Peter Orner (ed). Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. San Francisco, CA: Voice of Witness Series, McSweeney’s Books, 2008. Pp. 379. $16.00 (paper).
Read this book.
I could easily leave my review of Underground America at that—a three-word directive, heartfelt, impassioned, genuine, urgent.
Read this book.
There is of course much more to say, but in an important sense it is not mine to say. “I am trying to pay attention,” writes Luis Alberto Urrea in the foreword to Underground America. “How can we understand the problem if we don’t listen? How can we fix it if we don’t understand it?” Elsewhere, when writing about the work of translation and interpretation, I have repeatedly wondered what else there is to hear, other than that which is most proximately around us. How might we renegotiate our understanding of the world, through genuine and radically open encounters with perspectives very different, very distant, from our own? This book asks a different, yet related question: what might we hear if we were to listen to those most proximately around us—most proximately around us in the picking and preparation of much of the food in US supermarkets and restaurants, in the cleaning of many US homes and hotels, in the construction work of development or the reconstruction work in the aftermath of disaster, in jails and detention centers and day laborer sites and sweatshops and makeshift crowded communal living spaces that are part of the fabric of US cities as much as any other aspect of infrastructure and circulating traffic—those whose voices too often go unnoticed in the din of business as usual and the quiet hesitation of being afraid to speak for fear of being noticed? How might we be changed (whoever “we” are) by what we hear? And how does the very act of hearing invite change, such that a person cannot be the same after reading a book as they were before entering its pages?
Underground America consists of two basic elements: oral histories narrating the lived experiences of a range of immigrants to the US, in their own words (and often in their own languages, translated for the book), as told to the editors and interviewers who worked on the project, and a brief—perhaps too brief—appendix and glossary elucidating some of the issues, court cases, laws and terminology referenced in the interviews. The book recounts the experiences of people from Bolivia, Cameroon, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, India, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, and South Africa, who work in a range of professions, from education to housecleaning, agriculture to construction, business to food service. The narratives are riveting; I found myself wishing I could stop anyone and everyone I pass on the street or stand behind in line at the market to ask how they got where they are now—regardless of where they came from, regardless of where they find themselves currently or by what means they got there. Everyone has something to say, this book powerfully declares, if we might only take the time and find the context to listen.
Orner’s project—and, equally, the cumulative effect of the interviews—renegotiates the term “undocumented,” suggesting there is more to documentation than acquiring the requisite governmental paperwork. This book is both archive and call to action, a document and a communiqué. These narratives complicate and trouble the mythologies around “illegal immigrants;” the combination of stark and sometimes brutal concrete description of lived experience and astute analysis on the part of the people recounting those experiences undermines the received notions that “they are taking our jobs,” or “they are merely a drain on the system,” or “they just come here to commit crimes.” Nsombo, from Cameroon, notes:
There are about thirteen million Americans* overseas, foreigners like all the foreigners who come here. The human being is a nomad, a traveler—he (sic) goes where he feels free. The American was not an American before. The system makes Americans believe that their job has been taken. But foreigners like me pay taxes that don’t even benefit us. The people who are benefiting from our taxes are complaining that I am taking a job that they’re not even interested in. The job belongs to the person who is willing to work.
The experiences recounted in Underground America illustrate how capitalist labor hierarchies rely on the anxiety and desperation that provide the backdrop for the experiences of immigrants and other economically disadvantaged workers. Silence, submission and conformity are enforced through exploitation of fear and often dire economic need; many of the workers represented in these pages are paid well under minimum wage and work outrageously long hours under inhumane conditions. El Mojado, originally from Mexico, who has worked as a meatpacker, dairy worker, and carpet installer, asks: “Who works the oranges? Who works the construction? Dairies? Fields? Hog farms? Cleaning homes? Who does that? Immigrants. I don’t think anyone who has papers is going to be doing that. An American, when is he gonna be picking oranges? Who is going to milk cows for ten hours straight, then get a five-minute lunch?”
Underground America provides no analysis, and very little framing; each narrative is preceded by a simple title page listing the age and first name (real or false) of the person speaking, their country of origin, their occupation(s) and their current “home”—a term the book might unpack more thoroughly, but which creates provocative resonances when used in this way. This work posits a crucial model, more akin to popular education than to more traditionally academic forms of cultural criticism, for how to encounter otherness and build a foundation of mutual respect across a range of differences. Where there is space for people to speak for themselves, this book demonstrates, they can and will speak, and have many relevant and thought-provoking things to say; the task of an editor or educator is to create the conditions for such space to exist, as Orner does beautifully in this volume. Who, then, are the audiences for this book? Certainly those who seek to gain a more nuanced and informed understanding of the contemporary conditions of migration, as well as those charged with making policy that might affect migrants and those who interact with them—which in our present moment, is nearly everyone, particularly if we consider food purchase and consumption as forms of interaction. At the same time, this book might be an important resource for the folks who played a role in its very making, as interviewers, translators, or interviewees. Many of those interviewed speak powerfully to the divisions and tensions among people from different countries of origin. How might this book be an awareness-raising tool within immigrant communities, and among those working with immigrants? How might this book function as a resource for immigrants themselves to learn more about the social, political and cultural contexts they inhabit and how they might gain more agency within those?
