Creating Space for Immigration and Race: A Conversation with Jennifer De Leon




AMID THE PANDEMIC, Jennifer De Leon, a Guatemalan writer based in the Northeast, published two books in quick succession: Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From and White Space, a book of essays that won the Juniper Prize. Over the last several years, she also midwifed the anthology Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, a collection featuring the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez among other less established writers ruminating on their college experiences. For some writers, it is the first time they leave insular communities and enter the mainstream world.

Her latest writings mirror each other. In fiction, she portrays a Guatemalan American girl whose life is upended when her father is deported and she is assigned to an elite school. In nonfiction, she grapples with the white spaces she inhabits, with belonging and otherness, and the separation of families caused by dysfunctional immigration policies. In clear-eyed honesty and humor, she navigates the issues of immigration and race and speaks to our times. I sent her written questions about her work, and she responded in the middle of a busy book tour.

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SARA CAMPOS: Your travel to Guatemala is the centerpiece of your new book, White Space. Can you share some of your takeaways about that journey? What did the experience teach you about the Guatemalan political situation and immigration to the United States?

JENNIFER DE LEON: When I was 28 years old, what astrologers refer to as the year of Saturn’s return, I decided to quit my job, sublet my apartment, and buy a one-way ticket to my parents’ homeland, Guatemala. I had traveled there several times before, but I had never lived there, and certainly not alone. I wanted to experience life in this country in a way that I couldn’t if I were hinged to my parents’ sides as we visited relatives in the capital, or if I were part of an organized tourist or study abroad program. What I wanted was to carve my own experience. And I had goals. I set out to improve my Spanish by studying at a wonderful language school in Quetzaltenango, learn more about Guatemala’s political and economic history, and write a novel. As I share in one of my essays in the collection, “Work,” really, I had “scribbled in journals, gotten bit by a dog, and gained eleven pounds. I came home without an idea for a novel, much less a draft.” The experience of living and studying in Guatemala proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. I was more Estadounidense than I had realized — longing for the ease of travel and independence as a young woman, and not being questioned (every five seconds) as to why I wasn’t married with children, and fitting in. Ironically, in Guatemala, where I finally looked like everyone around me (unlike the New England suburb where I grew up), I felt like more of a foreigner than in the United States. And yet — I learned a tremendous amount about the Guatemalan political situation. For the first time in my life, I was able to connect the dots between the events and circumstances that made for my parents’ immigration to the United States, and the ongoing ramifications in a country with a complicated history, in which the United States government played a huge role in, well, complicating, to use a euphemism!

How did the Guatemalan experience inform your work as a writer?

While I was living in Guatemala, I filled several journals. I wrote every day. Multiple times a day. Yet, I somehow equated “writing a novel” to determining whether or not my experience was ultimately “successful.” I know now that this was a pretty narrow definition. But I had put so much pressure on myself to write, that unsurprisingly, the words did not flow easily. What did flow: my journal entries. Perhaps because I didn’t feel the pressure on these pages in the same way as when I opened Microsoft Word on my laptop. In my journal, I was “simply” writing about my daily experiences, the people I met, the stories they shared, and oh my goodness — I didn’t realize at the time, but this is what I would later churn into stories, essays, and yes, novels.

I will also add that my time there informed my understanding of race in Guatemala. For the first time in my life, I was considered white. I was, by many measures, a white Guatemalan. Locals knew it the moment I uttered a word, from the way I carried myself, from the jeans and dirty sneakers I wore. I had privilege — from finances to language (speaking English and Spanish and not one of the 22 Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala, such as K’iche’ or Mam) to US citizenship status. I learned more about the many indigenous communities, the different customs and traditions, and yes, the racism these communities faced. As a Guatemalan American woman, I wondered, how did I not know any of this history before now? Why? Our history has been excluded and erased from the already narrow curriculum for Latin American history in a typical World History high school class in the United States. This needs to change.

Your father grew up in Tiquisate, a coastal town where the United Fruit Company once had banana plantations. Everyone knows about Macondo, but few in the United States are aware that the kind of violence García Márquez wrote in Macondo happened in Guatemala. Why do you think that is?

