Poet shines light on struggles of undocumented community

Illustration by Adamaris Sanchez/The Et Cetera

Illustration by Adamaris Sanchez/The Et Cetera

BY EDUARDO CHAVEZ and AIMEE JIMENEZ, Contributors

Poet Yosimar Reyes came to the United States from Mexico with his grandmother when he was just 3 years old.

His parents told him he was undocumented, but when he was growing up he didn’t know what that meant.

“I was very Americanized in the sense that my education, my ideal, my principles actually came through being in a relationship with people in this country,” Reyes said.

Reyes shared his experience growing up as a queer, undocumented youth during a virtual Dallas College Hispanic Heritage Month presentation in October. The event, “UndocuJoy: Shifting the Perspective in Undocumented Representation,” celebrates the resilience of undocumented communities and seeks to go beyond the narrative of deportation.

Reyes was a teenager when the full impact of what it meant to be undocumented hit him. He watched his friends get learner’s permits and make plans to visit other countries, things that he could not do.

“Sixteen was a very difficult year in the sense that the world was unraveling before me,” Reyes said. “I started to name things and realize that my life was going to be a little bit more difficult because I didn’t have access to things.”

Reyes was also learning about his sexuality, which made him feel even more different  his peers. That’s when he began using his art to tell stories about people who associated with his own experiences of being undocumented and gay.

His first published work was a collection of poetry, “For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly,” which called attention to the challenges faced by queer and immigrant youth.

Reyes said he believes undocumented immigrants are the backbone of the country, and he wants to educate people about the problems many undocumented immigrants face.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m pushing against a wave of narratives that do more harm than good to the spirit and confidence of people that happen to be undocumented,” Reyes said.

They are farmers, street vendors and nannies. They often live paycheck to paycheck —  unnoticed, yet still paying taxes to keep the economy afloat.

Many children of undocumented immigrants, like Reyes, are the breadwinners of their families. Some of them qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows them to apply for a job, get a driver’s license and open a bank account — things their older family members can’t do.

Reyes said his grandmother and grandfather would gather bottles to recycle for money. They ended up creating relationships with restaurant owners, who would save their bottles for them, allowing them to start their own business.

Reyes said the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard on undocumented immigrants. When the pandemic began, there were multiple stimulus checks that helped pull some people out of poverty, but not undocumented immigrants. They don’t have a social security number and therefore no way of receiving the government checks.

“What about us?” Reyes’ grandmother asked him when she heard about the stimulus checks.

Reyes then had to explain to his grandmother that undocumented people did not qualify for the stimulus check. He turned this conversation into a short video that showed the impact of the pandemic on the undocumented.

Reyes said he hopes telling the stories of his grandparents and other immigrants will help people better understand their struggles.

“You might have never lived like an undocumented person,” Reyes said. “But you can empathize with the idea of having nothing and trying to achieve something.