We Are Your Neighbors: Making Public Space for Personal Stories in Immigration Advocacy

Scene report by
Jessica Lyn Bannon


“We arrived hungry, cold, tired, and with only the clothes on our backs and certainly, very dirty. During the week we found work in Indianapolis. It was very hard because of the language and because I didn’t know how to drive. Many nights I cried, but with patience I learned. After three years, I returned for my daughter. Today she is with me and I also have another daughter that was born in the USA. Thank you to this country and more than anything, to its people for their support.”

“I want to show people that despite the difficulties, one has to fight in life. Otherwise, you can’t move on. I feel happy here because I found peace. I am not afraid of anything because in my country every hour is dangerous due to crime. That’s why I left. This is my story. I have much more to tell but I don’t like to remember because it makes me feel bad.”

“Before coming to this country, everything was different. My husband had a job in the government, serving as a state police officer and later, as a distinguished bodyguard for the mayor. Everything was very good. In spite of the drastically rising violence, we lacked nothing. One day, they invited my husband to join the organized crime which he didn’t accept. He detested the corruption and did not join. From then on, came threats against him and the family. They were watching us. They knew our names, addresses, and more. So, without a doubt, we saw the need to go somewhere else.”

“My family tried to do things the right way and make my husband a legal citizen. We did everything Immigration told us to do and paid every fee for every paper we had to file with Immigration. And for what? So they could keep our money and break up my family, put my husband in hiding all so he doesn’t get sent back to Mexico to the gang that already tried to kill him.”

I wish I could tell you who wrote those words. I wish I could tell you everything about them, what they look like, how their voices sound, where they go to school. But I can’t. And that is exactly why you are reading this. That is why we find ourselves at this particular historical moment. Their stories need to be shared precisely because they exist in a society that threatens to strip them of their identity or persecute them for it.

I can tell you that each individual bravely contributed their stories for publication in 

An image of the We Are Your Neighbors book cover, which features the title in both English and Spanish against a multicolored background of artistic renderings of faces.
Figure 1. We Are Your Neighbors: The Untold Stories of Latino Immigrants in Indianapolis book cover.

We Are Your Neighbors: The Untold Stories of Latino Immigrants in Indianapolis,[1] a dual-language anthology published through University of Indianapolis’ Etchings press and available in print and online (see fig. 1).[2] The anthology represents perspectives from Latinx immigrants of various ages and in a variety of formats, including narrative, interview, and visual art. Through this project’s efforts to gather and publish immigrants’ stories, my University of Indianapolis (UIndy) colleagues and participating community members wanted to provide an avenue for immigrants to communicate with our local community and the nation. We also hoped to generate a more productive and thoughtful dialogue about the experiences of individuals and families immigrating to the United States and to Indianapolis, as well as about the policies that shape those experiences.

This project grows out of many similar efforts by organizations across the United States to collect and publish personal narratives, stories, and memoirs from local youth. For example, 826 National has a network of creative writing and tutoring centers that provide under-resourced youth with opportunities to develop and share their writing through tutoring, workshops, and publishing projects.[3] The College Board’s National Commission on Writing and the National Writing Project collaborated to publish “Words Have No Borders,” a collection of stories and letters written by immigrant students across the United States.[4] In fall of 2011, Educators for Fair Consideration published a chapbook of youth writing titled Things I’ll Never Say: Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States, which led to a blog that continued collecting immigration narratives from undocumented youth across the country in writing and visual media.[5] Locally, the Indiana Writers’ Center has worked with several community organizations to hold summer programs for youth throughout the state to gather their stories and publish them in an anthology titled I Remember: Creative Writing by Indianapolis Youth.[6] We hope to extend these efforts by giving voice to Latinx immigrant and undocumented youth and their families in Indianapolis.

However, as you will see when reading the collection, the identities of those who shared their stories can never be known. It is no exaggeration in our current climate to say that if they were given credit, their lives would be in danger. Like many cities across the United States, Indianapolis has for the past two years been subject to increasingly intense enforcement of immigration laws and to the concomitant intensification of cultural conflict. Our immigrant communities have experienced physical, economic, social, and emotional hardship that, for those of us whose citizenship has never been called into question, is incomprehensible. But we need to try and comprehend it, and we need to give immigrants a platform for sharing their stories.