Great question. For one, Colombia is significantly bigger than Guatemala, in size and population. Second, so much of Guatemala’s community of educators, artists, leaders and activists, were murdered during the 36-year-long civil war. To think about the stories and poems and art that died with them is a tragedy on top of a tragedy. So, yes, I think we have so much work to do — Guatemalans, Guatemalan Americans, Latinx authors and artists — to reclaim some of what was lost, and to write and create with urgency today. In terms of what we can do to share more about Guatemala’s history and the genocide that occurred there, I find that stories are a great vehicle in which to share these histories. I think I’ll spend the rest of my life writing about Guatemala. And it won’t be nearly enough.

Among the themes running through much of your work is the issue of family separation. You write about it in “Home Movie”; it is central to the plot in Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From; and you feature it in several essays in White Space. While the incidents you write about may not be as dramatic as the Trumpian zero-tolerance policy, the separation of a parent is nevertheless devastating for children left behind on both sides of the border. How is that separation embedded in the immigrant experience?

Yes, family separation occurs at various stages of the immigration experience and in myriad ways. When my mother moved to Los Angeles from Guatemala City at the age of 18, it would be four more years until she saw her mother again. While living in California, my mother received a telegram that read: Your father is very ill. She had to look up the word “ill.” But it was too late. Her father died soon after the telegram had been sent. Separation, whether brief or not, can last a long time, and really shape a person’s worldview, identity, and choices in the future. Perhaps what stays with me, though, when I hear stories of Central American immigrants coming to the United States is this: the crushing realities of family separation are a stain on our collective history, of the Americas as a whole.

The parents of the protagonist in Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From are both undocumented. The character’s mother is super strict and almost paranoid that something will happen to her daughter. How do you make sense of the mother’s behavior? In what ways are her reactions to her daughter understandable given her undocumented status or her immigrant status?

In Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, Liliana’s mother has recently “lost” her husband in a sense because when the book opens he has been deported to Guatemala. Understandably, Liliana’s mother is depressed, anxious, angry, and scared. She is grappling, too, with the thought of losing her daughter, maybe not in the physical sense, as Liliana was born in the United States and is therefore a US citizen, but in other ways, because as we know, there is more than one way to lose someone close to you. In some ways, Liliana’s education — what her parents pushed and supported — might be something that ultimately separates her from her parents. Or maybe I’m projecting. I write about these ideas much more in my essay collection, White Space.

The issue of race is also prominent in Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From. Race issues blow up at the elite school your protagonist attends. How does race rear its head in schools? What do teachers typically do? How should educators be treating race issues when they crop up in schools across the country?

I think the most damaging way to treat race issues is to ignore them. Micro-aggressions, as Ibram X. Kendi explains, are racism. As educators, it is our duty and responsibility to create safe environments for all children to feel seen and heard and validated, and to have systems in place to address any challenges to these basic human rights.

Unfortunately, many students of color attending predominantly white schools (as Liliana does in Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From) experience “othering” on a daily basis, maybe even by the hour. When Liliana arrives at her new posh high school an hour outside of Boston, she is bombarded with questions from students and teachers such as: Where are you from? Where are you from-from? Where are you really from? Then, as she gets her bearings in the school, she is faced with more pointed questions such as: Your mom must be a really great cook, huh? And, can you help me with my Spanish homework? You must get an A in Spanish!

What happens when students are on the receiving end of these types of questions is that they are made to feel as if they don’t belong, that they are taking up space that is not intended for them, and that they are not the “norm.”

There is a scene in the novel where Liliana’s history class is having a debate on whether or not immigrants from Central America should be “allowed” into the country or not. The teacher, Mr. Phelps, puts up a quote by former President Trump that reads:

The United States federal government should substantially increase its legal protection of economic migrants in the United States.

And again:

We want a great country. We want a country with heart. But when people come up, they have to know they can’t get in. Otherwise, it’s never going to stop.

The class goes on to argue for or against these quotes. But not Liliana. She puts on her hood and slouches in her seat. She is the only person of color in the class. Her father has recently been deported to Guatemala and is, in fact, one of these people who “can’t get in.”

