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American Latino literature has focused more on undocumented immigrants, scholar finds

Monday, August 29, 2016

LAWRENCE — As immigration policy has become prominent in American society in recent decades, the debate and social justice issues surrounding immigrants have become a larger part of American Latino literature, a University of Kansas scholar finds.

As part of her new book, "Documenting the Undocumented: Latino/a Narratives and Social Justice in the Era of Operation Gatekeeper," Marta Caminero-Santangelo examines how writers have increasingly expressed their solidarity with undocumented immigrants, particularly after heightened border security in the 1990s that led to more immigrant deaths, immigration raids of meat-packing plants in the early 2000s and the persistently high number of deportations.

"It used to be that most prominent Latino writers wrote about their national origin identities quite a bit, but they didn't write about what that larger group identity meant," said Caminero-Santangelo, professor of English. "In addition, they weren't really representing the issue of illegal immigration at all."

She looks at the work of Junot Díaz, Cristina García, Julia Alvarez and other Latina and Latino authors who are U.S. citizens and have adapted their storytelling to focus on and humanize undocumented immigrants who often have little voice in American society or are afraid to speak out, Caminero-Santangelo said.

In particular, writers focus on the violence or the danger that immigrants often face by having to cross rugged terrain, or worse, rely on illegal traffickers.

"If you live in a Latino community, chances are you know people who are undocumented or have someone in their family affected by it," said Caminero-Santangelo, whose parents were Cuban immigrants. "Ethically it was on the minds of many of these Latino writers, and they started to represent the issue."

In the 1990s, she found themes begin to emerge in their writings on the precarious lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States, on deaths and disappearances while crossing borders, or about farming families in the states not near a border who need to hire undocumented workers to keep their operation alive.

In recent years, many youth who would have gained a path to citizenship if the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, had passed Congress, have begun speaking out as well and telling their stories publicly about not being able to get drivers licenses or financial aid and about having things to hide out of fear of being deported.

Caminero-Santangelo said these types of personal stories have become an important piece of the immigration policy debate that often can be discussed only in black-and-white legal terms.

"Telling stories publicly is the most powerful way to advocate for immigration reform, and the social power of storytelling makes us aware in our guts of the impact of issues. It potentially raises our moral consciousness," she said.

In the non-fiction work "The Devil's Highway" by journalist Luis Alberto Urrea, which tells the story of 26 men trying to cross the U.S. border, he describes in a vivid passage the six stages of death from heat exhaustion.

"He details the whole thing using the second-person pronoun, 'you,' such as 'you feel this,' 'your tongue gets thick,' and 'your tears dry up,'" she said. "Many people can't read that and still want to be a passive bystander," Caminero-Santangelo said.

Personally, she began to volunteer for an organization "No More Deaths," which works to prevent migrant deaths in the desert.

Caminero-Santangelo said with anti-immigrant sentiment fueling many political situations across the globe, from the U.S. to the European migration crisis, it's crucial to still examine the human element.

"I do think that's why these stories are incredibly important because it's easy to write off unauthorized immigrants as having broken the law and being criminals and therefore deserving whatever they get," she said. "It becomes incrementally harder though the more you understand their humanity and understand the full story of their lives including the reasons that brought them to immigrate, whether it's violence in their home countries or a better economic situation."