I’m reading various newspaper articles about Bush’s speech on immigration last night and thinking about the linguistic tug of war between phrases like “illegal alien,” “illegal immigrant,” and “undocumented worker,” and how poets are in a conflicted position—working in a medium where the main tool, language, is also used for political control.

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It’s strange to hear Bush mention that one of the requirements to citizenship would be a “proficiency in English,” considering his barbaric relationship to the language.

[It reminds me of an idea I once had about cloning sheep. If cloning sheep is in the news—only the tip of the iceberg ever appears in the news, we must envision the rest—then they are most likely cloning humans somewhere deep in the earth, in one of those secret military laboratories. And I wonder if Bush is secretly the first cloned President; maybe the real Bush died in a drunken skiing accident back in his “nomadic” years. The artificial Bush, the clone, is an early model, so some of his programs don’t function properly, like his speech apparatus. Condoleezza Rice is the updated version; she’s the prototype of the future. She actually speaks forty-seven languages, but they won’t let her display them all yet, because they don’t want to freak people out. I keep hoping she’ll malfunction in a news conference and start conversing fluently in a rare dialect of Mandarin.]

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Bush wants to deploy the National Guard to the border of Mexico. That sounds like a great idea. That’ll probably lower the price of gasoline and reduce casualties in Iraq. (What a strange, sanitized word for killing: casualties, as if there’s anything casual about it.) How long before a guardsperson plucks an incoming child with buckshot? Probably we should plaster any migrating birds crossing the border illegally. And perhaps get rid of sports teams at the high school level and just consolidate all the athletes into little armies that do battle once a week.

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When I lived in Los Angeles (1996-2001), I taught 10-week poetry workshops at various public high schools. Occasionally I’d run across a student who had a real passion. One such student was named Lynda. I was assembling a group of teen poets to take to the 2000 National Teen Poetry Slam in San Francisco, and I invited Lynda to take part. Through the various workshops and rehearsals leading up to our trip, I got to know her and her situation. She was 17, worked 30 hours a week at a movie theater, and maintained a straight A average in school. Since her mother had gotten fired from her job as a nanny, Lynda was the breadwinner in her family.

Lynda was born in Guatemala. Her mother traipsed across the US/Mexico border with two year-old Lynda was slung over her shoulder. When Lynda was seven, her mother took her and her brother (who was born in the US and therefore documented) back to Guatemala for five years. When Lynda was 12, her mother brought her back to California. A lot had changed in 10 years; this time Lynda and her mother had to hire a coyote, to help them avoid la migra, and travel through really extreme terrain and weather conditions.

In San Francisco, just before the final night of the festival, Lynda spent an hour in front of the mirror, making sure her hair and clothes and make-up were just right. I loved that the world had not taken this from her, that there was still a little bit of diva quivering in her, despite all her hard work and perseverance.

That night Lynda read a piece about crossing the border. It was in the voice of her 12 year-old self. (Luckily I just located a copy on my hard drive.) Here’s an excerpt:

Hide, Senor Coyote? What did I do wrong?
I’ll pretend we’re playing hide and go seek.
The man in the uniform is coming.
No, no, I won’t let him find me.
I always was the best at hide and seek.
Mommy is trembling.
It’s alright, mommy. It’s hide and seek.
This world now seems a labyrinth
That tortures little rats.
No, he’s getting close!
Senor Coyote, don’t let him find us.
Freedom is my oxygen.
Without it, I can’t breathe
.

She got a standing ovation. The glow in her face as she exited the stage was luminous enough to brighten even the darkest region of my heart.

A month after that, Lynda graduated high school. She had applied to and was accepted by a bunch of colleges, but because she was not an official citizen, she did not qualify for in-state tuition and was not eligible for financial aid. Her situation, if it wasn’t so common, might be called Kafkaesque. Miraculously, her high school English teacher was able to get a private Catholic college to overlook her undocumented status and give her some financial aid, and then an angel—a successful Hollywood screenwriter who had once employed her mother—generously covered the rest of her tuition.

Four years later, in 2004, Lynda graduated from college, fell in love and got married to an American classmate. But since she didn’t have a green card and officially exist in this country, she still couldn’t get citizenship or work legally. Luckily, in the past month, she was just accepted into an MA program for English and given a fellowship. She continues to write and perform her poems and is working on a memoir about her life.

I guess I’m thinking about her and how political subjects in the media can seem abstract and distant unless there’s a human face to personalize the issue, and how poetry can be a transformative act, how when Lynda shared her poem that night in front of 1200 people, she turned the microphone into Ellis Island and was spiritually legalized.

Originally Published: May 16th, 2006

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...