“Is that a promise or a threat?”: Using (Un) Documents to examine how performances of citizenship construct the dichotomous “good” and “bad” immigrant.

“I’ve been looking at the border for a long time and asking, ‘Is that a promise or a threat?’” So asks queer performance artist Jesús L. Valles, early on during a performance of their one-person show (Un)Documents. I had the pleasure of attending the Lawrence University presentation of the show in 2019 in Appleton, Wisconsin. Valles (2019), a 2018 Undocupoets fellow and 2019 Lambda Literary fellow, is a queer Mexican immigrant originally from Ciudad Juárez, México. Their artistic statement, provided in the bio of the playbill for the show, indicates that “at the age of nine, I was undocumented in El Paso, Texas. In the years that followed, I became many things (a cultural broker, a wetback, a primary translator, a faggot, a diversity burro, a resident alien, a joto, a naturalized citizen).” From the start, Valles’ biographical statement makes clear that in the process of getting those documents that makes one a citizen, you become many things to survive. Asking what the border will do to you is a poignant question to raise because the politics and policies around the U.S./Mexico border and the U.S.’s treatment of immigrants, such as deportations and persecutions, makes those who must cross its borders question what it will do to them once they get to the other side.

Often, U.S. political discourse constructs immigrant groups into two camps, “good immigrants” who can perform citizenship well and are thus deserving of citizenship and “bad immigrants,” or those who fail at performing citizenship and are thus undeserving. But what do documents proving one’s citizenship mean if not every person within a single Latinx immigrant family is a citizen, and the family instead has both the “good immigrant” deserving of citizenship and the “bad immigrant” that does not deserve it? Even more so, what does it mean if the distinction between the “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant” is blurred and instead the “good immigrant” can embody a lot of the “bad immigrant” traits and vice versa? These questions become important in the context of the play. They ask if the border is a promise or a threat, because if it were as simple as who is “good” and who is “bad,” then the border as a promise or a threat is clear. It is a promise for “good immigrants” and a threat for bad ones. But if you inhabit both spaces, as Jesús Valles and their brother Govelin do, Jesús is “good” in terms of how they perform citizenship but “bad” in being a fat and queer while Govelin is “good” in the way he performs masculinity but “bad” in the sense that he is not a legal citizen who can speak English, then the border is both a promise and a threat. Thus, what one must do to survive can convert them into a promise or threat to others as well. (Un)documents demonstrates how there is no such thing as the “good immigrant” or “bad immigrant.”  The border will transform both regardless. Survival in the performance means finding agency in impossible ways, embracing joy, and envisioning a future without literal borders between families or figurative borders between people.

(Un)documents is a mixture of sound, visual images, bodily performance, and spoken word poetry as Valles takes you through their journey as a child being coached on how to say “AMERICAN” at the border to become a “good immigrant.” It follows the deportation of their brother that they had conflicts with growing up, and how they handle the pain afterwards by embracing queer joy. In their introduction to the special issue on citizenship, membership, and belonging in mixed-status families, Bonjour and Hart (2021) highlight the role performative citizenship plays in constructing the “good” and “bad” citizen. They state that performative citizenship “is conceptualised not as something that people are or have but as something that people do” (p.9). (Un)Documents demonstrates the ways that a Latinx queer immigrant performs citizenship to survive and enact the “good immigrant.” Valles states:

gordito

Learn AMERICAN

Stickers on your assignments,

– talk to teachers, good boy,

learn AMERICAN. Compliant.

\\\

I am 11 years old and I’m learning “AMERICAN”

Mouth first

Gordito,

no food at home, still fat somehow

I learned English from school lunch menus

Monday: pizza, Tuesday: Meatloaf, Wednesday: chili bowl, Thursday: Salisbury steak, Friday: Cheese fries

Texas public school, trade your homework for candy and

Snacks – I am a fat boy learning “AMERICAN” in my mouth,

mouth first

In these sets of stanzas, Valles describes how a fat little boy becomes good by learning “AMERICAN.” Valles uses the word “American” throughout the performance to not only encapsulate an experience many who cross the border encounter, saying it for validation, but to also capture the essence of what being an American is to a young, fat, Latinx queer. For Valles, American means performing a certain type of citizenship; following orders, doing well enough in school to be rewarded, and learning English, to be a “good boy.” Eating and fatness become forms of survival for Valles, as they learn English by way of the school menu and despite not having “food at home.” They are able to feed themself by trading homework for candy and snacks. Indigenous feminist scholar Margaret Robinson’s (Rice et al. 2020) story about the survival of her Mi’kmaq ancestors due to the ability to store fat “subverts dominant meanings of fat as disease or health risk into a marker of surviving colonialism” (p. 189). Similarly, Valles’ use of fatness in this case marks it not as a disease or burden but as an intelligent means of survival for a Latinx immigrant in a country racially and physically hostile to them.