Imagine being Liliana in that moment. The teacher, instead of considering how she may feel as the only student of color in the class, adopts a more “color-blind” mentality and completely ignores this reality. Instead, he calls on her directly and asks if she has anything to add — otherwise known as spotlighting.

I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced this scenario in my education. What I wanted to create in this scene is a true-to-life scene where Liliana feels the pressure from all angles. While at this point in the novel she does not speak up, she will later. My hope is that educators have more awareness about the implications of curriculum and course content on the very students in front of them, their families and their histories. For many students, these scenarios are not hypothetical. It’s real life.

What happens when teachers like Mr. Phelps, even with their best intentions to play the most popular TED Talks and documentaries in class, ignore the impact these discussions have on students of color? On other teachers of color? On the communities of color in the town or city or state? For one, white students continue to feel empowered to act and say whatever they’d like, dismissing the effect of these actions and words. For instance, in my novel, a student posts a meme of Liliana’s face on a piñata and writes the words, Go back home. The post goes viral. No one knows who posted it — at first. But the damage has been done. So the school administration decides to have an assembly. Who do they charge with making a presentation on race at the high school? The student of color group. I wanted to showcase the problem on top of the problem on top of the problem, in fiction, but in a way that so many students identify with and experience. My hope is that the book offers a catalyst to have discussions about race in schools, and to engage in community-wide book groups and talks about the ways in which we all play a role in the environment of our schools, with the goal of making them safe spaces for all. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Anti-Racist efforts in schools must increase, and it must go beyond Black History Month and Taco Tuesday. We owe it to students, and to ourselves.

Because of certain rhetoric, Americans are constantly hearing about immigrants wanting to come to the United States. What they rarely hear about is the ambivalence immigrants feel, how so many immigrants would rather stay home and not leave their families, how their homelands tug at them to return. How widespread do you think those feelings are?

Very! There is a poem I have taped on my office wall at home. “Home” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet who lives in London. She writes:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

I return to these lines often. They are another reminder to complicate the immigrant narrative, to disrupt what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story” in her famous TED Talk. In my work, I do aim to provide counternarratives, to understand that my stories are part of the larger work of Critical Race Theory, specifically working to challenge the dominant US–Central American immigrant narratives we see in the media.

The title White Space can have many meanings. When I first picked up the book, I thought it might deal with the issue of white privilege. Privilege is touched upon in the book alongside many issues, yet you use white space to communicate different ideas. You use it, for example, in the essay that forms the title of the book, to note that your father’s résumé could not possibly capture his life. What are some of the other meanings you intended?

White Space the phrase refers to the white space(s) I have encountered throughout my life — from childhood to adolescence to college to graduate school to now, as a professor. It also refers to the white spaces in the world of writing and publishing. I have often been la única, the only one, in creative writing classrooms, workshops, etc. These spaces are traditionally very white. I’ll never forget Junot Díaz during a talk he gave one year at AWP, the conference of writers. He stood at the podium and looked out at the huge audience and said, “Man. I know Boston white, but this shit is AWP white.” I laughed because it was true! But, yes, aside from White Space referring to physical spaces, it also refers to the white space of the page. I’ve worked long and hard — and still am, of course — to take up space on the page, to feel that it is my right and my privilege and my joy to do so.

I found quite poignant the essay title “Bridged” in which you write about navigating between the world of writers and your family. In it, you discuss your mother’s attempt to do college work as well as a moment when you brought your mother to a reading in Italy where a writer gives a lecture on Montaigne. Later that writer praises you for bringing your mother and makes a snide comment about whether your mother understood the lecture. You brush it off, but reading it felt like a gut punch. What are your takeaways on the ways immigrants navigate that road between the world of their parents and US culture and/or the world of American letters?

So much to say here! I could write another collection of essays to engage with this very question. In all seriousness, it is something that I have grappled with throughout my life — this feeling that the further along I move on the very path that my parents encouraged me to tread, the more distant the gap grows between us. Writing helps to bridge this gap for me. And I hope it does for others, too.

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Sara Campos is a writer, lawyer, and currently a program officer at the Grove Foundation.

 

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