Poetic Justice: A Poetry Reading for Migrant Justice
This article recounts the event “Writers for Migrant Justice: Poetry Reading and Fundraiser.”
“Scientists are full of news these days: We are rotting fruit lain to ground. In each breath we inhale thousands of humans collected on the tongues of leaves, in the pink eyes of peonies, on the powdery backs of pollen. Exhaled. With each draw, a millennia of history enters us & we cannot control, can only harness whom or what we host. Our traumas, the bright blue mysticisms & burnt orange murmurs, our joys & muddled currencies are archived in genetic code…
… I know no better way to explain the history of humans than to tell you at night, my father played piano & sang, his voice our raft on a quiet lake, an island of gentleness & gentleness is a choice, is a miracle in America.” – from Double Helix, by Crystal Williams
In a time in which many have been asking, “What can I do?”, Writers for Migrant Justice provided an outlet to act. On September 4th, these literary protests against the inhumane treatment of migrants manifested in over 40 cities across the nation. Leaders of these events partnered with Immigrant Families Together to raise money to reunite migrant mothers with their children and to contribute to the basic health and safety needs of migrant families who have been released from detention at the U.S.-Mexico border.
I arrived to the event in Boston precisely at 6 o’clock. At its starting time, nearly every seat in the basement of Arlington Street Church was full. I took a seat in the middle of a row towards the back, cramped next to two other warm bodies. The man on my right recognized one of the poets. She asked him, “How are you doing?”
He replied, “The world is doing terribly.”
Before taking her own seat, she gave him a look of half hope, half despair and said, “But then we need to be better ourselves.”
The organizer kicked the event off jovially, by saying, “We are all here because of our disgust.” She explained that as writers, our pen is our sword. We have the opportunity to use our language to shape collective action. Tonight, we would read, listen, and witness the cruelty and inhumanity that has occurred within and around our borders. In raising awareness for the value of migrants’ lives, we would also be raising funds to support their journeys.
Before announcing the names of the poets who would be sharing with us tonight, in a measured tone, she read the names of the 6 children who have died while detained under U.S. custody at the border:
“Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10, El Salvador
Jakelin Caal Maquín, 7, Guatemala
Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, Guatemala
Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16, Guatemala
Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2½, Guatemala
Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, 16, Guatemala.”
This reading was followed by a heated moment of silence that seemed to last an eternity.
Finally, the first poet came on stage. He was a Mexican-American man whose poem was a reflection of when his mother asked him if he had heard of the KKK. He read quickly, his hands in a nearly-unnoticeable tremble as he began to speak, and I felt myself becoming nervous as well. I tried to avert my gaze from the stage as his words washed over me. I remembered why I used to be afraid of having panic attacks in near-silent rooms of strangers like this.
The next poet, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, read about wheat – the “chemicals that stagger to their greatness” and the news that “the indigenous will inherit the earth and some subsidized Custer will till you under with a tweet.” It soon became apparent that this poem, titled “Grains of Ascendency” was not about wheat, but about intolerance as legacy of the mania of independence and the agro-American dream.
The poet continued, “I can’t breathe for all this modern wheat stoppering my nostrils.” I felt my lungs tighten within the sweltering heat of the room and I began to fan off my face with the event pamphlet.
As the poem continued, the imagery became vivid:
“Mankind came to modernity on the whittled backs of grain. Blame schizophrenia on gluten, revolution on
Night sweats, night sweats on red summer, Red Summer on Red May, Red May on the wheat wave, wheat wave on easements easing
Open leagues of frontiers, hectares now proofing with bloom.
Milling Punishes grain and calls it progress. This night is Illinois-
Quiet, save for the mill-train and alfalfa fields shushing the air. If I die in police custody,
Return me to my mother as a cup of rice seeds in a blood-soaked sock.”
My mind went red, red, red during this passage. Flashbacks of observing surgeries filled my thoughts, then the image of the spinal tap I watched before fainting, waking up frazzled after hitting my head with red, red, red seeping out of my brow line. The room felt hotter. I didn’t want to faint again. Would I have to leave? I reminded myself that if I had learned anything from yoga, it’s that these feelings will pass. And so, I sat with the discomfort, reminding myself I could sneak out the backdoor for air if I needed it.
The poem ended, and the woman to my left snuck out the backdoor, presumably because of the same heat that I was suffocating in. The body heat around me was reduced by half, and I instantly felt more at ease.
As the next poet came onstage, he joked, “There is so much warmth in this room!”
The remainder of the poems were riveting – a poem about strawberries that recounted the permanently red hands of migrants after working in the fruit fields, another poem read in Spanish for which I understood every fourth word yet strongly felt the somber tone in my body, another poem about our president, titled “Shithole.” Each poet’s words hit my ears like a waterfall of raw emotion.
Finally, the poet Crystal Williams read “Double Helix”. I listened at the edge of my seat to the imagery that exploded throughout the text. Several times, the word “peony” popped before my eyes, flooded my nostrils with tender sweetness; “peony” coated a story that was both somber and inspiring. Crystal slowly stated, “To be anything other than enraged or dead is to be a success if black in America. To become a refuge, a safe harbor is to be a miracle if black in America.”
Ultimately, the poem was about connection. The story recounted the similarities between a Jewish son and an African daughter – being a holocaust survivor and being Black in America:
I felt his skin shudder as my own, as if we were divine, brilliant, bright children of god, understood his father’s stubble as my own & because what are we?
The poem epitomized the theme of the night: interconnection. Although there is separation, struggle, inhumanity, atrocity in the world, our beacon of hope is the recognition of the myriad ways that we are stories are in essence identical. When we learn to sit through the discomfort required viscerally feel interconnection, compassion toward others follows naturally. And as Crystal concluded, compassion – or gentleness – “is a choice, is a miracle in America.”
How to help
To support reuniting migrant families and providing for their basic needs, you can donate to Immigrant Families Together (click HERE to donate to their Direct Rapid Response Fund). For those of use who aren’t in a position to donate our money, we can donate our time through hosting a fundraiser, attending an event, joining a Facebook volunteer group, donating travel rewards, or contacting a state representative, among the other avenues that the organizers of Immigrant Families Together recommend.
Additionally, it’s not only on the Southern border that migrants fear separation from their families. Migrant families in Massachusetts may refrain from calling 911 in cases of domestic abuse, wage theft, and health emergencies for fear that authorities will separate them from their families if they are aware of their immigration status. Residents of Massachusetts can support the Safe Communities Act, which limits law enforcement’s ask questions on immigration status, among the other pro-immigrant features of the act.
Finally, those who are curious about learning more about the lives of undocumented, migrant, and first-generation American writers can read a novel or two from the reading list put together by poets from the event.