As the performance progressed, the contrast between Valles’ “good immigrant” performance and their brother Govelin’s “bad immigrant” performance takes center stage. Valles describes in painful detail how they were called to the counselor’s office in elementary school because the counselor had no record that Valles had any formal schooling. Valles cries, both in the memory of their childhood and onstage in the performance. They explain that part of what made them a “good immigrant” was how well their parents coached them to remain silent and never reveal to the counselor or anyone that they did not have documents proving their citizenship. This silence from Valles was constructed as part of performing good citizenship in contrast to his brother Govelin, who was loud, rude, and thus a “bad immigrant.”  They state:

Govelin is my older brother and he is not quiet and he’s not like me

Baseball and scratch his balls and rude and he laughs at me cuz I’m fat

///

I am good and good grades and good reading and school trophies and

He is bad, he curses and calls my dad by his first name Gerardo

///

And why do they love him so much, and no papers, and no papers,

And no papers, and still he is no good, and he cannot say AMERICAN like me

And they love him so much, and this place is going to love me so much more, mouth first.

These specific stanzas from the performance are powerful examples of how performing citizenship and becoming the “good immigrant” versus the “bad immigrant” can have negative consequences on a mixed status family. As immigration scholar Yen Le Espiritu’ indicates     , “[t]he process of differential inclusion…is not about closing the physical national borders but about creating borders within the nation. In this sense, the border is everywhere” (2003, 211). By contrasting their good performance of citizenship, that is being compliant, being silent, and learning English, against their brother’s bad performance of citizenship, Valles highlights the figurative border and internalized policing of it that divides them from their brother. They are good because of good grades and winning school trophies while Govelin is bad for being loud, cursing and making fun of Valles for being fat. This contrast troubles Valles, who wonders why Govelin is so loved by their family when Valles is the one who can say “AMERICAN” and properly perform citizenship. By stating that “they love him so much, and this place is going to love me so much more,” Valles reveals their struggles with their family pushing them to become documented and perform citizenship so as to be a “good immigrant” when Govelin, who does not perform citizenship in the same way and is thus the “bad immigrant,” still receives love from their family. The struggle represents both the literal border around citizenship in their family but also the figurative border between the two siblings. In another part of the performance, they describe an altercation with Govelin. It goes:

I am 13 and my brother and I are unpacking the car, taking groceries inside. Because he is my

brother, he puts a foot out. I trip over bags holding the things we’ll eat that week and he is standing,

laughing. At me. Again. “Fuck you, you fucking asshole!”

and I see his face, blood-filled, wild red, and wide-eyed. And because I am who I am at this point,

he pounds through his teeth. “A mi no me estes hablando en Ingles, que no te entiendo.”

He is afraid of this thing I can do with my mouth.

This colossus they love so much is terrified of me.

With the above account of tension between Govelin and Jesús, it becomes evident how the border is a promise for Valles and a threat for their brother. While Valles, in their performance of citizenship, is rewarded for their good grades and learning English, Govelin is instead upheld in the family for his performance of a certain type of masculinity, the loud, abrasive, and unapologetic kind. Yet, when Govelin trips Valles, causing him to drop all the groceries, Valles responds in English. This terrifies their brother, who was unable to learn English and “blood-filled, wild red, and wide-eyed” is enraged with humiliation at not knowing what his sibling is saying to him. With the reference to how much Govelin is “terrified” of them, Valles becomes the threat of the border to their undocumented brother. In a mixed status family, the process of citizenship can transform one into either the “good immigrant” or the “bad immigrant,” or make one both as embodied in Valles who is simultaneously the promise and threat.

The performance also further demonstrates how the distinction between the “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant” is rendered ineligible with the inclusion of sexuality. Sexuality for undocumented immigrants and for Latinx people, troubles the meaning behind citizenship so that it is not a simple performance one enacts that ends with a simple conclusion. Sexuality is policed in different contexts and thus nonheteronormative sexuality can hinder one’s opportunity to attain citizenship. Nonetheless, many undocuqueers use their gender and sexuality performances to provide them a sense of agency that is otherwise denied to them via citizenship (Cisneros and Gutierrez 2018). Valles demonstrates this as they explain the ways that they come of age sexually. Take for example:

