I Speak Inglés
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, is a federal legislative proposal inaugurated in 2001. The proposal has since been reintroduced in 2009, 2010, and most recently in 2011; this latest proposal currently awaits congressional action. The goal of the DREAM Act is to provide permanent residency to undocumented youth who arrived in the U.S. as minors, lived in the U.S. for a minimum of five years, and graduated from an American high school. Under the bill, potential “dreamers” would receive permanent residency after serving in the U.S. military for four to six years, or by attending an institution of higher education for a minimum or two years to prove they are of “good moral character,” according to United States Citizen and Immigration Services.
I met Viridiana Martínez in December of 2010 at a rally for the DREAM Act, the night before the U.S. Senate vote. It was a dark, cold evening, and the icy pavement reflected the golden glow of street lights. While other dreamers spoke passionately into the megaphone, a young woman stood in the back of the crowd with tears hovering on the rims of her eyes. As the event came to a close, the rally leader asked their “undocumented southern belle, Viridiana Martínez” to speak. To my surprise the somber woman stepped forward and began to plead with the audience. She did not shout with the practiced enthusiasm of a rally organizer; she spoke spontaneously and from the heart. “I questioned if I should even come here tonight,” Martínez said. She then told the crowd that unless every attendee picked up the phone, called their U.S. senators, and urged their elected officials to vote in favor of the DREAM Act, they need not be at the rally. As her speech ended, her previously restrained tears ran down her cheeks. Her defiant words articulated a sense of defeat. It seemed that Martínez knew the DREAM Act would fail the next day. Two months later I called Viridiana Martínez and asked to interview her—she agreed without hesitation.
On March 1, 2011, I walked up to Martínez’s front doorstep with my recorder in hand. When she opened the door and invited me in I nervously walked into her living room and followed her to the couch. There, as we sat side by side on her woven blue-grey sectional, she shared the story of her family’s migration, her life as an American child, and her transition to adulthood as an undocumented woman. Viridiana Martínez’s story is best told through her own words. They reflect her hope, despair, and determination to fight anti-immigrant legislation and secure freedom for herself and for those who are afraid or unable to fight.
For a year I agonized over what to do with this interview. As I scanned through the audio files on my computer and saw her interview sitting idle, I felt conflicted. I worried about the implications of the interview for her family, but recognized the importance of sharing her story. Viridiana’s story provides a unique glimpse into the personal life of an undocumented youth, while revealing national demographic changes and the rise of youth activism in the United States. It invokes debate about a heated national issue, illustrates the role of Latinos in the new Global South, but most importantly shows the personal side of a topic many American citizens find impersonal. I decided to share her story through ethnopoetic translation. This technique is often referred to as “performative writing.” It seeks to give the reader a sense of the emotion that a traditional transcript could never provide and connects portions of an audio interview that may be overlooked by the passive listener.
This piece is part me and part Viridiana. I have removed my questions from the interview to reveal her words and her story without interruption. In an effort to convey the different emotions her voice exposes in the interview, I have inserted emotive descriptions, all delineated by brackets. The stanzas and breaks are created by natural pauses in speech. Overall, the structure of this piece seeks to replicate an interview while highlighting the most poignant moments the conversation. Through my mediation and her words, this piece uncovers Viridiana Martínez’s path to living a life that is “undocumented [but] unafraid.”
The four stanzas are titled:
I remember in ‘94 when we first got here
there were no,
there were no Hispanic people.
I think I was one of two,
I was one of three,
there were three Hispanic kids including me, in my class.
And I think the other two, they were mixed or they were born here / raised here.
So they spoke the language.
They got along fine.
Their last names weren’t like, Mar-tí-nez. [said with an imitating tone]
So it wasn’t like, you know,
[whispers, as if gossiping]
“Oh, who’s this kid?”
For me it was,
You know, having Viridiana Martinez, it’s like, “Woah! Who’s this girl?”
[giggles, at the thought of others’ reactions]
“Where’d she come from?”
So yea . . . I think it was tough
It was tough.
Monterrey’s a huge city,
It’s one of the most industrial cities of all of Latin America.
At the time it wasn’t even as big as it is now.
But Monterrey . . . Monterrey,
Even then it was a big city, so moving here it was like,
this is a
And for my parents it was also difficult,
but . . .
they did it because there was no other way to,
My father actually came a year before we did.
We came in ‘94,
my father came in ‘93.
And Dad was,
when he first came here . . .
I think he had been here before then, actually,
as a migrant worker in the fields.
Because he did work in tobacco,
He did work in sweet potato,
Not, not for that long,
But enough that he knows,
you know, what it was like.
He was able to find something better to move on to,
knowing that we were coming,
he wanted to,
to be able to fend for us.
that’s what he did.
And he was here for about a year, and then we got here.
And that entire year without my father was SO hard for me! It was so difficult.
I mean I still remember the Christmas we spent without him
and it was,
it was really difficult.
And I didn’t know back then.
“Oh, Daddy’s gone,”
Because of this, but I knew there was
There was a very strong reason.
And I knew
there was something wrong or else my Daddy would be with me.
