How to Undocument a Narrative

For decades, undocumented Americans have been asked to tell their stories, in the hopes that this would galvanize political change. Did it work?

Why does the state insist on understanding migration through the lens of “documentation”? And are there alternatives to such a reductive lens? Poet and artist Alan Pelaez Lopez’s work questions how documents like a DACA application and border surveillance require the hyperdocumentation of immigrant bodies. Such documents and procedures negate immigrants’ embodied realities, turning them and their experiences into nothing more than an issue of legal status—an idea reflected in the words “I am not a policy” projected onto Lopez’s body. By negating legalization and citizenship as desirable goals, Lopez expands the “undocu-narrative” to consider all the ways this experience questions the very constructs of reality. In so doing, Lopez calls for forms of justice beyond documentation and/or recognition, as when they project onto their body another assertion: “papers will not protect you.”

Lopez’s work—and the plight of undocumented immigrants more broadly—raises immense questions for art, literature, and scholarship: How do you tell a story about someone whose identity disrupts the very narrative form? How should one explain a narrator who is (by choice and/or by coercion) simply not there? Can such a story disrupt the very structures that impose the narrator’s nonexistence?

Put another way: What does it mean for undocumented people to tell their stories? Is this ever truly possible? And if it is, how can this be achieved in a way that does not just document their struggles but also, most importantly, protects and seeks justice for their lives?

These are the questions that emerge from and are addressed through narratives written by undocumented immigrants, such as the ones presented here. All illustrate the (im)possibility of the undocumented narrative, each tackling a different angle of the persistent problem around the simultaneous hyperdocumentation and erasure of undocumented people.

The anthology We Are Not Dreamers provides a space for undocumented scholars to reflect on their rejection of the “Dreamer” narrative in favor of scholarship that recognizes the complexity of the undocumented experience. Putting this same rejection into practice, Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer tells a personal account of his experience as well as his frustration with the lack of undocumented narratives in academic spaces. Ledesma fills these gaps with doodles, illustrations, and graphics that make up the vignettes constituting his memoir. Utilizing a similar format, Tings Chak’s Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention plainly illustrates the ways detention and the threat of deportation curtail the space and time available to undocumented bodies. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land powerfully portrays the poetics of the undocumented experience, ranging from harrowing encounters with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and immigration officials to the heartbreak of a family torn apart by the border and intergenerational cycles of violence. And, as noted above, Alan Pelaez Lopez’s Intergalactic Travels: Poems from a Fugitive Alien employs images and poems to show how citizenship and documentation are unable to portray an experience that is uncapturable, that is by all means out of this world.

All these narratives emerge from a long and conflicting trajectory of efforts to “tell one’s story” as an undocumented immigrant. Only in the last two decades did such storytelling become possible, and it was for many undocumented people a cathartic experience. After all, this community had been relegated to the shadows and forced to contend daily with their imposed invisibility, but also their hypervisibility in the media and in the eyes of the repressive surveillance apparatus of the state. The change happened because to “tell one’s story” became a rhetorical requirement, born out of necessity: a strategic essentialization of the undocumented immigrant that was deemed important so as to enact political change.

But now, decades since the first attempts to use stories to make change, undocumented writers, scholars, and artists are reassessing the efficacy, and most of all the costs, of doing so.

Ultimately, each of these texts reveals the (im)possibility of containing, through language or narrative, the trajectories of undocumented migrants. Taken together, they demonstrate that to even begin to outline the contours of that experience, it is necessary to play with form and content. It is necessary to produce work that is never solely theoretical nor creative but skirts the boundaries of both with a defiant fluidity. The stories communicated within each text are disjointed, tangibly mobile; they produce ghostly enunciations of beings always coming into being. Through them, new forms emerge, forms that reveal the permeability and impermanence of the border in all its physical and ideological manifestations.

To understand the current state of narratives on undocumented immigration as well as the unique interventions of the new generation of undocumented writers, we first have to understand the context from which these accounts emerged.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalized many migrants, explain Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales in their edited volume We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States. But by doing so, the act also “reinforced the marginalization and subjugation of those who did not meet the policy’s stringent criteria,” setting up the political structures that would vilify and exclude immigrants arriving in the US in the decades afterward. After the events of 9/11 and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, it also became much more difficult for undocumented immigrants to continue the circuit of migration that had been possible before the increased militarization of the border. Many who were here without documentation had to remain in the US indefinitely in order to continue to provide their families with a future.