My brother is a man and I am not – I am my father’s half-thing

///

learning to kiss men in Barnes and Noble bathrooms

I am 16

and a place for men two/three times my age to rest themselves in

Wrestle themselves in / my body / a bed / a grave /

the bottom of an ocean

I am 16 and drunk too young with men 34, 42, 65

Learning to keep quiet and stay good, learning to take what is given

Learning this is AMERICAN too, body still, mouth open, too

Learning AMERICAN men like this, too – good grades,

Good head, folded-hand, cross-legged, wide open

A gallery of AMERICAN men inside me

While Govelin is a man and a representation of what their family loves in Latinx masculinity, Valles proclaims that they are not a man but a half thing. With photos of their young selves displayed on the projector screen behind them, Valles describes how they come to understand their queerness like many U.S. queer men by cruising Barnes and Nobles bathrooms, being drunk at a young age, and having sex with men way older than them. Valles takes what he learned about being a “good boy” and “AMERICAN” and uses them as forms of agency. They understand that “AMERICAN men like this too” as they comply with demands in silence. By “learning to take what is given” and giving “good head,” Valles, who is not a man in comparison to Govelin and a half-thing according to their father, uses their sexuality to become something, “a gallery [for] American men.” Nonetheless, the promise of the border and of citizenship may mean being desired as is the case above, but that desire does not mean things will be better, especially when one’s body is made “a grave” for others.

Once Valles obtains citizenship, gender and sexuality continue to operate as figurative borders for them and their family. As the performance continues, Valles describes how they eventually became a citizen, tying their citizenship to being a “good boy.” Through the process of filing papers, learning English, performing the right type of citizenship, Valles eventually becomes a legal citizen. Still, Valles manages to contrast their experience with their brother Govelin. With “La jaula de oro,” the narcocorrido playing in the background and a winter light setting, Valles describes to the audience the day their brother was taken from work and deported back to Juárez, Mexico. The moment is calm and painfully silent in the theater as Valles’ performance becomes excruciatingly real. They describe the way their mother is heartbroken, and how she blames herself for everything. They say:

Somedays, I wish the table would break under the weight of the papers. Because that is the

weight my mother carries on her legs and on her back, always the guilt. Because she blames herself

for the uneven citizenship of two brothers

///

Citizenship is a collection arbitrary of accidents.

There are no good boys or bad immigrants – just wanting. Just waiting.

I’ve been looking towards my brother for years now, looking at the border,

asking that bridge the same fucking question, “Is that a promise or a threat?”

After Govelin’s deportation and the rupture of their mixed status family, it becomes clear that the answer to the question is both. The border, the documents, the process of becoming a citizen, are all promises of something and threats of something else. The border was always a threat to the family as it separated them into “good immigrants” who performed citizenship and “bad immigrants” who failed to do so. In the end the border and its demands for documents divided the entire family. Yet, in a perverse way, the border was also the promise of something else. For example, the deportation in varying ways broke down the figurative borders that were dividing the family, from macho to effeminate, from gay to straight, and from citizen to noncitizen. After the deportation they no longer mattered. Instead, it was about how they survive the impossible. The family’s connection and Valles’ will to survive are the promise of the border.  For example:

“How did your parents handle it?”

I know two people who have fashioned whole worlds out of nothing but necessity, will, and dust.

I am a child of two architects of the impossible. We handled that shit the way we always handle it.

We are impossible people. Like my brother,

My father is a man and I am not

And I love him all the same.

I don’t hold that shit against him.

 

I have told my father I loved him a handful of times.

He has never said it back.

My father has never told me he loves me.

Lately, I try it more often.

On the phone, le digo, “’apa, lo quiero mucho.”

He hangs up or passes the phone to my mom at this point.

Es cosa de machos, no? No decirle a tu hijo, el joto, que lo quieres.

I know he does.

Mocking the indifference of White folks, Valles asks in a nasally White gay man’s voice “How did your parents handle it?”—it being the deportation of Govelin. Valles acknowledges that survival for mixed status Latinx families means doing the impossible, moving forward and resisting the figurative borders the state socializes immigrants to internalize. In a country like the United States, which positions itself as progressive in terms of gender and sexuality, Valles’ father’s homophobia and their brother’s masculinity would be seen on the U.S. side of the border as regressive and representations of the “bad immigrant.” Yet, after the deportation of their brother, Valles refuses to internalize this colonized understanding of gender and sexuality. Valles accepts that their father is a man, and they are not, but they refuse to “hold that against them,” and when their father refuses to say I love you back, Valles recognizes that he does regardless.

