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Literature of the Undocumented

By Javier Huerta

I recently submitted a course description for a class I will be teaching next semester (si Dios quiere).

Javier Huerta
English R1B
Literature of the Undocumented
Book List: Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant, Ramón Tianguis Pérez; The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia; The Elements of Style, Strunk and White.
A Course Reader will have additional readings.
Films: Bajo la misma luna/Under the Same Moon; (short film) AB 540 The Movie.
Course Description:
It is a curious thing how many documents attempt to document the undocumented. The texts we will read this semester ask us to engage our critical reading and writing skills on the topical question of undocumented immigration. We will turn our critical attention to articles from both sides of current debates on immigration in order to analyze and evaluate the efficacy of those arguments. In the literary works—a novel, a nonfiction diary, and poems—we will focus on those characters that are either defined by documents or by the lack of documents. We will also look at the significance of documents in our lives: birth certificates, driver’s licenses, school identification cards, passports, death certificates, etc.
The primary goal of this class is to develop students’ practical fluency in argumentative writing and research skills. Taking these texts as occasions to produce further writing on documents and the undocumented, students will write a couple of short writing assignments and a couple of long argumentative essays (each 8-10 pages long).

This class is one I believe I am uniquely qualified to teach and one I wish to continue to adapt and develop for different courses and different levels throughout my teaching career (si Dios quiere).


The question at the heart of this class is, can the undocumented be documented? Scholars in the social sciences have been dealing with the difficulties of this question since the first major study of undocumented immigration, Los Mojados: The Wetback Story by Julian Samora. The force behind Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant is that we get a view of the undocumented experience directly from someone who has lived it. Directly? Well, we get a translation of someone writing about his experiences after he returns to Mexico and has been removed from the undocumented situation. In The People of Paper, the characters are trying to escape documentation; they want to go beyond the narrative and its/our gaze.
I originally had Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Mid-lothian on the list because I wanted to focus on the character of the Whistler. The Whistler remains undocumented and beyond the narrative for most of the book. Even in the end, all the narrative can do is presume that the Whistler ended up among the American tribes. One way of developing this class would be to expand its focus on the undocumented experience globally and historically. Undocumented immigration is also a “problem” in many other Western nations. Guy Debord even writes an essay called “Notes on the ‘Immigrant Question.’” Another way to develop this class would be to investigate the role the figure of the undocumented immigrant plays in the theories of Agamben, Zizek, and Hardt and Negri.
The course next semester will start with early 20th century corridos by Anonymous. Anyways, just thought I’d share. Sugerencias, of course, would be greatly appreciated.

Comments (8)

  • On October 17, 2008 at 12:35 am Guillermo Parra wrote:

    This sounds like an amazing class. Though I realize he’s a “controversial” figure for many Latinos, I really think Richard Rodriguez’s third book, “Brown,” has some very important things to say about the Latino presence in the U.S. In particular, I think his exploration of the “Indian” element of our identities as U.S Latinos is brilliant. He started looking at it closely in the chapter called “India” in his second book, as you probably know. Anyways, I see some of what he says in “Brown” as relating to a few of the ideas you’re bringing up in this class.

  • On October 17, 2008 at 1:48 pm Prerna wrote:

    I also think you shouldn’t limit the class to ‘Latinos’ — there are plenty of other groups that are undocumented i.e. I am of Indian descent from the Pacific Islands. Also, you could probably grab some of the literature around undocumented students and the DREAM Act? Several books, like underground undergrads, have come out in the past 2 years on this.
    Don’t forget the blogosphere… We have undocumented immigrants documenting themselves — the subaltern can speak? Adreamdeferred.org is a good example.
    Anyway, if you want to converse, you have my email/website address.

  • On October 18, 2008 at 1:29 am Javier Huerta wrote:

    Dear Guillermo:
    I’m a big fan of Richard Rodriguez. Though I think his first book is his best, BROWN does have some great moments. I’ve actually used the “In the Brown Study” section before in composition classes and assigned a “Color essay” writing prompt.
    Dear Prerna:
    Actually right after I posted this blog I attended the Underground Undergrads Teach-in on the Berkeley campus. I bought a copy of the copy. They also had a great short video about a group of UCLA undocumented students who drive up to Washington state to get their I.D.s and driver’s licenses. I’m hoping to get my hands on the video and show it in the class as well.
    You’re right about not limiting the class to “Latinos.” The focus is more on the undocumented experience than ethnicity. I think the story of Tam Tran is intriguing. As you probably already know, She’s an underground undergrad who bravely testified in front of Congress, after which ICE went after her by arresting her family.
    Another blog: undergroundundergrads.org

  • On October 18, 2008 at 2:32 am Prerna wrote:

