flashlight on the immigration debate: an interview with Lynda Letona
Today I am interviewing Lynda Letona. I met her in Los Angeles, back in 1999, when I was doing a ten-session poetry workshop at her high school. She was one of the most talented high school poets I worked with and traveled with me to San Francisco, together with 4 other teen poets and poet Derrick Brown to take part in the Brave New Voices Festival, where she performed her work in front of 1000 people. She received a standing ovation for her poem about crossing the border, at the age of twelve.
For this post, I have decided to interview Lynda so as to put a human and poetic face on the immigration debate happening in this country. As a senior in high school, she was working 30-40 hours a week at a movie theater to help support her family, all while taking 6 classes, including several AP’s. She was accepted to college, but was ineligible for financial aid or in-state tuition because of her undocumented status. She was able to attend a four-year college in South Dakota as a result of the efforts and counsel from her 11th grade English teacher, Linda McGhee, and a combination of privately funded scholarships and an “angel”, a family friend who became her benefactor. She’s lived in the US for 23 of her 29 years. If she is not an American, then what is she?
Here is her bio, followed by some questions and answers. Lynda Letona received her MA in Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota. Her poems have appeared in hotmetalpress.net, The Virtual Poetry Slam Contest, and The VLP magazine. She received the Wayne S. and Esther M. Knutson Scholarship for achievement in playwriting, and was awarded by the NWSA Women of Color Caucus for her essay, “Magical Realism and Women in the Film Like Water for Chocolate.” She was raised in California and Guatemala. She currently lives in South Dakota, working in the non-profit sector for “Sharing the Dream in Guatemala.” Fugitive Lovers is her first novel.
How old are you?
I’m 29 years old. I’ll be 30 in October. I tell the young dudes I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and they ask what a spring chicken is.
When did you begin writing?
I wrote my first poem in elementary school, 6th grade. My grade school teacher scoffed at it (it was a silly rhyming poem with the word donkey in it). I don’t feel scarred by this. She was a ball breaker; she made “cholos” cry in class. She was a hard critic, what can I say? The poem did impress a friend in class. I dared not write another until my senior year in high school, during a workshop with Jeff McDaniel.
Do you write about your immigration experience status?
My first two high school poems were about my immigration experience. Most of my writing hasn’t dealt with it. The novel I’ve completed deals with my mother’s immigration experience, though it is not the focus. I think a future novel may deal with it directly, but I need a break from fiction. I think my next project will be a poetry collection.
Where are you on the path to citizenship?
I am attempting what is called the consular option (sounds like the nuclear option). That is when you leave the U.S. and request a “waiver,” which is a legal package you present to the U.S. consulate at your country of origin when you know you will be denied a Visa based on an EWI (entry without inspection). This does not guarantee success of returning; it’s based on hardship to your American spouse.
(P.S. As I was finishing this, I received my consular interview through email at the embassy and my heart dropped.)
What are your thoughts on the Dream Act?
Immense disappointment and sadness that it didn’t pass the Senate vote last December. But in a way, I was prepared for this, as I’ve come to learn that immigrants are often brushed to the side by politicians.
How is life different for your brother, who is documented?
I think he has many more choices than I do. My life is defined by paranoia. Growing up he had a difficult time understanding this, as exemplified by a New Year’s party we attended when he was 18 (my ex was driving). It went something like this:
(In a pathetic, apologetic tone)
“Can you please refrain from drinking? You’re a minor, and if the cops stop us, I can be in big trouble.”
“Whatever, you need to relax!”
“I’m not trying to be a kill joy. But seriously, please.”
Do you think it is safe to fly?
No. At times I’ve thought about flying in order to get caught and get myself into deportation proceedings, but this is not a safe option. The chances of being allowed to stay in the country are very slim through this method, as my team of lawyers informs me.
How have things shifted for you in this country in the past five years?
I’ve been in and out of therapy and lawyers’ offices. At English Dept. parties I used to joke that I had a team of therapists the way a bride may have a team of make-up artists. So far, they’ve proven helpful (my lawyer does need to contact me about the waiver). Writing has helped me deal with things immensely; given me a sense of purpose, so to speak. But this is not a shift I guess, it’s just that I feel like I’ve come to rely more on writing when I’m not bogged down with legalese, which takes up a lot of time, even when you have a “team” of lawyers.
How long have you been going to therapy? How has that helped?
It's been on and off since 2008. It's helped me find coping mechanisms with the stress associated with my undocumented status. This also affects family and friends, so it's good for them to find professional help as well.
Have you been active in performance communities?
Yes, I've been active in the VLP (Vermillion Literary Project), which conducts poetry readings, podcasts, workshops, and various literary activities. I've participated in poetry slams, podcasting, and led workshops for high school students at USD. I have not been a member the past two years, however, because of my research for the novel and writing. I was in theatre performances throughout my undergraduate studies. I played the lead role for Joined at the Head and directed and wrote a short play titled Wife of Bath--in the Ghetto. I have a bio up on myspace page. I'll include it below. Otherwise, I've been volunteering at Sharing the Dream in Guatemala, a non-profit organization that helps Guatemalan artisans and their communities. I think I've been involved with STDG since 2007.
Do you have a blog or website people can link to?
I don't have a blog or website, but I call this my "artist page." I put up poetry & other stuff occasionally. http://www.myspace.com/lyndaletona
Here is an excerpt from Letona’s poem Jesus is the Man:
When I’m in the house of God
all I can think of is
sex and violence
and I can hear the preacher’s member quivering
and I can see Brother Paul’s eyes jittering
and lingering far too long on Sister Mary’s breasts.
Hey, can we all hold hands? Can we? That’s my favorite part cuz I like to stroke them and grope them, and I love to feel the heat that comes with guilt—it’s sooooo rrrreligious.
The only thing I like about Catholic churches is that Jesus’ image is so emphasized it is usually presented in visual form. This allows me to think of him in human terms
the way the encrusted blood is spread and maybe drips between his legs
the way his six-pack leads the eye to wonder what’s under that man diaper
the way he suffers, for me, for you
the way he bleeds—for—me—for—you.
Answer me this: Would you worship me if I told you I would die for you?
My business card reads,
*parties *suicidal freak-outs *elemental needs and *everything in-between.
Tel. 1-800-777-7777 www.theone.com
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...