The outpouring of undocumented stories began after the mass mobilizations of migrants in 2006. These protests were directed against new punitive legislation (the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act) meant to further criminalize “illegal immigrants.” The 2006 act sought to achieve this via dystopian acts of state terror, such as the hypersurveillance of immigrant bodies and criminal charges against those providing “aid” to undocumented people. What made 2006 different was the defiant statements coming out of the movement that challenged the exclusion and invisibility of undocumented immigrants, such as the protest chant “Aqui estamos, y no nos vamos!,” which would be followed by the unwavering, fearless assertion “Undocumented and Unafraid” in 2012.

Why were the renewed militarization of the border and criminalization of undocumented communities met not with silence but with stories? To answer this, we need to turn to the then-emerging figure of the Dreamer. Established in the early 2000s and bolstered by the proposition of the “Dream Act” in 2001, the Dreamer as a concept was meant to create a narrative about undocumented youth: that some of them were “deserving” of citizenship and of higher education. Moreover, they deserved these things because of their “proximity to Americanism” and their capacity to be “productive” members of a white capitalist society. The Dreamer was portrayed as a young and English-speaking subject who had grown up like any other “American” youth, yet was exceptional in that they allegedly had an extraordinarily unyielding desire to work hard to attain their goals and could “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” making great sacrifices in their pursuit of professional and academic achievement.

The Dreamer was also absolved of any responsibility for their transgression of the border via their infantilization. The responsibility was then shifted onto their parents: seen as less American, non-English speaking, and uneducated, and therefore the perfect subject to blame for the Dreamer’s simultaneous victimization and criminality.

Along with Congress’s refusal to pass immigration reform, the Dreamer narrative ultimately led to the establishment of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in 2012 under the Obama administration. The DACA policy granted those fitting into the Dreamer narrative further participation in social and political life, allowing them to drive and work, two components necessary to also attain access to higher education. But what implications did this narrative carry, and how are these still being contested today?

This is where Abrego and Negrón-Gonzalez’s edited volume picks up. The text is situated at a time of the emergence of a new phenomenon: “in the early 2000s … those who arrived as children were starting to come of age and beginning to learn that their undocumented status had potentially devastating consequences for their lives.” These young migrants faced a life full of contradictions, in which, for instance, they were able to attend public school but excluded from participation in most other political and social institutions.

How these young migrants navigated such contradictions is what interests Abrego and Negrón-Gonzales. Their volume showcases how scholars who might previously have been labeled as Dreamers learned from their experiences and became activists and academics producing work from their respective positionalities. The various contributors engage in discussions on a range of topics: the intersections of queerness and undocumentedness; marriage and legalization; unrealistic expectations of academic achievement for undocumented students; undocu-queer parenting; borders and illegality as metaphors; and the neoliberal institutions’ co-optation of the undocumented narrative. The editors made the anthology a space where undocumented scholars could share knowledge about and through their experiences, knowledge that “raises empirical, methodological, and theoretical challenges that these scholars are navigating in unique and meaningful ways.”

The anthology’s most clear and remarkable accomplishment is this (re)assertion of the agency and voice of undocumented scholars. They had for too long only read scholarship about the experiences of undocumented migrants by authors who were not undocumented themselves. And meanwhile, undocumented scholars had often been denied the opportunity to participate in academic institutions as producers of knowledge.

The contributors, through their work as scholars and activists, offer important insights into the ongoing struggle for access to higher education and justice that undocumented people face. In so doing, they consider how the varied and distinct experiences of undocumented status challenge often painfully uninformed and generalized assumptions of what undocumented life looks like. And this, in turn, challenges painfully reductive solutions to the issue of the myriad of forms of state violence enacted upon their communities.

The volume’s scholars therefore necessarily challenge the previously established Dreamer narrative, which was meant to propel a political movement toward the legalization of, or at least access to higher education for, undocumented youth. Though it could be argued that the Dreamer narrative yielded tangible benefits and was an effective tool for persuading the nation’s elite, Negrón-Gonzales and Abrego warn that these advances “have not come about as a result of the goodwill of politicians.” Instead, the changes resulted from the tireless work of undocumented communities and their accomplices; indeed, their activism made these achievements possible.

This is why the volume’s undocumented scholars theorize from a place that negates the Dreamer narrative. In so doing, they find new ways to imagine how undocumented narratives can challenge neoliberal and colonial institutions that uphold the structures of “legality” and “citizenship” that produce and impose “criminality” and “illegality” as hierarchical dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. Such institutions range from legal structures to structures of surveillance and policing but also include academic institutions, which discredit and delegitimize forms of knowing that fall outside of preset parameters.