This project represents a coalescing of all aspects of my work as a member of the University of Indianapolis community and as a member of my academic discipline of English studies. I am intellectually motivated by the opportunity to explore issues of culture, identity, and representation, as well as the role of narrative and storytelling in promoting action and fostering change at both individual and societal levels. In addition, I am personally invested in the multiple forms of community and civic engagement generated by this project, from simply learning more about immigrants in my community to working with local organizations on how to meet the needs of immigrants to developing sustainable projects that build awareness about immigration issues.

My investment in this project rests in part on the assumption that storytelling works as a form of activism, on the belief that publicizing stories can eventually lead to changes in the policies that affect the storytellers. If enough people read immigrants’ stories and shift their perspective on immigration issues, we will create a culture that is more welcoming of immigrants, more understanding of the situations that lead immigrants here, and more likely to call on policymakers to change the laws preventing their immigration or making the process so difficult. Of course, nothing ever happens that neatly, even under ideal circumstances. Mike Baynham and Anna De Fina (2017) remind us that while “narratives are a ubiquitous discourse genre” and that “stories are told to create common ground and to share experiences” we should be aware that stories “can also be used to differentiate, to feed disputes and arguments” (p. 31). As politicians and news media continue to tell stories that oversimplify the immigrant experience and maintain problematic debates, we need to create more opportunities for immigrants to share their own stories, to compose and disseminate narratives that represent both their experiences and their perspectives. Stories give us a more personal, insiders’ perspective on what immigrants have been through and what they need.  The effects of publishing an anthology like We Are Your Neighbors may be scattered; however, I believe this can be transformative and can build up existing local efforts to socially, emotionally, financially, and legally support immigrants in our communities. As Anna De Fina and Alexandra Georgakopoulou (2015) note, “narratives are shaped by contexts, but they also create new contexts by mobilizing and articulating fresh understandings of the world, by altering power relations between peoples, by constituting new practices” (p. 3).

Project narrative

This project began a little over two years ago, when my colleagues and I secured a small project grant for the purpose of collecting and publishing the stories of undocumented youth in Indianapolis. Our plan seemed solid. We had a contact in the Undocumented Youth Alliance and one in the public school system. We developed a short workshop on memoir writing, scheduled the workshop, and advertised the workshop widely on social media and directly to local middle and high schools. Five people attended. It was November 12, 2016.

The weeks leading up to that day were increasingly tense. Our contact at the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance had been responding to heightened concerns from community members, who expressed a great deal of fear and uncertainty about their futures given the rise in extreme negative attitudes toward immigrants, as well as the policies promised by then president-elect Trump. Following the election, the population we attempted to reach with our project faced significant upheaval. The local public school teacher who had helped develop the workshop curriculum and also communicated to students about the project said students were terrified.

We decided against holding additional workshops but felt that, more than ever, immigrants needed a safe public platform for sharing their stories. We opted instead to circulate a general call for submissions to local schools and nonprofits, indicating that their stories would help spread awareness of immigrant experiences and ensuring complete anonymity. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids began shortly thereafter, and news reports announced hundreds of arrests across the Midwest. We received zero submissions.

Given the extenuating political circumstances, we retained our funding for a second year. As we began a second attempt to complete the project in fall 2017, however, we found that the above issues continued to affect local immigrants’ willingness to participate. It was not until I connected with the outreach coordinator at a local school that we began to make significant progress. The outreach coordinator had sufficient trust from the community to encourage people to participate and was able to gather stories from Latinx students and families, either by directly contacting people or working with English as a New Language staff at her school, who in turn worked with students and parents. The result was a wide variety of submissions, which we feel adds to the depth of the project. The anthology includes: drawings and comments from a group of young students ages five through seven, prompted by their teacher to respond visually and verbally to the question “What does it mean to be bilingual and bicultural?”; stories from youth and parents about their experiences immigrating to the Unites States; interviews with parents; and a school project in which youth and family members shared how they felt about the immigration policies under the current administration (see Fig. 2). We open the anthology with a preface that not only introduces the submissions included, but also provides a brief overview of the state of Latinx immigration both locally and nationally.

A screenshot from the We Are Your Neighbors Book depicting a student's drawing on the left and text from the page on the right in both Spanish and English.
Figure 2. An example of one student’s drawing and response to “What does it mean to be bilingual and bicultural?”

