Stephanie Camba 3 (1)
Stephanie Camba (photo credit: Bo Daraphant)

This article was originally published at Bitch Media.

Few immigrant groups have been quite as reviled and as revered by the American public as “Dreamers.” The term became a catch-all phrase for three primary groups: recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), immigrants who would have qualified for the DREAM Act (had it ever passed), and immigrants who came to the United States as children. Long before the Trump administration launched its latest assault on DACA in defiance of the Supreme Court’s recent order, this segment of the immigrant community has been caught in the middle of a perpetual tug-of-war. Right-wingers demonize Dreamers and DACA recipients as “illegals” or beneficiaries of the Obama administration’s “unconstitutional” executive order, and advocacy organizations prop them up using deeply divisive and harmful model minority myths and “good immigrant” narratives

What can’t be denied is that when young, undocumented people began organizing online around 2008 and taking to the streets to perform acts of civil disobedience to demand an end to deportations, it was a cultural flashpoint. They were unlike the undocumented immigrants who came before them who, for various (and valid) reasons, hid their immigration status. These young people—some of whom are now in their 30s—sacrificed their time, energy, and often their well-being to fight for a world in which undocumented people could dream big instead of being confined to the truly American hell that criminalized their existence while exploiting their labor. A lot has changed in the years since one of America’s greatest generations announced itself as “undocumented and unafraid” beginning around 2010, but there is one rather striking thing that hasn’t changed according to Sonia Guiñansaca, a migrant poet and multidisciplinary artist whose work focuses on migration and queerness.

“Speaking very specifically from my generation of ‘Dreamers,’ migrant communities are not allowed to imagine. It’s still ‘surprising’ for migrant communities to be seen as creatives and able to imagine for themselves,” Guiñansaca told Bitch. “Why is it still such a radical idea that migrant folks can be artists and writers and cultural workers; that we can articulate the kind of stories we want told about ourselves?” Guiñansaca spent the entirety of their teens and early 20s as an undocumented organizer before shifting into cultural work full-time and leading groundbreaking work in support of undocumented creatives, including what was potentially the first-ever retreat for undocumented writers, UndocuWriting Retreat: Scribbles from the Undocumented Subconscious, in 2013. They said that how we talk about “immigrant labor” is so narrow that it ties people’s worth solely to the contributions they make into a system that treats them as disposable. 

In all of the popular narratives about immigrant labor—“They do jobs Americans don’t want to do”; “They contribute billions of dollars to the economy”; “They are essential/skilled workers,” etc.—migrants aren’t regarded as whole human beings, and their cultural contributions certainly don’t come into play. But there’s a rich and beautiful tapestry of migrant artists, writers, poets, and musicians, many of whom entered the arts from community organizing, and somehow paved their own way in a country that doesn’t allow Dreamers to dream. Guiñansaca said many well-meaning people only uplift shining examples of model immigrants or they romanticize the backbreaking work undocumented workers perform—both of which are “dehumanizing.” The poet said these popular narratives are broadly believed to uplift immigrant communities, but they’ve actually created a “good immigrant/bad immigrant” binary. The result? Anyone who steps out of the singularity of these stories is deemed worthless or unworthy. 

“There needs to be an investment in migrant storytellers who are the only ones who can write about us in all of our complexity. When we can shift narratives about our communities, it changes people’s understandings of migrants and migrants’ understanding of ourselves,” Guiñansaca said. “Migrants have abortions. We fuck. Sometimes we suck at dating. Some of us don’t like school, or we drop out of school. Our lives, like everyone else’s, are complicated and not aesthetically pleasing. Those stories matter too.” Guiñansaca is the author of the 2016 chapbook Nostalgia and Borders and they’re currently working on their second chapbook, #PapiFemme, and launching Alegria Press, a publishing house for undocumented writers. Growing up, Guiñansaca said they didn’t have possibility models and as a queer, nonbinary, 31-year-old, they don’t have many living elders they can lean on.

This is part of the reason they’ve become so invested in building infrastructure that will support younger LGBTQ migrant artists who are inundated with messages that creative work is not an option for them. “Not only am I tired of narratives about us that aren’t from us, but I don’t want more folks to feel like I did, like they can’t be a writer. As an Ecuadorian who gets erased in storytelling about migration and as a queer person and a genderqueer person, I want emerging writers to know there’s space for them too,” Guiñansaca said. “I very boldly say, ‘I’m a writer and artist.’ It took me a long time to own that, but it’s important that younger writers see me be bold. I want them to see a writer who looks like me—somebody who is gender nonbinary and femme and fat and has a city accent who is from Harlem and who dresses like this. I hope that for the first time, they see themselves reflected.”

There’s a similar artistic pull for undocuqueer South Asian storyteller Amritpal Kaur, who said she wants to create art that her five younger siblings can relate to. Kaur is an Angeleno by way of Punjab, the region of India she and her family migrated from in 2000. It was right before 9/11 and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which would quickly come to brutalize families that looked like hers. On her Instagram page, BrownGirlJoy, Kaur uplifts the beauty and resilience of brown girls like her, but in her work as an undocumented filmmaker, Kaur says she wants to show the realities of undocumented Asian American Pacific Islander (API) communities and disrupt the myth of the American Dream. Last summer, Kaur wrote, directed, and edited a short film about two sisters who have undocumented parents who are deported, which triggers their separation by the foster care system. Like other members of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, Kaur’s creative work reflects her reality as an undocumented person.

