The invisible immigrant

Immigrant rights marches were fewer and less populous this year. Nonetheless, many dark-haired, olive-skinned (and lighter) people in white T-shirts, some of them carrying Mexican flags, came out into the streets to make America’s immigrants visible. And for that, as an immigrant, I am grateful.

For many of those people, America was the place to survive — and thrive. America for them was and is a place where life can be easier, where jobs are available, and kin communities offer a sense of belonging. America for them was real, and when they came here it was a physical act, mostly, a journey, frequently on foot or on a set of wheels, with ground under your feet. In a sense, they never left.

Consider the invisibles. Graduate students, visiting scholars, foreign-born professors, wives, artists, asylum seekers. The white, non-working-class immigrants. The ones for whom America was a word in the news, a source of political and intellectual discourse, the place whence ideas came — not a land to walk on, a set of streets to navigate, a supermarket shelf to take products from. They are here through the force of life circumstances, as an afterthought almost — America came with a marriage or a career move, a record deal or a research fellowship. What about us?

We are legal — frustrated by the INS internal incompetence at every
step of the process, finger-printed, background-checked, suspended from
planning our lives by a six-month wait for this, a three-month
residency requirement for that, and forever enveloped in the native
public’s vision of an immigrant as one of the immigrant majority —
Latino, working class, undereducated. The stereotype of the Other with
little or nothing to offer, one who burdens and threatens "the good

I gave a reading last week. My talk was based on the book I co-edited at the Press, The Big Empty.The
topic was esoteric yet soulful — I attempted to chart various writers’
strategies of creating meaning from a certain physical place and to
show the audience how those attempts are expressed in writing. I read
carefully, knowing that I have an accent and every thousand words or so
stress the wrong syllable in a word. I mentioned to the audience that I
wasn’t originally from Nebraska, but I didn’t say anything else. I was
eager to get to my writers and their intricate work.

When I invited the audience to ask questions, a hand went up, and a
young man, who I later found out teaches English at a local college,
asked: "What is your native language?"

Consider this question for a moment. Consider it. You might think it polite.

I answered. He said: "Your English is so fluent!"

All my work, the years that I spent working on the book and the
weeks that I agonized over the talk, and all my considerations of
audience, place, purpose, writers’ need to connect to other writers,
all my intellectual, artistic and emotional investment in the occasion
were nullified in that instant. The negra was trying to be a man all
over again, and I knew it.

What is my point?

The immigrant is inside your head. No matter how tall a fence you
build, how many agents you put in the airports, and how much longer the
lists of those waiting for visas on the other side of the ocean become,
the immigrant will be here, chipping away at "your" language and "your"
culture. And the immigrant will never go away.

I am applying for citizenship next week. Eventually, I will be
"naturalized" and will carry an American passport around the world. Yet
every time I speak in America, someone will put the chasm between me
and themselves: "You have an accent. Where are you from?"