"UNDOCUMENTED immigrants," Luis Alberto Urrea writes in his foreword, "have no way to tell you what they have experienced. . . . They are, by the very nature of their experience, invisible."
There are 24 stories documented here. Editor Peter Orner and a team of graduate students from San Francisco State University went looking for stories for Voice of Witness, which publishes "oral histories of people around the world who have had their human and civil rights violated." The storytellers hold many different jobs, have different reasons for leaving home and different expectations about U.S. life. Mr. Lai left China after officials found that he and his wife had violated the one-child policy. Saleem, 54, was summarily deported to Pakistan after Sept. 11. Roberto came from Mexico at 14; it took him 30 years to get a green card. "Everything we do is a crime," says a Mexican man called El Mojado. "You don't have papers, it's a crime. You buy fake papers, it's a crime." Elizabeth, an English teacher in Bolivia, came to the U.S. in 2004 to get help for her 8-year-old daughter, diagnosed with a severe form of arthritis. With no money, she slid through the American underworld, down the steps that so many of these people describe: rape, robbery, exploitation and a complete lack of credibility -- no way to get help, and no way out.
Decades after arriving, many want desperately to go home and cannot. "I wouldn't make it back across," says Adela, a Mexican woman who has been here for 18 years and longs to see her family but doesn't dare leave her children. "No, there are too many that have died in the desert, too many who have drowned." -- The Los Angeles Times
A few weeks ago, I took Amtrak from San Jose, California to Los Angeles. While looking out the window at the strawberry farms in the Central Valley, I saw the migrant farm workers hunched over or kneeling in the hot sun as they picked strawberries. As a child and teenager, going strawberry picking at the pick-it-yourself farms in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz, was always a fun trip for me and I looked forward to going. For these workers, the strawberries were their sustenance, not a weekend family outing. Despite my yearly trips to the farm country, I never knew much about how these farm workers lived until I read their personal accounts in the book, Underground America.
The book does an excellent job of showing the human side of the underground world of millions people in the United States.
Reading the stories of undocumented migrants in the book, Underground America, gave me a glimpse into the lives of not just the migrant farm workers harvesting the Golden State's crops, but into the difficulties of many people living illegally in the United States. The book gives a human face to the statistics we see on TV about illegal immigration. I was familiar with the harsh living conditions and migration patterns of undocumented Latin Americans in the US, but I was quite shocked at the stories of the African, South Asian, Chinese and Iranians in the book. One woman from South Africa came to the United States to work as a missionary and ended up cleaning and cooking in the dirty house of the pastor's daughter. She came to do the work of the Lord and was instead exploited for cheap labor. In order to pay for her family member's HIV treatments, she had to stay in the US and work as a nanny and housekeeper.
The conditions described in the detention facilities for illegal immigrants seem to parallel those in maximum security prisons. Why do we treat the people who do the jobs that few legal residents would ever want to do with such disgust? There was a striking story of a Mexican woman who came to the US with her two children. Her eldest son Victor became a transgender woman named Vica. She got AIDS. Vica was caught in an immigration raid and taken to a detention facility where the doctors refused to give her her needed AIDS medicines. She died chained to a bed.
These stories make take away the hidden nature of the underground in the United States. The strawberries have a story to them, and it's not sweet. The illegals are not criminals. We are profiting from their work and we have to face the reality of the way our economy works in the United States. We must be aware of the immigration struggle and the implications of our laws and government in order to create a just society. -- Susanna Zaraysky of New America Media on Underground America
Everybody's got a story -- you, me, everybody. But nobody's story's more tragic than that of those who've been forced to leave their homes, their lands and their families. I mean, of course, the refugee.
Hearing these stories is another thing entirely, which is why we should be thankful for a storyteller named Peter Orner, whose shorts have been featured everywhere from The Atlantic Monthly andThe Paris Review, to New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.
In other words, Orner knows his tales, and in his edit of Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives (McSweeney's, $24) he lets them tell for themselves.
And tell they do: Diana, a riverboat casino cleaning woman who not only survived Katrina, but helped to bring Biloxi back to life; Mr. Wei, the Fujian who comes from a place called Long Happiness, and ends up with snakeheads and a meat cleaver; Roberto, the Mexican chef who so much misses his children he sometimes pulls out his daughter's Speak-and-Spell and sits playing it alone; Olga, the Jalisco woman who loses her transgender daughter to some cold, hard ICE agents; Saleem, the Pakistani who suffers the post-9/11 clampdown on Muslims and gets deported with nothing on his back but "the sugar disease."
There are more, of course; 24 in all, each as bold and heartbreaking as the one before -- and after.
Like Dixie, née Dethze, a Cali-born educator who did whatever it took to put her two children through university, including surviving a bout in Thank God, Guatemala, working at Wendy's and BK, and suffering years of abuse by her American husband.
And Abel, the Mayan who was burned out of his native Guatemalan home and now is one of thousands who've found recluse in sleepy, seaside New Bedford, working the fisheries and dye factories, tending to the yards and the fields whites won't touch. Abel's father was a Catechist, and suffered accordingly; Abel doesn't have it much better. "In the afternoons, we cry," he says. And you can't not be stirred by his words.
