Given at the Duke Center for Reconciliation Summer Institute (2013)
Hi everybody. My name is Claudia Muñoz. I am undocumented and some people call me an illegal immigrant. I am from Monterey, Mexico. And I want to start by reading a quote to you by James Baldwin — the Jeremiah of the civil rights movement.
“I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Again, my name is Claudia. I was born in Mexico where I lived until I was fifteen. At the age of 15,16 I started coming back and forth to the United States because the situation in Mexico was very difficult. Violence was escalating. The economic situation got much worse. And at the age of 16 my family decided to move, my sisters decided to move to Austin, Texas. It was a very hard decision because we had to leave my parents and my brothers behind. But we moved to the United States. I have lived in Texas for the last twelve years. I consider myself a Texan. And it has been quite a journey.
Two years ago, my nephew was arrested and detained my immigration authorities. He spent a month in a detention center in Pearsall, Texas. It is close to San Antonio. And at that moment I decided I could not remain silent while many families were being ripped apart by the immigration laws that we have in place right now.
So six months ago I started working for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance through the local group in Texas called The Texas Undocumented Youth Alliance (TUYA). And we talked about doing something that had been done before by Marco and Viridiana in Florida which was infiltrating a detention center. That meant that as an undocumented person I will turn myself into immigration authorities so they could detain me so I could go inside the detention center that we were going to infiltrate and just see what the women in there were going through, the type of pain and the type of abuse that goes in there, in the detention center that we often do not hear about because there are the kinds of stories people don’t want to come out, the pain the hurt of injustice.
And so, I did, last month, turned myself into immigration authorities in Detroit Michigan. And I was detained and placed into removal and deportation proceedings and then transferred to Calhoun County Jail in Battle Creek, Michigan. I had no charges, no criminal charges at all. My only crime was that I overstayed my visa when I first entered the country and I was sent to jail where I stayed about 20 days.
And what I want to talk to you about today is about some of the women I met in there, some of those stories. The first one is Reyna, a woman who is 50-60 years old. Reyna has been living in the U.S. since 1984. She has family. She has children, kids who were born here. And her only crime, is like me, was entering this country illegally. She is still detained to this day. The judge gave her a $10 thousand dollar bond. She has been in jail for a month now and she will have to spend however long in there until she can pay her bond. Reyna has cataract issues in her eye and she could not really see and the clinic at the detention center would not help her.
The other woman I want to talk to you about today is Lucia. Lucia came in one night. When she first came in she cried for the first two hours. We didn’t understand. We knew she was crying because of the hurt but she could not even communicate why she could not stop crying for two hours. By the time night time came, she told us that her house had been raided where she lived with her husband and with her brother and her cousin. They took her to the women’s detention center and she did not know where her husband, her brother, and her cousin ended up. Lucia would continue to cry for the next 3-4 days without stopping. It was the kind of cry I will never forget in my life. It was so hopeless, so full of pain. And being there I could not believe these things were happening in this place I wanted to call my country.
The other woman, and the woman who marked by stay at the detention center the most was Adelaida. Adelaida left Guatemala when she was very young. She had a life of abuse there. She was forced to have an abortion. She had been sexually harassed. Her eleven year old sister had gotten pregnant when she was eleven. And she decided to leave her life behind in Guatemala and come to this country she thought she would find hope and a new life. She lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan for about thirteen years with her four children. She was detained and put into jail where she had already spent a month by the time I got there. Adelaida was deported. She left her four children behind.
Meeting Adelaida made me realize that we, you know we talk all the time about being an aspiring citizen, you know how bad I want to be an American, I don’t have papers and I want to belong here. Meeting her made me reconsider that because I cannot believe that I live in a country where a woman like Adelaida is considered a threat and is treated like a criminal, who was forced to leave her four children behind and go back to a country where she had known so much pain and suffering.
One day we were having bible study and a pastor who was conducting the Bible Study came to us and said that we had been placed in that detention center because that is what God wanted for us, because it was a place for us to be redeemed, to think about our sins and come out of there as new people.
And I thought, if these are the people of faith standing behind us, if these are the people we are counting on, to go out there and defend justice for us, who can we really count on? Why can’t he take that same word and bible that he is using against us, and use it against this system that has us here, against the oppressor? I know that it wasn’t true, but many people were already weak, were already suffering being in there, and they were convinced they were supposed to be in there for a reason.