One of the most important tools Underground America offers is specificity: narratives that illustrate both human difference and human connection. There are no representative stories. Roberto, a factory worker and cook in San Francisco, originally from Mexico, muses “Who am I? I’m nobody. A very old saying in Mexico goes, ‘I am. I don’t resemble anyone.’” These narratives are utterly singular and at the same time demonstrate, both concretely and conceptually, how deeply it is possible to identify with the experiences of others who share the condition of being a person in a difficult world. Olga, a housekeeper in Oxnard, also originally from Mexico, recounts the horrifying experience of her daughter Vica, who died of AIDS after being denied medical care while in custody at an immigration detention center. Olga’s capacity to use her painful loss as a galvanizing political force is tremendous:
I’d like to talk to other mothers who have sons that are transgender and tell them to accept them, to love them, to support them…I want to make this as public as I can, in English, so the Anglos, the Americans know and people care. This is important so it never happens to another person. It makes me so sad because the people who witnessed what happened to Vica have all been moved to a jail in Texas. One of them called me the other day and said that another detainee in Texas has AIDS and a low cell count, and is starting to get sick like my Vica. They aren’t giving this person medical attention either. When I hear this it gives me strength to keep going to do more, to talk. Sometimes I don’t want to talk to anyone but something inside of me pushes me to speak out. The pain my daughter went through, all that can’t be in vain.
Will reading these narratives necessarily change the perspectives and policies of those who see undocumented immigrants as problems in themselves, rather than as people whose life experiences are symptomatic of larger social, economic and cultural complexities? Perhaps not. Or perhaps, as too often occurs, compelling stories will be seen as singular, empathized with in the specific, rather than generalized to reflect a more nuanced and ethical approach to human dignity as a whole. The book provides no directives; rather, the thoughtfulness and complex political visions exhibited by the people whose stories are included in the volume suggest a model for how anyone encountering these narratives might incorporate them into processes of contemplation and action.
Underground America enacts the idea that direct experience is an important source of knowledge and analysis. I began this essay musing that there is much more to say than the simple directive to read this book, but that it is not necessarily mine to say. Perhaps it is not mine to speak, but rather all of ours: who among us—and by “us” I mean readers holding this book in their hands on North American territory—is not marked by diaspora? As these oral histories powerfully illustrate, whether our people have been on the American continent for hundreds of years or hundreds of minutes, the patterns and disruptions resulting from migration are inextricably part of the topography of our existence. Mobility and its reverberations are part of the human condition; first and foremost, the project of Underground America is to explore the conditions of being human through the lens of the inhuman treatment undocumented immigrants face. Farid, an entrepreneur originally from Iran, explains part of the reason he left his country of origin to seek political asylum: “Freedom was missing from my life. I didn’t have freedom of speech, freedom of opinion. Iran was a place where you had no right to say anything. I wanted to scream but there was no place to scream. If you put your head under water you can scream as much as you want, but you drown. They actually did that, that’s one of the ways they would torture you in Iran, by putting your head under water.” Underground America makes space for readers to hear many different voices, speaking clearly—sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming—with their heads above water, where they can be heard. In the words of Adela, a Mexican homemaker and activist living in Modesto: “These are opportunities. Maybe talking about these things will change them… You must, as they say, come out of the darkness. Come out and say, ‘Here I am! See me.’”
* Here, and in the title of the book itself, I wish the term “American” (or “America”) might be interrogated, as so many other terms and assumptions are called into question in this work. For those of us who have an awareness of the American continent as extending from Northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego, and particularly taking into account the forced migration to North America of so many people from places south of the US border, the term “America” is far from synonymous with the United States.
For more information on Underground America, please visit the McSweeney’s site, where you will find two interviews with editor/compiler Peter Orner, as well as numerous reviews.
This essay was originally published in Theory in Action, Vol. 4, No.2, April 2011.
Jen Hofer is a Los Angeles-based poet, translator, social justice interpreter, teacher, knitter, book-maker, public letter-writer, urban cyclist, and co-founder of the language justice and literary activism collaborative Antena. Her latest translations include the homemade chapbook En las maravillas/In Wonder (Libros Antena/Antena Books, 2012) and Ivory Black, a translation of Negro marfil by Myriam Moscona (Les Figues Press 2011). Her recent and forthcoming books are available from a range of autonomous small presses, including Action Books, Atelos, Dusie Books, Insert Press, Kenning Editions, Litmus Press, Palm Press, and Subpress. Most recently she has been hand-sewing quilted poems; her installation “Uncovering: A Quilted Poem Made from Donated and Foraged Materials from Wendover, Utah” is currently on view at the CLUI in Wendover.