to me and I don’t react well to machismo. Those at our table shared information — nothing too personal — it was the typical dinner chat.
Then the workshop began.
After the other members of the collective said a few words, I read my poem, “Madre de los Campos,” which focuses on my family’s history as farmworkers. I wrote the poem for the first migrant youth workshop we did at KU three years ago.
It remains my most powerful and personal piece.
When I read it for a general audience, they focus on the ending where I note how my sisters, my mother, and I find contentment after a hard day working in the fields. Yet when I read it for migrant youth, they focus on two lines where I angrily state that I hate my mom and that I never want to be as stupid as her.
I immediately wanted to change those lines after writing them because Latinos are not supposed to say such things about their mothers. However, I needed the poem to touch the truth: migrant children struggle to contain a boiling rage. We rage at the circumstances that force our parents to make limited choices. We’re angry because we have no more control over our lives than we have over the elements. We abhor the secrets and the lies that living a migrant life forces the family to cultivate in order to survive. I knew that in order for my poem to stand in the truth, I had to pluck and present this forbidden fruit.
When I finished the poem, the students sat in silence. Their delayed and scattered applause reminded me of raindrops on dry dusty soil.
Uncertainty crossed their faces. I spoke a truth we were not supposed to think much less say aloud. The students moved uncomfortably in their chairs and gave each other side-glances that asked, “Are we really gonna go there?”
Members of the collective asked ourselves the same question — and pressed on.
Sofiana posed three questions to the students:
- What do you want people to know about living in a migrant family?
- What do you like about living in a migrant family?
- What do you hate about living in a migrant family?
Stressed faces and nervous laughter told us, “We’re not supposed to talk about these things. Bad things happen when we talk about these things.”
As leaders of the session, we faced a crucial moment: would the students write their truth or would they simply write what they think we wanted to hear?
While members of the collective passed out paper and pencils to the students, I stepped to the microphone and answered the three questions hoping my response might spark a thought or a memory for the students.
1. I want people to know that migrant people are hard working. We don’t work 9-5 we work from 5-9 – sun up to sun down. We are not criminals. We pay our bills. We obey the law. We put our bodies and our dignity on the line everyday to take care of our families.
Speaking to the students, I began to see the tops of their heads as they wrote. Every so often, a face looked up at acknowledging that I said something reflected his or her life. I continued answering the questions.
2. What I like about being a migrant worker is that when I worked the fields there were no such things as iPods or Walkmans. We just had the quiet. The gift the fields gave me was to exist in silence, to clear my mind of noise, to let real thought enter my mind. Some may call it meditating, praying, or just focusing, whatever it is I can do it. That was quite an accomplishment for a 10-year-old boy to learn that. I use that gift daily.
3. What I hated about being a migrant was the hot summers wearing long-sleeved shirts, a cowboy hat, bandannas, jeans, and boots – all in 100-degree weather. I hated that crop dusters would spray us with the same chemicals they used to kill weeds as if we were weeds. I hated that I had to manage three lives: my life in school, my life as a migrant farmworker child, and a made up life that explained to teachers and classmates what I did over the summer because I couldn’t tell them the truth.
After 10 minutes, Sofiana announced they had two more minutes to finish.
“No, no! We need five more minutes.”
“I’m just on the first question!”
She smiled and said they could take five more minutes.
Then came the time for the students to share what they wrote. I don’t remember exactly what the first guy said but I know it was beautiful and that I cried. His reward came in the form of an autographed copy of “La Casa en Mango Street.” Last year when Sandra Cisneros came to read for a Latino Writers Collective event, she signed several copies of her book saying they were for young people.
Soon another person read and another. The ones who didn’t feel comfortable reading aloud passed us their work and we read it. As they wrote, we told them to put their feelings down and not to worry about writing poems. Oh, but they were. Every piece was poetry. They were in Spanish. They were in English. They were in Spanglish. Gentle verse breezed across the room. Painful, halting verse grated like rocks. Their creativity flowed and their emotions burned. They brought together the four elements and unknowingly creating the fifth. It was fertile. It was barren. It was beautiful.
Then they stopped reading and they started talking.
“Can I say something about my dad?”
“I want to talk about being a migrant.”
“When my dad leaves, I’m the man of the house but I need him around to show me how.”
“We aren’t animals and we aren’t slaves.”
“I’m not Hispanic but my father is a migrant.”
“Sometimes I go to school, sometimes I don’t. It doesn’t matter. Nobody cares.”
“My dad is a migrant. He made me come to this. Now, I’m glad I’m here.”
In between the extemporaneous testimony, which was also pure poetry, I needed to acknowledge what was happening.
“The emotions moving through this room are what we, as migrant kids, push down inside us every day,” I explained. “We push it down so our parents don’t get upset. We push it down so our brothers and sisters don’t get scared. We push it down so our friends won’t see this secret side of us. We push it down and push it down hoping it will go away. But it doesn’t it just comes out in different ways.”
“What we are doing right now,” I said beholding their courage, “is tapping into that truth. And for many of us, this probably the first time we’ve ever done this in our lives.”
Heads nodded and cleansing breaths attempted to subdue emotions.
“Can you feel how powerful it is — how powerful we are? We’re migrants and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is painful, yes, but it is also our soul. Embrace it.”
After most of the 60 students shared their feelings, we ended the workshop. The students were exhausted, emotional, and holding onto each other (even the guys) but we all knew that they had found some peace.
My table of girls stood tall in a circle wiping each other’s tears.
“Oh, I’m not in that book,” I explained a bit taken aback by his contradicting quietness more than his request.
“I know,” he said blinking away tears from his red swollen eyes as he continued to offer his book and pen.
I recognized his eyes. They were the eyes of someone who lived with too much responsibility. They were the eyes of someone who took care of his younger siblings and helped his parents. They were the eyes of someone who had already lived a life of sacrifice. They were my eyes. They were the eyes of my sisters. They were the eyes of every young person in the room.
That’s when I realized he wasn’t asking for my autograph. He was asking me to be part of his memory of this day, a day where he was finally allowed to feel the emotions that come from being part of a migrant family. We helped him understand that it’s OK to feel angry and confused and that there is also love and joy in our migrant families.
Taking his book and pen, I opened the cover to see Sandra Cisneros’ autograph and wrote “Thank you for being such an inspiration and for having such courage,” and I signed it. Then another book was thrust at me, and another, and another. I looked over at the other members of the collective and they were also signing books.
I personalize every book with a message of thanks for I was an honor to sign my name next to Sandra Cisneros’ and to be invited into the students’ hearts.
This was another gift the fields gave me.