The day that Adelaida was deported, my heart broke into pieces. They came for her at six in the morning. And they took her, and her last words to me were that at least she was going to be free now.
So I am here today and I bring you these stories because I think it is important for people to know what’s going on, what’s going on with our lives. You know we have been talking about immigration reform, but what about this oppression of families. What about all the pain that they go through every day? What about those four children that Adelaida left behind? Should she bring them back with her to Guatemala, back to the life that she left behind? What about Reyna who is still detained? What about Lucia who couldn’t even speak Spanish or English. She was indigenous from Mexico. What do we do with people like her? Do we sit here as Christians and talk about our sins? Or do we take that message to fight for these people?
Thank you for listening.
Again, thank you for your witness. Claudia always teaches me to be brave enough to share true stories and true selves. And to quote Cornell West, to shatter superficial realities. Because when you confront what is against what is not you will have to deal with the misery in between, and those layers of pain.
Back to that parallel with Dante’s concentric spheres, right. So Dante travels from hell to heaven, through purgatory to find that truth, that love that moves all the heavenly pheres. But perhaps with modernity what Toni Morrison points to is that we have been so divided against ourselves internally that we actually need to navigate concentric spheres of pain, and strip away layers of classism, or racism, or our personal insecurities to get at our true selves.
So, I’m going to employ the trick of the poet, or of poetry and use metaphors to attract or to try to seek the truth because quite honestly, I don’t know any answers.
And a constant joke that we say as illegal immigrants or as undocumented immigrants is that we are not supposed to even be in this country. We were stolen away either through displacement, through war, or tragedy, or through death. And brought to this country. Or in my case, I was brought across the border at the age of three, traveled, migrated 2000 miles from Oaxaca, a small town of 2000 people called San Miguel Ahuehuetitlan, to a mega-polis called New York city which now consist of about 19 million in its metro area.
So I committed my crime at the age of three and have been living illegally for twenty years.
And honestly, a lot of people talk about immigration reform right now and are trying to posit solutions, and I’m always distrustful of folks that come at me with answers, instead of questions. That are already resolved, in and of themselves through some system of justification whether it be legitimized through the bible, or cheap philosophy, or through a very well-funded political party, instead of asking these agonizing questions of who we are, what we do and what we mean, and what we should point to. So to quote a modern day prophet, Mary Oliver, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove already pointed out I’m a fanboy of hers — I’m going to exploit one of your quotes, that Emily Dickson’s main commandment to follow was to consider the lilies.
I think that is a good one to favor. This one is called Lilies, by Mary Oliver, and I think this would be my answer to our immigration problem, to my immigration problem, to my condition of irreconcilability:
I have been thinking
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.
They rise and fall
in the edge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,
and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as the old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face
of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself
even in those feathery fields?
When Van Gogh
preached to the poor
of course he wanted to save someone–
most of all himself.
He wasn’t a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas
it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in this world,
I THINK I WILL ALWAYS BE LONELY IN THIS WORLD
where the cattle
graze like a black and white river–
where the vanishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues—
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.
So maybe I present that poem as an alternative to presenting these catastrophic stories which we know everyone in this room knows too many of already whether they be personal, or they be structural, whether they be in the present or in prophetic hindsight, or hopefully, maybe in a more forgiving future.
I wrote this one poem in detention. It was about the things I missed. It was just a list consisting of three things. The first thing that I missed was you. I missed you. To quote that spiritual, “where were you?” I think that is the question of 33,000 immigrants that are today, on this very day, held in a detention facility. They are asking each and every one of us, where is the church, where is hope, where is love, where is forgiveness, where is mercy, where are all those values that are so easy to talk about on Sunday morning, but so hard to live out the rest of the week. Where were you when they crucified my Lord?
