By Kate Burns
José Orduña’s engrossing memoir chronicles his journey to becoming a United States citizen. “The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement” blends Orduña’s personal narrative with an examination of identity and racism. Orduña brings the reader close to situations many people don’t see every day—President Obama dining discreetly at a posh Chicago restaurant where Orduña used to work; the class divide he experienced at Saint Ignatius College Prep; encountering young migrants on the border who come from his mother’s hometown; witnessing mass sham trials and deportations of unsuccessful, tired and dusty migrants back to Mexico. This book comes at a time when global migration is center stage. Following is an abridged version of our email conversation.
Did you have to naturalize to stay here or could you have remained a permanent resident?
9/11 happened right around the time I was in high school. Through the tightening of civil liberties and intensified xenophobia after 9/11, I felt more visible as an immigrant, which meant more vulnerable. While I was going through the process of becoming a citizen (known as naturalization) I felt a lot of anger that the rights granted to citizens aren’t granted to everyone. Once I got my citizenship I also felt a sense of relief that I had eliminated some of the vulnerability I’d lived with for so many years.
Did you feel like you were a member of two cultures, or did you feel like an outsider in one or both?
I never knew my “birth culture” first hand… the Mexico I know is one shaped by my parents’ nostalgia, fear, short summertime visits and what I experience with Mexican people living in the United States. I don’t know that outsider is the right word for immigrants, since most of the immigrants that come to the United States have always existed inside the sphere of United States influence. There’s an old Mexican saying my maternal grandfather used to say: “Beloved Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”
Do conversations about race on social media make a difference to the way police treat people of color? And in the way that the state treats migrants?
Conversations on social media are only as effective and important as the organizing work that does or does not go along with them.
Your mother has influenced you. Has she read your book?
Yes. She is always one of the first readers of my work, so is my dad. I’m not sure if my dad has had the chance to read it yet, because he’s been working twelve to sixteen hour days and when he gets home he can barely keep his eyes open. I’ve always cherished that they are readers of my work. It’s had a deep impact on the work I produce. In many ways I write for them, but also to them.
How has your writing developed in telling your story?
Aldous Huxley describes the essay as movement between three poles: the personal, the abstract and the factual. The essay form is particularly well-suited for my purposes, which isn’t only to tell my story, but to analyze, challenge and reframe my experience in relation to others and to the unfolding of history.
You write about the day-to-day choices that undocumented people make to avoid potential confrontations with police. What toll do these steps take?
Many undocumented people are correctly apprehensive about making any contact with law enforcement; sometimes this takes the form of not calling the police if they have been victimized. This is especially brutal for undocumented women who have been the victims of sexual assault. Many decide not to report this abuse because of the very real possibility of not being believed and a judge ruling against them, in which case they would be deported.
You label the economic conditions that compel migrants to leave Mexico a cyclical war controlled by the United States. What do you want the next American president to change?
I don’t think any president can change things in one or two terms. The conditions that define the realities migrants live in today have been in production for generations. The root causes are entrenched in political, economic, military and cultural practices and institutions. I think we need a president who will begin to orient policy toward addressing the root causes of the displacement of poor and working-class people. History shows that our military interventions throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa create violence and instability that lead to migration. While we reckon with those things, a process that will take many generations, I think it is the United States’ responsibility to take in immigrants who wish to come here. The data shows that migration to the United States has a neutral effect.
“The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement”
By José Orduña
Beacon Press, 240 pages, $16.95
José Orduña reads from “The Weight of Shadows” on Thursday, April 28 at 6pm, International House, Coulter Lounge, 1414 East 59th Street, (773)753-2274.