These undocumented scholars theorizing from their “positionality” are engaging in a form of knowledge production that disrupts the facade of objectivity traditionally upheld by academic institutions. Western empiricism would have us believe that knowledge can be formed objectively, disregarding the historical, cultural, political, and material conditions under which it is produced. In contrast, the contributors engage in the production of what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledges,” gained through their lived experiences, that challenge academic notions about the illegitimacy of lived experience as a form of knowing and also about the illegitimacy of their being.

As academic institutions echo the legal structures requiring that knowledge and people be documented according to the particular demands of the state, the contributors to this volume engage in a particular method of “undocumenting” that asserts their right to find truth in their own experiences. Taken together, their essays offer deep insight into the work produced by undocumented scholars who are redefining “research” and “academic production”: both who gets to produce these and the form and methods through which they are produced.

How do you tell a story about someone whose identity disrupts the very narrative form?

Abrego and Negrón-Gonzales’s anthology challenges the way academic research has not until now included the voices of undocumented scholars themselves in work centered around the experience of “illegality” and the creation of categories of exclusion and criminalization. Even so, challenges to this kind of exclusion and delegitimization were being addressed by the literary and poetic productions of undocumented writers.

Take for instance Alberto Ledesma’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life (2017). Ledesma was undocumented in the early 1970s and became legal through IRCA in 1986. In his academic career he became highly interested in the representations of undocumented immigrants in Mexican American and Chicano fiction, finding such characters lacking or generally overlooked. While teaching a summer writing course at UC Berkeley, to talk about the Dream Act without relying on solely written materials, Ledesma began producing sketches and doodles illustrative of the undocumented experience. These sketches make up his graphic novel-like memoir, filled with images and short reflective writings that detail Ledesma’s experience as an undocumented immigrant.

Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer challenges—in both content and form—the normative conventions that dictate where and how legitimate knowledge is produced, and by whom. By utilizing sketches and doodles as valuable means of producing knowledge about an experience, the memoir tackles the lack of undocumented narratives in a series of creative ways. These include the subversion of normative academic forms as well as the production of snippets of narrative and storytelling that touch on complex topics in a concise and accessible manner. Ledesma’s story is a clear affront to norms that would traditionally disregard “cartoons” or “doodles” as legitimate forms for producing knowledge or theorizing about and through lived experience.

For instance, Ledesma’s “Glossary of Undocumented Grammatical Terms” is an illustrated grammar lesson that subverts the very function of a glossary and of language itself. A glossary is traditionally meant to define. But Ledesma’s instead reflects all the ways that the undocumented experience cannot be defined or placed into neat, recognizable categories. By connecting each grammatical unit to a facet of that experience, Ledesma asks the reader to consider what we might call a grammar of “illegality,” which challenges language insofar as it cannot fully capture what being outside the normative framework for “personhood” is like. As an example, the term “run-on sentence” depicts how the undocumented feel constantly “on the run,” illustrated by “Tio Javier,” who is running even after he has crossed the border. In another clear example, the grammatical function of “voice” is defined by an undocumented migrant portrayed as a mime, who has no voice and therefore finds it difficult to advocate for their own needs or become an “agent of action.” In both cases, the definition and grammatical function of each term are subverted by the migrant’s inability to fit into what might constitute “correct” grammar or structure.1

Ledesma’s work demonstrates that storytelling can come in many forms. Most importantly, the memoir reveals that it is fundamentally impossible for normative narratives to accurately portray the undocumented experience, specifically, the intricacies of living under an imposed silence and invisibility for which language is sometimes simply not sufficient.


The DREAM Act Was Never Enough

By Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales et al.

Venturing out of the US context, Tings Chak’s Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (2014), a graphic novel exposing Canadian detention centers and their austere layouts, also reveals how the undocumented experience ruptures even the idea of narrative and all that which underpins the construction of narrative itself (i.e., temporality, setting, point of view).

Partaking in what we might consider a “poetics of infrastructure,”2 Chak’s novel illustrates the stark linearity of immigrant imprisonment by depicting the architectural plans for detention centers as well as the different spaces found within. Chak even demonstrates how the walls, lights, and spatial layouts affect the temporal, emotional, and physical experiences of those contained. With such a focus and illustrations, Chak shows the way detention centers are meant to curtail or truncate immigrants’ horizons, both in space and in desire. Indeed, the stark contrast of black-and-white linearity (part of the form of the novel itself) depicts this very truncation. Thus, Chak places the reader within these very spaces, re-creating the experience of fragmentation and eternal confinement to which imprisoned migrants are subjected.