Then there's Liso, the devout South African roped into believing she'd be coming to America for missionary work and winds up being a slave, but who still manages to keep her faith, her strength and her humility. She even begins to understand the amak-wer-kwer, which is what South Africans derogatorily call black immigrants. Why? Because she now has become one.
But beyond the subjects of these stories, perhaps the most incomprehensible thing is the way others behave toward the people whose lives these stories reveal. The Houston church lady who basically enslaves a South African; the thieving migrant bosses who take a penny from a poor person; those Cali ICE agents who won't unchain Vica's foot so she might die with some dignity, despite the fact that she can barely breathe on her own; the Kentucky kitchen manager who takes a cleaver to gentle Mr. Wei and then summarily disappears.
It's enough to ask: Jeez, people, are you not at all human?
The folks doing the telling are human, though, and they hope and they fear and they cut and they bleed just like we do. And despite how these people are tagged, the undocumented are far from free of documents. They have "family photos, diplomas, driver's licenses, love letters, e-mails, credit card bills, homework, child's drawings...." And now, thanks to Orner and his pals at McSweeney's, they also have this brave and beautiful book. Read it and bear them all in mind. -- Miami Sun Post
History doesn't have to be told by the victor. Sometime the best accounts come from the mouths of ordinary people who've been at the sharp end of extraordinary events.
Like the undocumented Latino workers who did 25% of the reconstruction work after Hurricane Katrina hit the US Gulf Coast in August 2005, only to find the authorities turn their back on them afterwards.
Polo, a 23-year-old Mexican, worked seven days a week clearing up after Katrina, sleeping in a guarded air hangar, then was told at gunpoint to leave by soldiers who said his employers had left town without paying him.
"My idea was to get to Mississippi, to start working, and to earn money to send to my family," Polo says in a new collection of interviews with undocumented workers in the United States. "I couldn't imagine this kind of humiliation."
Underground America is the latest in an oral history series published by the San-Francisco-based Voice of Witness project, started by author Dave Eggers.
"(This) is not a compendium of suffering. This is a collection of voices," insists editor Peter Orner, who's an asylum lawyer and a fiction writer.
The book focuses on undocumented workers from all around the world trying to make it in the United States - most of them separated from their families for years on end. Many suffer violence and injuries or end up doing forced labour, but few complain or seek medical attention because of the constant fear of deportation.
Most manage to send money home to their families, even when they're working two jobs to make ends meet, barely eating or sleeping and going without any social life. It seems it's only possible for the next generation to move beyond a subsistence-level existence of work and sleep, and even then it's a struggle.
Polo's story represents thousands of others. Some 100,000 Latino workers relocated to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, and one in three of the undocumented reconstruction workers reported trouble getting paid for their work, according to a study by the Human Rights Centre at the University of California, Berkeley.
A month after the disaster - one of the worst in American history - US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it sent 725 officers to the Gulf to detain and remove undocumented workers.
"The point of the series is to illuminate human rights abuses through oral history," said Eggers, still best known for his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, about his struggle as a young man to bring up his little brother after their parents had died of cancer.
In a time when history is told in cheap television re-enactments, if at all, and personal tragedy is gobbled up in rapidly digestible magazine photos and reality shows, this project goes against the grain.
You could say this is a kind of journalism, but it's not about finding the soundbite to represent the person. And it's not about getting a good story out quickly. Eggers, speaking as a journalist, says: "We take something, then we leave. It's a transaction fraught with problems." If the journalist misinterprets something, there's nothing you can do.
He sees an oral history project, on the other hand, as a partnership between the people telling their stories and the people transmitting them to the reader.
Eggers has written both fiction and non-fiction, and started a publishing house, McSweeney's. He's also co-founder of 826 Valencia, a San Francisco neighbourhood project to boost children's writing skills, based behind a pirate-themed shop where you can buy eye patches, read about swabbing decks, and buy mutiny-themed soap.
But this oral history project is not a one-man Eggers show. A panel of highly respected contemporary historians, activists, academics and novelists is involved, as well as dozens of volunteers. It doesn't have a budget, and it's never had any funding. "We don't have a dime," Eggers said.
The first book in the series was Surviving Justice, accounts of exonerated prisoners who were wrongfully convicted. It was followed by Voices from the Storm, the collection of Hurricane Katrina survivors' voices.
But Eggers hadn't meant the focus to be on the United States. The idea started with Sudan, when he was working with Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee whose story Eggers turned into the novel What Is the What.
He had collected tens of thousands of words from Achak Deng about escaping war in south Sudan as a child and spending years on the road and in camps in Africa. He knew what a difference it made to have spent those hours together and worked on understanding what had really happened.
That novel, and his first book, were intricate and highly intelligent exercises in carving the facts into finely wrought literature. These oral history books are something totally different.
They start at the beginning and end as close to the present as possible, in the exact words of the people who have experienced these huge injustices. The editors might cut and re-order the conversation, and they'll include notes to explain any background the reader might need to catch up with the story, but the narrator is the person who lived - and still lives - the events, not the historian.
