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Evoking Empathy in Migration Stories

Discussions about immigration can be very divisive and difficult within the United States as there are many different viewpoints on it. The memoir Illegal (2014), from José Ángel N., and the novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (2022), by Angie Cruz, address the human experience of immigration. These narratives tackle the complexities of the conversations surrounding immigration and help readers build a capacity for empathy by portraying the gravity of individual experiences under the umbrella of immigration.

These stories offer a space for ethical witnessing that “demands critical engagement from an audience.” [1] José Ángel N. and Angie Cruz present stories that engage deeply personal recollections in José Ángel N.’s case, and deeply personal events in the life of Cara, the protagonist of Cruz’s novel.  Interestingly, both stories express a privilege that native-born Americans may not recognize they have: tranquility. In Illegal, a passage early in the memoir centers on the lack of ease José Ángel N. feels as an undocumented person in the United States. José Ángel N. touches on the idea of feeling like an intruder in the U.S., a feeling difficult to explain to someone who may not understand the experiences of undocumented immigrants. He writes that he has the privilege of working in a middle-class office job rather than working at a diner, but no job or position can replace peace and it cannot “alleviate the constant nervousness” he feels (19). From his specific perspective, peace is not possible due to his status as an undocumented immigrant. In How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, the protagonist Cara emphasizes that calm is a privilege, when she tells her job counselor that “Everybody cannot be calm. To be calm is a luxury!” (Cruz 111). Knowing what it feels like to not be protected, Cara is protective of others and vigilant in doing so. Whether documented or undocumented, many immigrants might relate to this experience of feeling on edge for their safety and the safety of their community. This is why stories like José Ángel N.’s and the fictional protagonist Cara’s are important. These are stories that call for engaged listening and empathizing: ethical witnessing.

Each of these narratives is set in cities that are considered melting pots in America: Chicago and New York City. These are cities that have plentiful immigrant communities but given their status as immigrants that does not equate to safety in or out of the community. Cara’s hyper-individualistic persona stems from a place of fear, which stems from her past traumas and the experiences of those around her. When we learn these things about her past, we as readers can better understand where Cara is coming from, and it might make us empathize with her. The fact that Cara and José Ángel N. are constantly on edge is not an easy feeling to experience, nor is it a comfortable feeling for the reader to feel as they follow these narratives. The idea of tranquility as a privilege is realized for the reader when the reader closes the book, but hopefully retains the knowledge gained from these narratives.

Police interactions are another area of concern for immigrants, documented or undocumented. Cara’s fear of the police, as a mother and a darker-skinned person, appears to be based on the experience, in the United States, of policing influenced by racial profiling that leads to negative interactions between police and people of color. For example, Cara states that “Because many mothers don’t teach their children how to be with the policía and we have tragedies because of this. The policía do not take care of our children. We have to take care of them” (Cruz 23). This language of “we” and “us” demonstrates a communal need not served by the police as a societal institution. It is also another shining example of Cara’s protectiveness toward her community. She has no choice but to reciprocate the watchful eye the police extend to her community so that she can ensure the protection of the children in her community.

José Ángel N.’s narrative presents other socioeconomic factors that might add more fear to interactions with the police. He is not initially nervous in an encounter with police during a traffic stop, despite having false papers, because he felt prepared to speak English, however he notes the general “lack of contents in [his] wallet,” showing his concern about his socioeconomic status (57, 58). For him, this is an opportunity to be a “real” American by demonstrating his language skills and presenting his papers. But the officer is not so kind when José Ángel N. speaks English and instead condescendingly questions José Ángel N.’s ability to “even” speak English. He doesn’t comment on any of the many ways this interaction could have gone wrong, but José Ángel N. does express the deep humiliation he endures in this encounter, which is the true point of the story. Reading how José Ángel N.s’s excitement turns into demoralization is painful, evoking compassion for José Ángel when he refuses to speak English for the rest of the day.

Both stories present narrators who express, in detail, their difficulties with writing or speaking English, allowing readers to see what it looks and feels like. In José Ángel N.’s interaction with the police, he, an immigrant learning English, is shut down in his attempt to assimilate and speak the dominant language. Further on, José Ángel N. dives deeper into his journey of learning English, personifying the language when he tells readers that English made him feel like “nothing but a bundle of flesh and bone still waiting for the breath of life” (62). José Ángel N. feels that he has no voice because he cannot even express himself to the majority of people who he is trying to please via assimilation. That sentiment of never feeling enough, that he cannot please everyone around him whether they speak English or Spanish is ever present. The ability to express oneself is so innately human and to feel that that has been taken away from you is dehumanizing. Throughout Cara’s story, readers see different examples of Cara working to understand English terms. For instance, when Cara mixes up embarrassed and pregnant because, in Spanish, embarazada is pregnant. The copies of Cara’s official paperwork that the novel reproduces in its pages allows the reader to fill in the gaps in Cara’s narratives, and we learn about the limits on her English abilities. Her inability to write English on some of these official forms could possibly be why she has not landed a job, despite the fact that her answers may be sufficient for the jobs. As the reader comes to learn more about Cara and her story, both of these passages are disheartening for an empathetic reader to take in. Cara shares many personal issues with her job counselor, and by extension, the reading audience, though she doesn’t say much about her English abilities. While it is not her fault that she has not mastered a language foreign to her, readers see that this can affect how potential employers view her and/or accept her, impacting her ability to land a job, and raising awareness of the situation of people who don’t speak English as a first language.

Each of these stories presents readers with a unique narrative style to illustrate the documented and undocumented immigrant experience, emphasizing that there is no monolithic way to experience migration. Yet both of these protagonists do have experiences in common as a result of being an immigrant: the realization that peace is a privilege, fear of the police, and struggling with English. These two stories call readers to engage with the experience of migration through the emotional experiences of their narrators. Perhaps through them, readers may gain empathy for the immigrants they encounter in their own lives, making compassion and kindness the way we bridge the divisive issue of immigration in the U.S.


Photo Credit: “Wall of Empathy” by David Goehring. November 16, 2016. CC BY 2.0

[1] For discussion of ethical witnessing see Angela Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016), 118.

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