Marta Caminero-Santangelo, English professor and department chairman, meets with a group of undergraduate honors students. Photo by David McKinney
LAWRENCE – Undocumented immigrants tend not to have a public voice, but a University of Kansas professor of English says their stories are emerging in literature and the media and helping to shape the U.S. imagination and the immigration debate.
Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who chairs KU’s English department, is writing the first full-length study addressing how a literary mix of novels, journalistic accounts, personal narratives and oral histories by Latino writers represents undocumented immigration in the Gatekeeper era — the years following the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego in 1994 that have been marked by an escalation of border policing and immigration crackdowns.
“Stories have always had the power to shape how we understand the world and ourselves in relation to the world,” Caminero-Santangelo says. The stories emerging in that literary mix “are crucial in shaping our ideas about groups; about who counts as an American; about who counts as a Latino or Latina.”
In an article appearing this summer in “Biography: An Interdsiciplinary Quarterly,” titled “Documenting the Undocumented: Life Narratives of ‘Illegal’ Immigrants,” Caminero-Santangelo says the voices of undocumented immigrants are just beginning to be heard – especially in the national debates on immigration.
While a wide range of books and blogs by Latino writers focus on what it means to be undocumented or illegal in the United States, Caminero-Santangelo points out that often personal accounts by novice writers or speakers have had widest public impact.
Closely related to the genre known as “testimonio” in Spanish, personal accounts and oral histories have helped counter fears of people imagined as aliens, she says.
Two recent groups that have helped promote the use of personal stories or “testimonio” are the New Sanctuary Movement and the group known as DREAMers, from the acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors legislation. The DREAM proposal would allow a path to citizenship for young men and women who have graduated from U.S. high schools and attended college or served in the military after coming to the United States with their parents who are undocumented immigrants. DREAM advocates note these youths were not in control of the decision to come to the United States.
“Both groups have grasped the political value of telling their personal stories,” she says.
Caminero-Santangelo writes about the New Sanctuary Movement's use of personal stories in “The Voice of the Voiceless: Religious Rhetoric, Undocumented Immigrants and the New Sanctuary Movement in the United States,” which will be published in the forthcoming “Sanctuary Practices in International Perspective,” by editors Randy Lippert and Sean Rehaag.
“Sanctuary movements have not only provided a refuge from fear of imminent deportation but also a bridge to public solutions,” she says.
One of the most prominent voices for the emerging immigrant rights movement became a catalyst for the New Sanctuary Movement, Caminero-Santangelo says. Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who had sought sanctuary in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church with her young son, a U.S. citizen, risked leaving sanctuary to speak publicly about the need for immigration reform.
“Arellano came to redefine Sanctuary itself not as a protected haven but as a public platform,” Caminero-Santangelo says.
She notes that the New Sanctuary Movement has effectively shifted the emphasis of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement on humanitarian crises and human rights violations in Central America to issues of separating families in the United States who work hard and contribute to their communities.
Though she knew about the proposed DREAM Act legislation, it wasn’t until the summer of 2010, when a former student invited Caminero-Santangelo to join a DREAM activist march in Washington, D.C., that she decided to conclude her book with oral histories of the DREAMers. At the time, Caminero-Santangelo was in Washington, as a Smithsonian Institution Research Fellow, researching oral histories of immigrants from the guest worker bracero programs of 1942-1964 for the book project.
“I realized I was researching oral histories that were decades old and right, in front of my nose were young people who knew the political value of telling their stories,” she said. “The thing I love about the name ‘DREAMers’ is the really savvy way it alludes to literary and cultural stories of what it means to have a dream.”
She pointed to the strong American ideal of "achieving the American dream"; to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech in which he declared "I have a dream"; and to Langston Hughes' poem “A Dream Deferred."
The daughter of Cuban immigrants from the 1960s, Caminero-Santangelo describes herself as a scholar and activist — acknowledging that immigrants from Cuba historically have not had same struggles gaining U.S. citizenship as those from Mexico and Central America. Her most recent book, “On Latinidad: U.S. Latino Literature and the Construction of Ethnicity” and her new project both address a spectrum of treatment of immigrants with different national origins.
Her new book will be titled “Documenting the Undocumented: Narrative, Nation and Social Justice in the Gatekeeper Era.”