And I was a Daddy’s girl.
But it was really rough.
And then finally when we got here and saw my father
it was just, you know, this big relief.
And he was here.
And he was ok.
Settling down here was so difficult.
My father’s always been
[throat tightens, voice quivers]
He’s always worked his ass off, you know?
If he did ever
If it did ever get to him that
“Oh, I’m not doing the same job, or oh, I’m not in my country”
I never knew
[eyes water, holds back tears]
Because he never showed it.
When we came, we were able to get tourist visas
And so um,
Us living in a city
People of better . . .
We were doing better than someone in Chiapas
Or someone in a very small town in Mexico
I was in somewhat of a way, privileged
To have that opportunity
So back then things were a lot easier
Applying for a tourist visa was so impossible that you were going to get denied.
That’s, that’s what the plan was
My parents got smart about it.
Dad came and worked.
Mom applied for the tourist visa,
And we got it.
And we came here.
I don’t know that the initial, that their plan the whole time was, you know,
Come and settle down here.
But you know,
Life happens. [matter–of–fact laugh]
Without what you plan
And of course with kids
With two little girls
They had to do what they had to do
We came in with an uncle and an aunt of mine,
We drove across the border.
But of course,
With our visas,
We weren’t persecuted or anything
We weren’t chased through the desert or anything
Yea. So that’s how we came in.
In high school I really liked Government and History.
Yea. [scoffs and rolls her eyes]
And actually, since I was twelve,
and I heard about the United Nations,
I knew that because of my experience,
(you know, I got it.
I was like “oh, globalization”)
things were being talked about.
And I picked it up.
And I knew right away, I wanted to go to the Middle East.
That was my big thing.
I wanted to go to the Middle East and help women there,
and do international relations.
So throughout high school
I loved history.
I took AP European History.
um . . .
AP US government.
I loved the histories.
And I remember being the student who was always debating.
And especially when it came to a question about immigration.
And I can’t remember if certain people would or wouldn’t use the word “illegal.”
But back then
I wouldn’t pay much attention to that.
But I remember because my,
They were aware, “ok, there’s this Hispanic girl in my class.”
When there was a question asked,
they would try to figure out a way to say it so as not to
I guess . . .
I think more than mindful, it was being politically correct.
I guess I always found myself of the crowd of the smarter kids.
And I was in marching band.
I was a drum major.
And marching band at my high school—
It was all the cream of the crop kids.
I think the majority of kids in marching band were white.
But I remember
I remember competitions.
Their parents were so sweet.
I never felt like someone didn’t like me because of who I was.
I was involved in clubs.
I was involved in organizations, like Kiwanettes.
I was involved in church back then,
and youth group,
which was part of the Southern Baptist convention.
We did a lot back then.
I do remember,
this conversation I had with my . . .
she was sort of like my mentor.
But not really . . .
I looked up to her because she was an amazing drum major.
She graduated, two years before I did.
She was a kick ass drum major.
I remember having a conversation with her,
I’m not sure if it was when I became drum major
or if she was still in high school.
And you know,
she was drum major.
The thing is—
We were outside of the band room
And we were talking about . . .
I guess the differences between
Hispanic people and white people, and the socioeconomic differences.
And being illegal came up.
And she said to me,
“You’re not in that position are you?”
And back then in high school, I did not talk about this.
I mean this is something I didn’t . . .
Not even my closest friends.
I was like,
That’s not me.”
And it was like
really . . . really,
[voice volume increases]
I don’t know how or if it really got to me at the time . . .
but I was fully aware that I was lying.
And to me it felt bad.
But I’m sure I found a way to repress that,
because I just wanted to go on with my life.
“Whatever . . .
I’m going to be able to go to college.
I have the grades,
I have the extracurriculars,”
So I was like,
It was something
I didn’t come out in high school.
Because it was something that you just didn’t talk about.
[takes a deep breath]
I guess that’s what you want.
To try and live a normal life.
One of the things that was talked about our senior year,
You know . . .
[said with a quick, excited, and reminiscent tone]
when everyone starts wearing the hoodies and everyone starts talking about what school they’re going to go to and what they’re going to study.
And my friends,
they knew that I had gotten my acceptance letter from State.
And that’s where I wanted to go,
So I was just like,
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
But the letter asked for a visa,
a student visa,
And you know the money
So it was saying,
you know . . .
You have the grades,
but we need a visa.
And you’re going to have to pay as an international student.
And so . . .
I mean we’re talking
[pauses to think]
four times as much money?
[laughs with an air of impossibility]
Like money’s just growing on trees.
[voice becomes somber]
It was devastating.
It was just,
I was just like,
that’s my reality.
[voice gets louder and cadence quickens]
And I guess that’s what it did
it made me come face to face with my reality
that I’d been trying to repress for my entire four years in high school.
That I was trying to pretend wasn’t there.
And so it was,
it was devastating
When that happened
My way of not looking bad
And getting out of it with my friends
“I don’t wanna go to college yet,
college will be later down the line for me.”