Research on coming out and overt queer acceptance has long suggested that this is an expectation of White U.S. gay culture (Han et al. 2018). For queers of color, negotiations around love and acceptance among racial groups represents a different struggle versus the structural racism they experience from larger society, which is often more impactful. Valles might experience homophobia from their family, but the border ripped their family apart. After the deportation, the figurative borders that would have separated Valles from their father no longer matter. What was left was more compassion for their family, more articulation of love and more unconditional acceptance. José Esteban Muñoz calls this the sense of feeling brown (Muñoz 2020). According to Muñoz, feeling brown is “feeling together in difference. Feeling brown is an ‘apartness together’ through sharing the status of being a problem” (p. 39). As is the case with Valles, when the border constructs your family and life as a problem, perhaps all that is left is each other.

This sense of feeling brown continued to mark the final act of the performance as Valles continued to share narratives about friendship, love and loss. The threat of the border transformed Valles and their family, dichotomizing them into good or bad immigrants, demanding they perform a recognizable citizenship, and ripping them apart. Yet, the promise of the border was how they found a sense of brownness with each other after tragedy, and how Valles continues the impossibility of finding joy and a means to live even after the border took so much from them. They share:

At the Iron Bear,

I laugh with my friend Armando about

The things jotos

laugh about when they

Are with each other

About our mothers, about their warnings

About our eating habits, about the men at the bar

About the tired queens we are

We laugh in the tongue

Our mothers sang to us

Within these stanzas we see joy in laughter, joy in friendship with Armando, joy in memory, joy in eating and thinking about mothers. In answering the White gay man’s question of how one handles it, a deportation that rips a family apart, Valles answers by again showing us the connectedness of two Latinx jotos in their difference. The various iterations of joy here, after tragedy, illustrates how Valles’ parents overcome the impossible, and the impossible tenaciousness of Valles themselves. While the border threatened to tear them apart, they became the promise of their futures, the daring joy to continue to exist, the emotional bridge across borders.

In Assimilation: An Alternative History, Catherine Ramírez (2020) points to the dissident Dreamer, undocuqueer, and Oaxacalifornix as embodiments of forms of being that defy the expectations of the United States. She argues that because “they exceed extant regimes of circulation, such as the nation of immigrants and the nation of laws, the dissident Dreamer, the undocuqueer, and the Oaxacalifornix are impossible subjects” that point us to a new way of being (p.116). I argue that Valles’ (Un)documents operates in a similar fashion. I left (Un)Documents transformed, not because it was a pleasant story about how “good immigrants” prevail or “bad immigrants” falter, but because it showed how the process of citizenship shapes and reshapes actors in various ways. The border is a promise and a threat to immigrants to the U.S. Those who successfully cross it may become promises and threats themselves. Yet, the impossible will to survive and persist at whatever cost demonstrates how marginalized people overcome differing borders in various ways.

REFERENCES

Bonjour, Saskia, and Betty De Hart. 2021. “Intimate Citizenship: Introduction to the Special Issue on Citizenship , Membership and Belonging in Mixed-Status Families.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 28(1):1–17. doi: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1737404.

Cisneros, Jesus, and Julia Gutierrez. 2018. “‘What Does It Mean to Be Undocuqueer?’ Exploring (Il)Legibility within the Intersection of Gender, Sexuality, and Immigration Status.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 5(1):84–102.

Espiritu, Yen Le. 2003. Homebound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities and Countries. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Han, Chong-suk, George Ayala, Jay P. Paul, and Kyung-hee Choi. 2018. “West Hollywood Is Not That Big on Anything but White People: Constructing ‘Gay Men of Color.’” The Sociological Quarterly 58(4):721–37. doi: 10.1080/00380253.2017.1354734.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2020. The Sense of Brown. edited by J. Chambers Letson and T. Nyong’o. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ramírez, Catherine. 2020. Assimilation: An Alternative History. First ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rice, Carla, Karleen Pendleton Jiménez, Elisabeth Harrison, Margaret Robinson, Jen Rinaldi, Andrea LaMarre, and Jill Andrew. 2020. “Bodies at the Intersections: Refiguring Intersectionality through Queer Women’s Complex Embodiments.” Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society 46(1):177–200.

Valles, Jesús I. 2019. (Un)Documents. United States. Appleton, WI: Lawrence University.

Author’s Bio

Jesús Gregorio Smith is an Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at Lawrence University of Appleton and an Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Andrew W. Mellon Fellow. He has published several journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and book reviews in such venues as the Encyclopedia of Latinx Issues Today, AIDS & Behavior, and Issues in Race and Society. Jesús coedited a collection of essays through Lexington Books titled Home and Community for Queer Men of Color: The Intersection of Race and Sexuality. His work has appeared in such venues as Rolling Stone, Vice, The Washington Post, the BBC, and NPR.

Photo: Used with Permission

“Jesús I. Valles stands in front of a projection of their child self, explaining how Buffy the Vampire Slayer became formative to their language acquisition.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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