“Migrants’ journeys are commonly portrayed as linear progressions from home to host nations,” explains Chak, “but in reality they are replete with interruptions and discontinuities.” The book reveals how such journeys often take place in spaces meant to be invisible and structurally conceived to further immigrants’ invisibility.

Yet Chak’s novel also clearly illustrates all the ways the immigrant narrative breaks out of linearity. The body finds ways to assert itself, despite being repeatedly severed by the lines of containment; this is especially demonstrated by the novel’s focus on a strike within a detention center. Graphically, Chak also offers several images of migrants detained or previously in detainment breaking beyond the narrative containment of the detention center to express desires, formulate futurities, and imagine themselves beyond imposed horizons, troubling the stark black-and-white linear impositions that seek to produce amnesia and desensitization.

When undocumented writers convey their own stories, they invert and subvert the powers posed against them that demand their invisibility.

Likewise exploring the body—as well as the affective experience of living through an imposed status of “illegality”—is Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir Children of the Land (2020), a deeply moving account of the author’s experiences growing up as an undocumented Mexican immigrant in the US. His narrative is disjointed in a way that is often delightfully and poetically disorienting, touching on several aspects of his life: growing up; exploring his sexuality; examining his fraught relationship with his father’s violent masculinity; and learning from his mother’s strength and resolution after his father’s deportation.

Beginning with a heart-wrenching description of an immigration enforcement raid in the narrator’s home, the story follows Hernandez’s experience navigating his own illegality as well as that of his parents. As Hernandez becomes documented through his marriage to Rubi, he contends with the inability of citizenship to fulfill him as a person, questioning the insistent and erroneous positioning of citizenship as the ultimate goal for undocumented immigrants.

Hernandez explores all the ways that being undocumented is a condition riddled with traumas and does not shy away from acknowledging the difficulties of coping, detailing his struggle with his mental health and substance use. And yet, the book does not portray these traumas in a voyeuristic or objectifying way, the way that “under neoliberal regimes, undocumented [people] must mobilize their lived experiences (which may include narratives of suffering and trauma) to make political claims.” Rather, by examining the connections among trauma, body, and memory, Hernandez makes what has otherwise been depicted as an abstract experience of the structures of “legality” into a fleshy experience. He details all the embodied behaviors that one reproduces after a lifetime of living under the constant threat of deportation, surveillance, and other forms of state violence.

Moreover, Hernandez speaks on his experience as an undocumented graduate student, which ultimately led him to question his place in the academy, or rather, the academy’s place in his life. His work is also informed by his experiences with deportation and his reflections on the historical legacies of migration and displacement underpinning his familial and inherited trauma.

Hernandez considers how his poetry becomes the only means through which he can truly speak on experiences, which feel devoid of meaning when filtered through the whiteness of academic institutions. As he endures immigration interviews indifferent to the reality of his life and convoluted legal processes that are cold and draining, it becomes easier to notice all the ways academic institutions resemble the legal structures he must tirelessly navigate. In fact, both institutions are painfully unable to recognize or treat him as a person.


Sanctuary Syllabus

By NYU Sanctuary

Further expanding on the impossibility of capturing the undocumented migrant experience is Alan Pelaez Lopez’s collection of poetry, Intergalactic Travels: Poems from a Fugitive Alien (2020). Playing with images, poetic layout, footnotes, font size, drawings, and legal documents, the book positions the undocumented experience as a narrative that cannot even be contained or structured by the boundaries of this planet. Lopez describes instances of disjunction, truncation, and dimensional shifts that take place in everyday moments of their life: waiting for a bus; at a doctor visit; in school; in photographs of young Black, Indigenous, and undocumented kids murdered by the state; and in the legal forms that cannot grasp and are in fact complicit in the traumatic complexities of the undocumented, Black, and Indigenous experience.

Ultimately, Lopez’s work is a clear example of all the ways that Afroindigeneity and undocu-queerness escape and contest the border as a constructed terrestrial boundary. Fugitivity, more than “escape,” is for Lopez also the persistent practice of reshaping and unsettling reality. It is a state of being, described by Fred Moten in his book Stolen Life as the desire to exist outside the parameters of what is currently possible.