The collective informally began in 2018 with the goal of reaching media and entertainment companies and demanding that when projects related to undocumented immigrants are in preproduction, undocumented filmmakers and media-makers are hired as the storytellers. (The collective famously published an open letter in 2019 to Selena Gomez and the other producers of Living Undocumented, a Netflix documentary series about families facing deportation.) Kaur joined the collective early on, and felt an immediate kinship with the other undocumented filmmakers to whom she didn’t have to explain her work. “This collective’s support is really important to me because being undocumented and trying to do artistic work can really fuck with your head. You see stuff about immigration everywhere—these one minute clips or stories online about an undocumented student winning some prize or photos of kids in cages and you start to feel like, ‘Is this all that people think about us? Are these the only narratives they know about us?,” Kaur said. “For so many of us, before we can even think about doing creative work, we have to learn to love ourselves and heal and think bigger for ourselves than the narratives we’ve been told about our communities.”

The creative work itself can also offer healing. Stephanie Camba, otherwise known as Soultree, an undocuqueer musician and poet said that doing creative work came very holistically to her because it was only through art that she first felt safe articulating her experiences as undocumented person without having to “out” herself. Camba identifies as a migratory artist. She was born in the Philippines and then moved several times between the Marshall Islands and the United States as her family tried to find stability. Growing up, she sang Marshallese music in church and in Arkansas, she sang in the choir. Singing, she learned, was her way of connecting to herself and to a higher power. After the release of her first EP, Soultree, last year, the undocumented musician said she finds it “beautiful and sacred” that her music can cross borders in ways she cannot. Still, she grapples with doing creative work. 

“I had to go through a really deep period of healing and reaffirming myself that my dreams were okay. I had such a strong sense of guilt for pursuing my dreams because I want to share my truth, but it inherently outs my family. For a long time, every time I would perform it felt like I was defying my bloodline,” Camba said. “So it’s been a journey and a journey to not just create from a place of trauma. I needed to get to a place where I could uplift our joy and not just share our suffering.” At 30-years-old, Camba said she already feels like an elder in the world of immigrant justice. Like Guiñansaca, she came into creative work from community organizing and says the generation of migrant artists she belongs to are a “rogue bunch” who’ve had to learn that many advocacy organizations that lend their support often co-opt their intellectual and creative labor while pushing paternalistic narratives that don’t serve migrant communities. “Across the spectrum of labor, there’s such an imbalance of power when it comes to undocumented workers and it’s amplified for undocumented artists because we’re made to feel like we’re supposed to be grateful for even being able to do paid creative work in the first place,” Camba told Bitch

Getting stuck on gratitude is something that’s especially challenging for young artists, said Rommy Torrico. The 31-year-old artist’s bright, beautiful art is deeply enmeshed with the fight for migrant justice. Through their work, Torrico says they learned how crucial messaging is, but it wasn’t until they were older that they started to think about who was behind the messaging and who it was for. So much of the advocacy in immigration spaces is not actually for immigrant communities, but rather tied to funders or swaying public opinion. These organizations are also the gatekeepers that decide which migrant artists’ get ushered into cultural work. Torrico said that art seemed out of the realm of possibility for them. Like everyone else featured in this piece, they are the first in their family to do creative work professionally.

While Torrico’s family was not always understanding of their drive to be an artist, they were not unsupportive. Rather, Torrico’s parents and sister sat with them and tried to help them figure out the best way to make use of their artistic talents. Before college, Torrico said they mostly used art to make sense of their identities as a queer and trans undocumented person from Chile. “I also sat around a lot and wondered if I even had a future,” Torrico said. Through conversations with their family, it was decided there was no money in art, but maybe Torrico could enter architecture? This is how they began harnessing their talent and learning new design skills, but they were “tragically destined to become an artist.” 

Torrico can still remember being a younger person and the sense of possibility they felt seeing the work of undocuqueer artist Julio Salgado. In the years since, Torrico’s distinctive work has become well-recognized. Now they get messages from young people thanking them for their powerful representations of immigrant communities. A piece of this support stems from the fact that social media has “opened up a whole new world” for young migrant artists, Torrico said, and they hope that no matter their medium they choose to put their work out there. “I want them to know they don’t need anyone’s permission. I want them to know that their work will reach people and it will make a difference,” Torrico said. “You don’t need an MFA. You don’t need an organization to validate you. If you put your heart and soul into your art, then you’re a fucking artist and I challenge anybody to tell you otherwise.”

The United States has created an entire mythology around being a place where people can fulfill their dreams. After all, this is a country that purports to love big, bold ideas, a country that says it values courage and conviction. But we demonize migrants who possess these attributes and instead question those who use their work to refuse the country’s cyclical portrayal of immigrants as saints or sinners, condensing their communities into tidy data points about economic contributions and college graduation rates. It is our own loss that we have fundamentally failed to support an entire generation of creatives by cutting Dreamers down at the knees and telling them they have to conform to the narratives we’ve created for them; that they are not allowed to dream beyond model minority myths, backbreaking labor, and borders. Thankfully, they never needed our permission.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.