To complete the research, editing, and design work for the anthology, we enlisted the help of two of our strongest undergraduate English students, Sara Perkins and Kylie Seitz. As professional writing majors, they had extensive writing and research experience and worked on our student-run literary journal. Sara was awarded a research assistantship and had completed one semester of work for another professor; this project allowed her to further apply her research and copyediting abilities. Kylie was awarded a paid internship through our grant. Her experience with Etchings Press, our student-run publisher, and as lead editor of the journal gave her the design and editing expertise we needed.  At the start of the semester, Kylie and Sara collected sources on immigration, focusing on historical trends at the national, state, and local levels, the experiences of Latin America immigrants, and recent developments in federal immigration policies. Submissions for the anthology began arriving in early February and continued through March; none of the submissions were electronic and several were handwritten, so quite a bit of work was required to prepare them for publication. However, Sara and Kylie were careful to keep the submissions as close to their original form as possible.

Since our goal was to create a dual-language anthology, we needed to arrange for translation of all text from Spanish to English or vice versa. Our colleague in Global Languages invited Katie Kearbey to serve as our translation intern, who was paid through our grant funds and was selected for her experience with translating texts during her graduate studies in the Global Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies department. She translated all submissions as well as the supplemental material (table of contents, preface, acknowledgments, etc.), and as a result of her work, we have an authentic representation of participants’ stories that is accessible to a wider audience.

Throughout the semester, I worked with Kylie and Sara to continue revising the design, layout, and supplemental text, sharing drafts with the outreach coordinator to ensure the book fairly and accurately represented the participants. The final books were printed in June 2018. My first order of business was to deliver copies to the outreach coordinator so she could distribute them to the contributors and the ENL staff. She later told me that the contributors were proud to see their words in print, and her response was nothing short of ecstatic. She indicated that she feels this anthology will be a springboard for additional community efforts and provided a copy to the curator of the Indiana Historical Society who placed it in their library.

Due to the sensitive nature of the project and the risks posed to the individuals whose stories comprise the anthology, we were unable to carry out some of our initial goals. While we originally hoped to be directly involved in participants’ writing by holding workshops or providing curricular materials and support, we could only communicate with the outreach coordinator. However, we do not see this as a major limitation. Because the participants were free to compose their stories however they chose or were guided by staff that they already knew and trusted, they ended up sharing work that much more authentically and honestly reflected their experiences and ideas (see fig. 3).

A screenshot from the We Are Your Neighbors Book that depicts an image of a split American and Mexican flag, hand drawn, with lines from a story surrounding it.
Figure 3. A student’s multimodal story about coming to the United States from Mexico.

Our initial plan also included a book release party and community discussion. Again, because participants’ identities needed to be protected, we decided to postpone any public event. Discussions with the outreach coordinator confirmed that participants and school staff would be anxious about participating in an event that would draw attention to the school and the contributors. This anxiety is understandable, especially given that efforts to more strictly enforce immigration policies have increased. We have been pursuing opportunities to share and publicize the anthology and the larger project in ways that protect participants’ identities.

My English Department interns and I were given the opportunity to share our work on this project at the UIndy Scholar’s Day event. As an awardee of funds from the Research Fellows program, Sara was invited to present, and Kylie and I joined her to discuss the process of gathering stories, conducting research, editing, and designing the anthology. Attendees expressed great interest in the project and we had a productive discussion about the experiences of immigrants and how to ethically and safely publish their stories, particularly if they are undocumented. In October of 2018, the three of us presented at the Indiana College English Association Conference. Both Kylie and Sara expressed that this project fostered their intellectual and personal investment in Latinx immigration. Sara shared “I think using our institutional position to benevolently provide a voice for a marginalized population was the most valuable aspect of working on the anthology.” According to Kylie, “working on the We Are Your Neighbors anthology was an incredible experience for me both as a student and as a person. It truly opened my eyes to the experiences of these immigrants, while also allowing me to use the skills and privileges I have been given in order to help their voices be heard.”