So I was trying to
I guess hold on . . .
to the little bit of reputation I thought I had.
The little bit of dignity I thought I could portray,
even if I didn’t feel it,
Because I knew that I was hiding something.
I think that
I think that, that letter
Receiving that letter
coming face to face with this reality.
[deep breath in, and exhale]
That’s what the letter made me do.
It made me come face to face with it.
So . . .
I could no longer . . .
pretend like it wasn’t there,
even within myself.
Whereas, that’s what I’d been doing for the last four years.
Pretended like . . .
Not necessarily pretended
But I was hopeful.
I was hopeful that,
I know that I don’t have the papers
But I have the grades
It’s going to be ok.
I’m going to go to college.
I’m going to go to school.
I deserve it.
I’ve been working so hard.
So when that happens,
when I get this letter.
[pause, voice softens]
It’s not true.
I’m sorry to bust your bubble,
but you’re not gonna be able to go to college.
And not only that,
Coming face to face
And because of that
You can’t continue,
with your dream of going to college,
with your dream of going to school.
So at that point it did change something.
It changed the fact that
I knew graduation was around the corner.
I was like,
your life is going to completely change.
I remember sitting,
[gestures to the dining room]
it wasn’t that table it was a different table,
[scoffs at the memory]
I remember sitting at the table and reading . . .
And reading this letter,
And thinking to myself,
[said with an air of disappointment and sadness]
My life is going to completely change after graduation.”
And feeling completely hopeless.
[spoken with a bleak and monotone voice]
And not knowing where to turn to for help.
After graduation I started working.
And then I got really ill.
I was working
And . . .
And then I had to quit.
I got ill.
I mean even my senior year
my grades just . . .
[whistles a plummeting sound]
Because I just didn’t see a reason to . . .
I was having a lot of anxiety.
And it was hard for me to concentrate.
And I saw a doctor.
They gave me Zoloft, an anti-depressant.
I was on that.
I was on Zoloft.
And that fall
I . . .
took an overdose.
And . . .
I quit my job.
Because I just couldn’t concentrate.
I was having too much anxiety.
I quit my job.
And . . .
I . . .
and then the overdose happened.
And I was hospitalized for about three weeks.
And then I,
I got out.
And I was just sort of like
And my parents were taking care of me.
And making sure I wasn’t taking some more medicine.
My mom was so totally worried.
[breathes in and exhales with relief]
It wasn’t just Zoloft.
I took so many pills, I can’t even remember.
It was totally intentional.
Today I see that when people meet us,
When people meet people like my sister and I [undocumented men and women],
“I didn’t think you guy were Hispanic.”
I didn’t think you guys spoke Spanish.”
Why do people say that about us?
When we’re not different from anyone else.
We recognize we were raised here,
and we speak the language,
but we’re singled out.
I feel like a Mexican-American.
I wouldn’t be mad if somebody called me a Mexican.
But I think people need to . . .
I guess my issue is when people want to label us.
And it’s dehumanizing
To call someone an “illegal alien.”
I mean it just is.
I don’t care if you’re Chinese,
Illegal alien is dehumanizing.
And I think that
people need to stop using those kinds of terminology
start realizing that we are people too.
it’s as simple as that.
Even that alien “others” it.
And some of these people use it with such hate.
Why can’t you just put yourself in the shoes of other people?
[said with a pleading tone]
And try to see,
And try to feel,
before you talk.
And if people really did that
I think it would make a huge difference.
In the way people perceive,
and the way people see us.
We’re all first generation here.
It’s not like Texas or California.
We don’t have history here, Chicano history,
Like some of these other places
where there have been immigrants for years and years and years ,
And there are still immigrants.
I guess the only parallel to a movement we can have is the Civil Rights Movement.
And even when you’re making a parallel to that
You have to be careful
because you don’t want to upset anyone,
anyone in the African American community or anything.
And North Carolina is very hostile.
ALIPAC (Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee).
One of the most militant anti-immigrant organizations
Is based out of Raleigh.
They have a lot of money.
And their rhetoric is their most powerful weapon.
But some of these people are here in North Carolina.
We’ve got 287-G and secure communities,
programs where local law enforcement
[sighs, speaks quickly]
has agreements with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE).
They’re supposed to be programs that seek out criminals,
but what they’ve led to is racial profiling.
So . . .
a cop sees someone who’s brown,
probably speaks Spanish,
[said with a mocking tone]
“Oh! They’re a criminal!”
They get stopped.
“Are you illegal?”
Folks don’t know their rights.
So he’s like,
“Yeah . . .”
And so before he knows it he’s at Stuart Detention Center back in Georgia about to be deported back to his country.
That is the reality of a lot of people in North Carolina.
If we come out
like in Raleigh,
I mean people don’t understand.
We were in a 287-G county!
I mean on so many levels we expose ourselves.
In one of the cities with the nation’s most anti-immigrant organizations!
In the South!
Of all places.
I mean North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee,
these are all places where stuff has been happening.
It’s almost as bad as Arizona.
But we are not a border state.
And we don’t have the spotlight.
But a lot of stuff is going on here.