It is perhaps for this reason that Lopez asks the important question: “is there life after fugitivity, or is fugitivity a way of life?” Because the violence done to undocu-queer and Afroindigenous bodies creates particular forms of (non)existence, the reshaping and disruption of normative reality becomes part and parcel of the everyday experience of undocumentedness, of being “outside” the parameters of the norm.

To address that violence, Lopez’s poetry adamantly asserts that we must acknowledge the entangled legacies of slavery, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and settler colonialism, which for centuries have constructed and policed not only the categories defining personhood but also the structures defining our relationship to the world itself. Their poetry stresses the necessity of reimaging reality, of imagining, in the words of Subcomandante Marcos, a world of many worlds, which is, as it were, a clearly intergalactic endeavor.

Lopez explores the embodied experiences that these legacies of “illegality,” colonization, and anti-Blackness generate, through their own positionality as an Afroindigenous migrant and poet but also as an “intergalactic traveler.” This phrase, part of the book’s title, is a clear disruption of the word “alien” as it is commonly utilized in legal jargon to refer to undocumented immigrants.

The use and connotations of the word “alien” are both subverted and reconfigured in Intergalactic Travels. This double move on Lopez’s part is a clear response to colonial and white supremacist violence, producing a form of being that at all times resists containment and/or identification. Using an immigration application to create one of their poems, Lopez outlines the myriad of ways that US imperialism and European colonization impute “invasion” (such as in Lopez’s image of an “alien invasion” on a toy dispenser) onto Indigenous, Black, and Brown bodies while eschewing any responsibility for the perpetration of colonial violence. Because of this charade, the legal form can never contain the “alien,” which is always beyond reach, mocking the inability of the legal document to hold them. This is exemplified in many of Lopez’s poems, like “Intergalatic Travel(s) (Or, Vignettes from an Illegal Alien)” and “Immigration’s Mandated Doctor Visit.” They describe all the spaces in which intergalactic travelers have existed, and do and will exist; all the ways they’ve traveled across different worlds; and all the ways their body always resists the state’s impulse to categorize, outline, and capture them.

Perhaps most importantly, Lopez’s work demonstrates how undocu-narratives challenge traditional definitions of a concrete, knowable, and visible subject, disrupting, for example, Western normative regimes of “knowing” or recognition (i.e., juridical or empirical institutions, like courts and universities) that join in the constant erasure, appropriation, and surveillance of Black and Indigenous life and knowledge. In response, Lopez challenges us to become comfortable with a narrator who escapes us; to question what makes a subject “real”; to become more than singular subjects; to become, instead, interdimensional entities or intergalactic travelers, for whom borders must necessarily cease to exist.

All of these texts attempt, from different perspectives and with different methods, to answer a set of key questions that arise from the production of undocumented narratives: How do you tell a story about a subject that disrupts the very narrative form? How do you tell a story in a world cut apart by borders, proliferating? Why, after all, is it important for undocumented writers, scholars, artists, and activists to convey their own stories?

The answer, taking all these texts together, is clear. When undocumented writers convey their own stories, they invert and subvert the powers posed against them that demand their invisibility.

But is such storytelling worth the risk? These writers face dangers when they choose to identify themselves as persons existing outside the structures that construct their illegality. These risks are dangerous. But they are also necessary.

The risk of telling one’s own story, in fact, can yield incredibly fruitful results. For such risk taking in storytelling not only troubles comfortable perceptions and definitions of “legality” and “citizenship” but also, perhaps more importantly, prompts us to consider how storytelling is a strong assertion of sociopolitical power that assertively conveys and resists the experience of displacement in modern capitalist society.

In fact, risk taking by undocumented writers represents a disruption of formal narrative conventions, as well as a disruption of the very systems that attempt to contain and hinder their stories. Indeed, such systems are proven powerless by these writers, who courageously assert: we are not dreamers, we are not afraid, we are here, and we are everywhere, and there’s no boundary or border that could ever contain us.


This article was commissioned by Catherine S. Ramirezicon

  1. Another striking example is Ledesma’s “Undocumented Alphabet,” which questions the access to education afforded to undocumented youth: such education may be necessary, but it also erases crucial aspects of their experience. The contrast between what we associate with a seemingly fundamental basis of “learning” and childhood (i.e., the alphabet) and terms like “coyote” or “fetishization” highlights the disparities between what learning looks like inside as opposed to outside of the classroom. In so doing, it reveals how neoliberal institutions insist that knowledge learned inside and outside stay separated.
  2. Brian R. Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, no. 42 (2013), pp. 327–43.
Featured Image: By Paolo Barzman / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)