Looking ahead

We are now in the process of sharing the online version of the anthology on social media and distributing print copies to various libraries, schools, and organizations across Indianapolis. The book itself could be used in a variety of educational contexts to develop curricula focused on immigration, Latinx experiences, memoir writing, multimodal and multi-genre composition, and creative nonfiction. For example, including this anthology as a text in an English language arts class could respond to calls for more representation of Latinx populations, like that of Patricia Sánchez and Maité Landa (2015), who encourage educators working with “Latino bilingual children to seek texts that depict migration, border crossings, and transnational ties in a humanizing and authentic manner” and address “challenging topics such as deportation, the criminalization of undocumented migrants, and the resiliency of immigrant families and children” (p. 71). In addition, composition courses serving a wide range of students could promote awareness of immigration issues. As suggested by Rashmila Maiti (2018), many students have little exposure to global issues until they reach college, a situation she says “makes teaching these narratives, of the minority, the other, and the marginalized, more urgent and more necessary” (p. 1). Her composition course, “Immigrant Narratives of the U.S.” serves as an example of how to do so and focuses on analysis of immigrant literature and local community research. Courses integrating We Are Your Neighbors could extend such work by offering students the opportunity to critically examine and reflect on a variety of local narratives written in multiple modes by immigrants of various ages and from varying circumstances.    

In order to continue such efforts and expand this project, we are pursuing additional grant opportunities and forming partnerships with community organizations. The outreach coordinator has connected with a local not-for-profit café that has a strong community presence and they graciously offered display space for the month of November; a University of Indianapolis Art and Design professor created a provocative exhibit that uses portions of the anthology and protests current border control practices. I have connected with staff at Telemundo Indy who produced short videos about the book for their “Nuestro Orgullo” segment during Hispanic Heritage Month[7] and who have offered to promote a series of community readings and conversations. In addition, after distributing the initial copies of the book at no cost to local schools, libraries, and non-profits, we will pursue online publishing and book sales to generate income for future projects and to raise money for organizations supporting immigrants in our community. Finally, I am teaching a service learning course in spring 2019 to publish a second anthology and engage students with members of our local immigrant communities. Our hope is that We Are Your Neighbors will serve as a first step to building a much broader effort to give voice to members of those communities who want to share their stories and address the challenges they and their families are facing.

I firmly believe that stories hold power. Stories can serve as catalysts for change — change of hearts and change of policies. Yet, stories in this case can also serve as records that expose one’s status and risk their arrest. Immigrants’ fears of speaking out and sharing their stories with us was completely justified at a time when government agents and police forces and even average citizens were on the lookout for any evidence of immigrants’ legal status. These fears are still justified today, as the arrests have not subsided and policies have not changed. What has changed is the involvement of allies who have the privilege of protesting without fear of deportation. Those who have such an opportunity need to keep these efforts going. We can start by listening to and reading immigrants’ own stories, the way they choose to tell them. However, we can go further by providing more avenues for more immigrants to publicly share their personal experiences with audiences across the nation. In this way, we support immigrants’ power to advocate for change.

Endnotes

[1] The online version of the anthology can be found here. return

[2] This project was funded by a grant from the Shaheen College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Indianapolis. Dr. Jessica Bannon served as lead project coordinator, Dr. Kevin McKelvey served as co-coordinator, and Dr. Maribel Campoy served as translation coordinator. Kyle Seitz and Sara Perkins served as editing and design interns, and Katie Kearbey served as translation intern. return

[3] “About,” 826 National return

[4] Words Have No Borders: Student Voices on Immigration, Language and Culture return

[5] “About Us,” Things I’ll Never Say return

[6] “Summer Learning Programs,” Indiana Writers Center return

[7] An example of one of the Telemundo videos return

References

Baynham, Mike & De Fina, Anna. (2017). Narrative analysis in migrant and transnational contexts. In M. Martin-Jones & D. Martin (Eds.), Researching multilingualism: Critical and ethnographic perspectives (pp. 3145). NY, NY: Routledge.

De Fina, Anna & Georgakopoulou, Alexandra. (2015). Introduction. In A. De Fina and A. Georgakopoulou (Eds.), The handbook of narrative analysis (pp. 117). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.

Maiti, Rashmila. (2018). Composition II: Immigrant narratives of the U.S. Syllabus, 7(1), 19.

Sánchez, Patricia, & Landa, Maité. (2015). Cruzando fronteras: Negotiating the stories of Latino immigrant and transnational children. In Ellen Riojas Clark, Belinda Bustos Flores, Howard L. Smith, Daniel Alejandro González (Eds.), Multicultural literature for Latino bilingual children: Their words, their worlds (pp. 6982). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Author Bio

Jessica Lyn Bannon (she/her/hers) is Assistant Professor of English and Director of Composition at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses in professional writing, composition theory and practice, and service learning. Her research interests include discourse theory, political and public rhetorics, community engagement and activism, and digital humanities.