by Aurora Chang and Espiritu*
Espiritu, an undocumented college student, narrates her journey of hyperdocumentation – the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings unworthiness – through her own drawings. Her story is one among so many that need to be told.
Doing research, or storytelling, in this age of post-truth feels entirely demoralizing and … necessary. In a time when any utterance of text is suspect, it can be downright frightening at most and risky, at least, to document anything. When we see powerful leaders spewing personal beliefs and emotions in lieu of facts and evidence, and people embracing this approach to the world, what are we left with? But the irony of all of this is that right when we find ourselves discouraged to speak is the same time when we must bring our stories to the forefront because they are most threatened. We must also find and provide outlets for young people to share their stories – telling our truths is still the best defense against despair.
Espiritu’s big, round, enveloping eyes are dark brown, almost black. Her shiny hair, done up in the most precise tresses, hangs easily below her waist. Soaking wet, she is maybe one hundred pounds. There is a shyness to her toothy smile and an eagerness for knowledge that is palpable. An unaccompanied minor, she hyperdocumented her way through high school, community college and then to a prestigious four-year university on full scholarship. “Hyperdocumentation” is a term I use to define the excessive production of documents, texts, and papers in an effort to compensate for undocumented status or feelings of unworthiness - something I experienced and continue to experience as a once undocumented immigrant myself.
I met Espiritu four years ago. Amidst a heavy, anti-immigrant backdrop coupled with the everyday struggles of living undocumented, Espiritu was full of critical hope - as was I. Even though the world wasn’t looking good, there was still possibility in the air. Trump had been elected. She didn’t get DACA. She was struggling financially. Yet, time seemed to be on her side. She was a freshman with four big years of potential in front of her.
Espiritu remembers every detail of her immigration. She was fifteen when she made the trek. Living in Guatemala, she and her family were in imminent danger, living in constant fear of the violent gangs that regularly terrorized them and any youth in their pueblos that refused to join them. Death threats against her and her sisters began, so the family strategically began to move from rural location to rural location, running from the inevitable death threats that would follow them. If you are unfamiliar with the politics of Guatemala, this may seem dramatic and unusual. But, for someone like me, who was born in Guatemala and whose family members predominantly still live there, kidnappings, killings, ransoms and death threats are the stuff of everyday life. I have had cousins and uncles who have been kidnapped for ransom. My own family received death threats. While Espiritu and I grew up at different ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and in distinctively different rural and urban context, the violence across Guatemala still impacted us both.
Espiritu and her sisters spent months trying to figure out how to cross the U.S./Mexico border. Finally, she found someone to facilitate her little sisters’ crossing. The coyote said that he was willing to cross them because of their young ages. Because of their small sizes and their ability to pass as children of another family, they were convenient candidates for crossing. The problem was Espiritu. Few wanted to cross with her because she was older, fifteen years old. Those who were willing charged US$10,000. Espiritu and her sisters wanted to cross together, so they stayed in Tijuana.
They slept in different houses, wherever they could find shelter or people who were kind enough to take them in. They garnered the courage to cross with a group of people. Upon reaching the border, Mexican border patrol agents stopped the group. They deported those with them but left Espiritu and her sisters alone. Border Patrol agents didn’t ask for documentation. Espiritu figured that they avoided being checked because they did not “look Mexican.” Another Border Patrol agent said, “I’m going to let you cross. It’s fine. You are going to cross with someone.” She was relieved. But at the last minute, he reneged, “No, you are going to cross alone.”
Espiritu tensed up. As she froze, she noticed the girl in front of her who had just crossed – she looked like her, was about the same age. At that moment, Espiritu summoned the courage, saying, “Okay, I’ll go across.” Espiritu was nervous but when she crossed over, a remarkable calm overcame her. Little did she know how this familiar rollercoaster of emotions would become a constant in her life.
The ups and downs of being undocumented in this country have taken a toll on her emotional well-being. As hard as she tries to keep it together, her time, once seemingly on her side at the beginning of her college career, now, as graduation creeps closer, feels as if it is quickly slipping away - sand through an hourglass. Trump is still in office. Espiritu does not have DACA and she continues to struggle to make ends meet. She is one semester away from graduating college.
In her own words and images
Here, Espiritu shares drawings and explanations that represent her experiences of being undocumented.
“Being an undocumented student made me feel different even though I was doing great at school, I always had a feeling of not doing enough. The first years were the hardest because I was trying to protect my identity by not telling anyone my status.”
“I became an advocate of myself, by joining organizations like Dreamers and Allies Student Organization or Student Organization for the Access Bill in Illinois. This was another phase in my life because I realized that there were a lot people like me that were afraid of speaking up, and that someone had to do it. After the first time I shared my story and saw the impact it caused on people, I started to share it more and even shared it in Springfield to the Illinois Senators.”
“The two last pictures are my current situation. As I approach graduation the feeling of not able to work because I don't have a social security number keeps making me feel bad. And it's a constant reminder of what my status is stopping from doing, and all the opportunities I have no option but to walk away from. I see my classmates already applying for their future jobs and I just keep thinking about that number that is stopping me. This ties to the first picture because [it] does not matter how hard I work I am still feeling different.”
“The last picture shows that my future is not in my hands but in an immigration judge’s hands. I have a court day coming soon and the feeling of not being able to choose what my future is going to look like is just inexplicable.”
What will Espiritu do now? She asks. I ask. We must ask.
For the time being, none of us have a satisfactory answer, but my hope is that by creating spaces, opportunities, and outlets for undocumented students to share their stories, we will feel further compelled to find one that is dignified and worthy of their humanity – through our activism, advocacy, and political will.
Aurora Chang is a scholar, a counter-storyteller, and an academic coach. Once an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala and raised in Richmond, California in a family of eight, Aurora Chang is now a hyperdocumented academic activist serving as the graduate program coordinator and assistant professor of Higher Education at Loyola University Chicago.
* Espiritu is a nom de plume.