The second thing I missed was sunsets and sunrises because at Broward Transitional Center we were only conscribed to an inner courtyard. So you can only see the horizon as it changes. To quote Jean Toomer, “Your skin is like dust on the eastern horizon when the sun sets down.” You cannot see the edges of the horizon because it is gated by walls. You can only see the changing sky. So that is a snapshot of the tragedy. Obviously, if you asked any of the 500 men or the 100 women in this facility they would tell you that they missed their loved ones, their work, their dignity, their freedom, their ability to travel without requesting an okay from a guard, the ability to shave without having to wake up at 5 am to turn in your ID with a one blade razor which is really inefficient, even for me; the ability to go eat something without having to scan your card; day after day, and the average stay about Broward Transitional Center is four months. If you decide to argue your case, you are waiting for four months because Judge Ford is one of the top ten immigration judges in the country statistically speaking. And because he is the only Judge presides over all of those cases. And similarly there is only one deportation officer that presides over all the asylum cases. So the wait itself is agonizing, and it is the wait that kills you. The wait is even worse when you don’t know the language, when you don’t know if you have access to legal relief because you cannot afford an attorney, and because immigration is a civil issue , not a criminal issue. You are not guaranteed representation by an attorney in court. So the right to due process is very much mitigated and easily so. Some people complicate that fact by saying because immigration law is civil law– I’m actually not a criminal, I just broke civilian law when I crossed the border at the age of three. And that’s why unlike in criminal court I would still get an attorney provided by the government, and even as an undocumented immigrant, as a non-citizen, but in civil court I am not provided or afforded that right. The wait is even more agonizing when you don’t know what your family is eating at night, when you don’t know who is going to be providing. When you don’t know if maybe the church or a neighbor, or a complete stranger offered your family some food because you were not there to provide it for them. And I’m speaking soley from the male side of the facility because obviously those two sexes are not mixed but from what I hear from Viridiana, and from Claudia, that those guttural cries from the women are even deeper because they feel torn away from the flesh of their flesh, and bone of their bone which are their children which they actually had to physically carry. Whereas I think on the men’s side the catastrophe is more about depression and insecurity about not being able to fulfill the role of a father figure.
We only have two more minutes, then questions and answers.
I’m just going to highlight one story. His name is Claudio Rojas. He was my father while I was in detention. I met Claudio my first day while I was inside. And for 23 days he cared for me as if I was his son. The first thing he told me was, where is your mother? How did she allow you to turn yourself in. Because we had been communicating with Claudio’s son, Emiliano, on the outside to get information about the configuration of the center and also some statistics, and some just how to get detained tips. And Claudio said, my son is the same age as you and I would never allow him to be here, but because we are both here together we might as well love each other.
And if you want to know about the gospel, if you want an expedited 101 seminar instead of a $40, maybe a $30 thousand dollar yearlong tuition at Duke University, you might as well go to a detention center and learn something about the gospel there.
And you might learn about some of the hardest fruits of the spirit to digest, such as the fruit of the spirit of joy, to laugh in the face of catastrophe. To quote Langston Hughes, I am laughing to keep from crying. To quote from the book of Revelation, And on the last day, God will wipe every single tear from your eye. You will learn something about another fruit of the spirit which is called patience. In the King James Version it is translated as long-suffering. To endure like Saint Paul. To become all things to all people and in that fiery furnace which is a crucible for destruction, still be able to pray, and laugh, and sing. For some reason, I recall a lot of the stories of laughter while I was in detention. I had a lot of room mates that I shared. I shared a room with three Haitians, one Dominican who was then transferred to another room, Jose Carcamo, who has been deported eight times, and Ricardo who the Haitians hope to see in Miami someday if we were all to be released. They never told me the same, but I hope that would be the case. The only song we all knew was Buffalo Soldier, stolen from Africa, brought to America.
So, I guess I’ll end with a quote reflecting on what our last speaker said, which is a note of deep despair, the industrialization of death, right, how we have mechanized and facilitated and made it so efficient to destroy families, separate them, kill in other countries, plunder our own environments, and how do we respond to that. How do we respond in the face of catastrophe? One of the songs, one of the spirituals which is very lethal according to James Baldwin has a line that says, “If I had my way, dear children, I would tear this building down.” And the master thought that when the slaves were singing this hymn that they were thinking of Samson and Delila, about personal sin, or feelings of insecurity, the slaves were actually reflecting on structural truth, and structural pathologies and categories of violence saying that if I had my way, I would tear this house down, tear down limb by limb. And if I can say that to my children, invoke violence in the face of the most sacred thing I have in this world –
How do we respond to that?
What is the Christian response? What does the Gospel say?
Those are my only questions and I think we have about 100 people in this room that are at some capacity to critically think, to reflect, to judge, and to forgive. So I think that is where we must continue, and not just tary on those thoughts alone, that might become conscribed to our heads, but actually to live out the gospel and pray with our feet.