Without any oral history training, Eggers got help from the American granddaddy of the genre, Studs Terkel. He learned about the dangers of retraumatising interviewees, learnt how to order questions. The Voice of Witness team decided they wouldn't publish anything without the narrators' approval, the interviewees could make changes afterwards if they wanted, and would have access to as many books as they liked.
But they did check each person's story, and go back to them with any anomalies they uncovered.
Each book includes voices beyond the type of people we've come to expect. So the exonerated prisoners aren't all downtrodden working class men, framed by police or let down by bad lawyers. It includes a 59-year-old white woman, who, just like the others, illustrates how easy it is for the US justice system to go completely off track.
The tales don't end with getting out of prison. In fact, many of the narrators say the hardest part is afterwards, living without compensation and having lost decades of life, struggling to find a place in a society that stigmatises them for having been in jail.
The Katrina stories include a black prisoner, and a grandmother who floated her grandchildren in buckets through miles of filthy floodwater looking for help, but it also tells the story of a Vietnamese priest who stayed behind with parishioners who could not evacuate.
And this latest collection isn't just about downtrodden Latino farmworkers, although they're included too. It's got stories of a 10-month-long trip from China via Thailand, Cuba and Mexico, and a South African who thought she was coming as a missionary but found herself trapped as a servant to a pastor's family.
Underground America's editors chose to use the description "undocumented" because it sounds more dignified than "illegal". But, the book's editor, Orner, says in his introduction: "Of course they have documents: family photos, diplomas, driver's licences, love letters, emails, credit card bills, tax forms, homework, children's drawings."
The next Voice of Witness book, promised soon, is Out of Exile, with stories from the north-south war that ended in 2005, some from people who spent years in slavery after being abducted, and others from the war-torn western region of Darfur.
In Undocumented America, published by McSweeney's, Roberto from Mexico says after years doing brutally hard and dangerous agricultural work: "I tell myself, those who haven't fallen don't know how to walk. I guess I've fallen so many times now, I should be able to walk forever." -- Guardian UK, June 2008
Oscar Villalon of the San Francisco Chronicle hailed Underground America as an "excellent introduction to an ongoing social disaster." He reviewed the book for KQED's California Report. You can listen to a stream of the show on the California Report archive here. The full transcript is as follows:
One thing is clear from Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. The U.S. is a doing a lousy job in how it treats the workers who toil in its fields, factories, and restaurants--even its offices and nurseries--but don't have the papers saying they're allowed to do what they've already been doing for so long. Beyond that, this surprising book presents a nuanced understanding of the problem. One so thoughtful, it may help us sort out what does remain unclear: how to improve the situation.
Novelist and teacher Peter Orner, and a group of graduate students from San Francisco State University, with the help of lawyers, writers, and filmmakers, fanned across the country for this book. They talked to a wide group of undocumented workers, and compiled the interviews into twenty-four first-person accounts of men and women existing in a constant state of anxiety. Orner and company not only interviewed poor, sometimes politically oppressed immigrants from Mexico and Central America, they also get on record the voices of young people and old from Iran and Pakistan, to China and Cameroon. We hear the stories of immigrants who come from the middle class and with university educations. We meet people who have assimilated well, even prospered and employ U.S. citizens in their businesses. And given the absurdity of viewing a person as a walking crime, dark pieces of humor and stinging bits of irony can't help but pop up in these accounts.
What most of these lives have in common are years spent shuttling between grueling, sometimes abusive workplaces, and barebones, sometimes rundown homes. These workers are afflicted by loneliness, because their families are sometimes thousands of miles away, and they are assailed by isolation, because they fear being deported. As one woman, a thirty-eight-year-old teacher from South Africa explains, they wind up where they don't trust anybody: "You don't want to talk to other people. You're always quiet," she says, "If you're illegal here, you're not free at all."
Underground America is McSweeney's third book in its Voice of Witness series--oral histories from people around the world who have had their human and civil rights violated. What Underground America argues is that by classifying a group of people as illegal, you make them vulnerable to brutality and exploitation. Discouraged by the draconian punishment that comes with discovery, these workers do not report crimes and abuses against them. The book's importance rests in how well it illustrates the consequences of that for the rest of us. For one, our policy of criminalizing immigrants fosters corruption. Free from worker complaints, slaughterhouses, for example, can skirt around sanitation and safety laws, thus affecting the food we eat. Free from the accountability shown to citizens, federal agencies can house undocumented people in hoard facilities, neglecting them to the point of death. And the criminally low wages paid to workers indirectly leads to the growth of street gangs. Also, these testimonies show that callousness toward the undocumented is in no way limited to white Republican males. Kind victimizes kind. And in a couple of instances, heartening acts of decency are performed by men who vote for the GOP. Underground America is an excellent introduction to an ongoing social disaster. It gives a face to people in the country who are one injury, one legal problem away from ruin. A situation, of course, all too many legal Americans are familiar with. -- Underground America on NPR's the California Report