Poet Yosimar Reyes on the power of personal narratives
Your story matters, says poet Yosimar Reyes, who denies the dominant narrative of United States citizenship, that "real Americans" are blue-eyed, blond-haired, white, upper-middle class men fully assimilated into the American Dream.
Courtesy of Yosimar Reyes Yosimar Reyes is an award-winning poet bringing the stories of undocumented queer people to audiences across the United States.
This isn't historical; this isn't reality, he says:This is a nation founded on immigrants. Living in the United States is about more than having a social security number; it is about connecting to a rich cultural tradition. For Reyes, that cultural heritage spans the stories that his grandmother passed down about Mexico all the way to James Baldwin's writing. Reyes is a constant reader who rejects the idea that poetry requires training; poetry is accessible. Anyone can write it. Despite risking arrest and deportation, he travels across the country performing and teaching others to connect with their own histories, and he will be in Boulder today for Undocuqueer Voices: Stories of Growing Up Queer and Undocumented. In advance of his appearance, Westword spoke with Reyes about his journey as a writer, performer and teacher.
See also: Queer undocumented artist Julio Salgado speaks out
Westword: Talk about your work.
Yosimar Reyes: I'm a poet; I write a lot of poetry. I'm a performance artist and do spoken word. Most of what I write focuses on intersections of migration and sexuality. Most of my poems deal with those themes.
Talk about what you're doing in Boulder.
I was invited to do a presentation with Julio Salgado, a visual artist. Right now, due to the fact that immigration is a huge, hot-topic issue, we get invited to discuss our experiences growing up undocumented and queer and how we transformed that narrative and created art. We're going to be giving a lecture and a performance on being undocumented and queer and pushing those narratives to the forefront.
Talk about those intersections between being undocumented and queer and how that ties into your work.
A lot of the work I do is personal. Right now we have the LGBT movement, which pushed for gay marriage, and we're trying to pass immigration reform. There is a link between these two communities that are both marginalized and not at the forefront, and what we're trying to do with art, as people who embody these identities, is see how we can come together as two communities that have no institutional power.
Talk about your own story of migration?
I came to the United States when I was three years old. I came with my grandmother. I have been here since then. I'm 25 years old now, so I've been in the country for 22 years. When I think of my culture, it is very American, but I lack the proper documentation to say that I'm an "American," whatever that means. Because I don't have a social security number and I lack access to a lot of things, I've found that art was something that was very accessible. I started writing poetry at the age of sixteen and started documenting my experiences growing up. Since sixteen, I've been producing this work. It's been almost ten years since I've been doing spoken-word poetry.
Have you traveled with your poetry.
I've been really blessed. It's being taken up on a national level. I've definitely done a lot of presentations all over California. I've been to Texas. I've been to Colorado. I've been to New York. Everywhere. North Carolina and Atlanta. I'm going to Arizona. It's definitely picking up on a national level. It's a blessing that a lot of schools and universities are using my work to teach in their classrooms. A lot of professors are using my poems to teach about intersectionalilty (how various issues intersect) and social justice issues. They talk about how you can use art to mobilize people and organize communities and educate youth.
How are you using poetry as an organizing tool?
Poetry is very accessible. You don't need a lot of resources. You work with people's personal histories and personal narratives and from there you get the linkage between that and the social struggles within whatever identities that person embodies. Having the ability to give a writing workshop and reflect on these things, I open up their eyes to social inequities and also help them tap into ways and methods in which they can build community and start organizing and advocating for a more just society.
Do you face risks traveling without documentation? What are those risks?
Right now, definitely. You're not issued a state ID, so you have to use the one that you get from the Mexican consulate or whatever consulate your nationality is based out of. A lot of times that can be a risk, and they have the ability to say, "Oh, you have this ID. It's not proper documentation," and they can automatically call ICE, and they can hold you until you provide the proper documentation to say you are in the country legally. So it is a risk, but at the same time, it's something that as someone that is well-known within the community and someone that is really active and visible, I think, right now, it wouldn't be a good strategy for them to stop me or Julio or anybody that is really visible. Our community is very organized and a lot of them focus on stopping deportation and doing civil disobedience and actions in order to bring the issue to light. It's a risk, but at the same time, we're really tapped into networks of people that are very organized, to the point where if something were to happen to us, it would be a national event.
Talk about risk:How do you avoid self-censorship and find power as an artist?
Ultimately, removing the risk is removing the fear. If I acted upon that fear with all the opportunities I've been presented with, it wouldn't be possible for me to be where I'm at right now. It's definitely about losing that fear. Right now, I don't consider it a risk. I think it's more about knowing that whatever happens will happen, and I know that I'm supported and my work is definitely something that speaks louder than any law or anything that somebody can do against me.
Keep reading for more from Yosimar Reyes.