    That’s awesome … With the AB-540 legal battle in full-swing, I am sure we’ll probably get more literature. One of my professors at my former grad school SF State compiled another set of narratives on undocumented students – “Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives.”
    Right I know Tam. Think she got into Brown, Rhode Island and we are all very proud of her. There’s stories like that of Tam and Mkoyan and than there are those of DREAMers that have been deported — so disheartening, and some in-limbo. I did a couple of interviews last year, two DREAMers, one of Nigerian descent and the other British, which are here:
    http://bravenewfilms.org/blog/36997-meet-a-dreamer-i-fear-i-ll-be-another-lost-statistic
    http://bravenewfilms.org/blog/37494-voices-undocumented-british-citizen-with-an-american-dream
    Currently, I’m looking to do an article on gay Dreamers when I get a break. Now that is a case of intersectional /multi-dimensional marginalities and oppression; being in two different closets. How fun … :)
    Best of luck with the class; I am thrilled to see some sort of curriculum directed towards marginalized voices.

  • On October 18, 2008 at 10:34 pm Rigoberto wrote:

    Greetings, Javier. Sounds like a great course and one that I will probably also adopt and teach at Rutgers. I have no problem “limiting” the undocumented experiece to Mexicans, only because they are the group singled out and demonized repeatedly by the media and political pundits. Also, there are ways in which the Mexican experience is connected to other groups, like Japanese, Filipino, Chinese peoples and their immigrations into Mexico and through Mexico. Anyway, I would suggest looking at Luis Alberto Urrea’s THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY, Reyna Grande’s ACROSS A HUNDRED MOUNTAINS and Juan Felipe Herrera’s 187 REASONS MEXICANS CAN’T CROSS THE BORDER. Also the works of Guillermo Gomez Pena, our border brujo, and maybe even the satires of Culture Clash. And also, don’t forget the oldie but goodie film EL NORTE–a classic tale of shattered immigrant dreams. Good luck with this project and keep me posted.

  • On October 19, 2008 at 12:17 pm Matias Ramos wrote:

    Hello:
    I just wanted to point out that the website for our campaign is actually http://www.undergroundundergrads.com. We are developing a running blog with Tam, myself, and other AB540 students.
    Our blog’s name is based on its namesake publication Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, which we published this year. It is a student project that tells the diverse stories of 8 undocumented students. You could get a hold of it by visiting http://www.labor.ucla.edu.
    The book itself was born out of a class taught at UCLA in spring 2007. I could get a hold of the syllabus for you. Their focus was more based in policy and oral history, but I am very intrigued with the connections you make with the work of Debord and Negri/Hardt, which I think is an intrguing question even for myself as an undocumented student.
    Best of luck,
    Matias Ramos

  • On October 19, 2008 at 9:12 pm Javier Huerta wrote:

    Matias:
    Thanks for pointing out the correct address for your blog. I think I want to use the stories in that book and the video of the Washington state road trip to challenge the preconceived notions about undocumented immigrants that the students will be bringing to the classroom. Most people think of migrant/service workers (positive) and/or criminals (negative) when they think of undocumented immigrants. They probably don’t think of undergraduate students like you, Matias, and Tam who have plans to go to graduate school. Buena suerte.
    Rigoberto:
    That’s a great list of books. Urrea’s book is devastating. Herrera’s is a political protest/celebration. The book list only has two items because the R1B is a composition class and the focus should be on the students’ own writing. I chose those two because one is a nonfiction book and the other is a fictional novel that claims to have nothing to do with reality (if you’ve read the interviews.) . “Tianguis”, the character in the nonfictiion diary, is trying to document his own experience; the characters in Chava’s novel are trying to escape the written document. So I thought these two books made a good pair.
    Adapting the class for a literature course, I would definitely include everyone you mentioned, especially Reyna Grande’s novel since she based her fictional book on her nonfictional experiences. Thus her book seems to fall somewhere between DIARIO and PEOPLE OF PAPER.
    The additional readings in the Course Reader include poetry, including Herrera and Gomez Pena. It is conventional to assign novels as required books but to include poems in a reader. Now that I think of it though, this convention shortchanges poetry and poets.
    I’m thinking of putting together an anthology of “undocumented poems”, so it could be used in a class like this. Maybe I’ll post something about my plans for that anthology.

  • On October 20, 2008 at 12:33 am Jeffrey wrote:

    Javier,
    This sounds like a great course. I love the basic question: can the undocumented be documented. Maybe, just maybe, word will get out about your class via this blog, and some young people who are unpublished and undocumented will write you and send you promising work.
    It’s almost baffling how little is being said about the undocumented in this election. It’s as if the two candidates have had some back room agreement to not discuss it. And the raids are escalating, and lines are being crossed, and racial profiling is off the charts, and yet it’s not being discussed in the media, except on the demon level. And the fear rippling through families and communities is a real problem.
    best wishes and good luck, Jeffrey McDaniel


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, October 16th, 2008 by Javier Huerta.