Sonia Guiñansaca: On the Migrant Arts Movement and the Power of Creating Chapbooks
Author: Kay Ulanday Barrett
December 28, 2017
As December marks the end of the year, as we survive another year with more stories and the urgent need to innovate Queer perspectives more than ever, I thought it fitting to highlight the accomplishments of a poet and writer who tackles writing from a hybrid approach. Don’t get me wrong. I am a book nerd. I also think political praxis exists outside the liminal space of the page. Socio-political-informed art is the mainstay for people who face political threat on a constant basis. What other approach encapsulates moments of risk, respite from harsh headlines and policy, and allows the writer and audience to bring their fullest selves to task?
I wanted to recognize holidays two-fold and offer a poetic approach to International Human Rights day (12/10) and International Migrants Day (12/18), both holidays celebrated globally and initiated by the U.N. I’m interested in versatile writing that draws on cultural poetry engaged in lived experience. Yes, work centered “in the streets” and most crucially, in communities impacted by deplorable circumstances. Whose work is more fitting than nationally acclaimed migrant organizer and poet, Sonia Guiñansaca?
This December marks the first anniversary of Guiñansaca’s debut chapbook, Nostalgia & Borders. Their biography demonstrates a refreshing utility and deepened connection to writing as a cultural tool meant to embolden and enliven, of which I argue cannot be accomplished in the academic literary canon alone. Guiñansaca is a VONA/Voices alumni and has performed at El Museo Del Barrio, The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the NY Poetry Festival, Galleria de La Raza, The Met, and featured on NBC, PBS, Latina Magazine, Pen American, and The Poetry Foundation to name a few. She has presented keynotes, workshops, and panels at universities throughout the country. They have been named as 1 of 10 Up and Coming Latinx Poets You Need to Know by Remezcla, as well as one of “13 Coolest Queers” on the Internet by Teen Vogue. Currently, Guiñansaca is the 2017’s Artist in Residence at NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, and recently a U.S.A Future Leaders Delegate for the British Council.
Guiñansaca has emerged as a national leader in the undocumented/migrant artistic and political communities since the early 2000’s. They’ve co-founded and helped build some of the largest undocumented organizations in the country, coordinating and participating in groundbreaking civil disobedience actions in the immigrant rights movement. Additionally, Guiñansaca has founded some of the first creative artistic projects by and for undocumented writers/artists and is considered a visionary leading conversations on Migrant arts movement in the U.S. Their chapbook, Nostalgia & Borders was self-published in October 2017.
Let’s begin with your relationship to Ecuador, which has a presence throughout Nostalgia & Borders. As a migrant poet, how do you write about place & time? What does homeland mean to you and how has this very real concept influenced your life and writing?
I was undocumented till two year ago. A total of 21+ years of not being able to go back to Ecuador, of missing out on my grandparent’s burials etc. By the age of 28, I’ve had to re-imagine home, over, and over, and over again. Living in limbo makes you become sort of an architect; piecing together childhood memories of campo life, of abuelita and abuelito’s aging faces, placing perfectly the smells of fruits like guanavana and zapote into paper. As a migrant, this is the imagination I’ve had to rely on. I’ve learned through my parents and other migrant elders to do this. A lineage of forever recreating and holding on to fragmented memories of Ecuador. My poetry then becomes a testament of my attempt to not forget, an attempt to claim some type of homeland, an attempt to say I was real before the migration. I write poetry that lives in multi-dimensional ways, it lives beyond any borders, beyond physical elements, beyond time. I’m a time traveler, going back and forth from memories, weaving the forbidding and the sacred. I am forever chasing homeland with each stanza, with each space, with each word.
In Calling Cards you elaborate on the lineage of family and the impacts of loss that takes place as someone in the diaspora. Calling cards becomes a living thing, as in Calling cards don’t have heart beats anymore / They just hang in the store / Teasing you / “ What ways does poetry help you navigate loss, specifically can you talk about how poetry reclaims identity?
My poems are reconciliation between what I’ve had to leave behind. There is a word in Welsh, hiraeth, which encompasses what most of my poetry is about: a deep longing for home. Poetry has given the grief of loss a language; sometimes it comes out in Spanglish. Calling Cards is a poem about those damn $5, $10, $15 old-school-calling-cards that migrant families in the U.S would buy at the bodega to make international calls. I remember mom and grandma buying them for special occasions. These plastic cards with magical numbers helped transport my migrant family across borders to Ecuador. Everyone huddled on the landline phone trying to listen to elders who were still in Ecuador, and the shouting we would do so they could hear us.
Each family member spoke fast to make use of the 10-15 minutes those calling cards give you. Sentences jumbled in pain came out and then you’d hear the operator’s voice telling you only one minute is left and you hurried to pass it to the next family member. And then the call is over. And you are back to reality. Non-migrant folks like to romanticize borders and migration. My poetry helps reclaim this experience because I am migrant. I have lived as an undocumented person. And even now, as I write out this answer there is a tight pull in my heart because these memories, this pain, this loss is for me to write, no one else can’t write on my behalf. You can’t make this pain up.
An element I love about your chapbook is the range of unabashed reclamations. A short poem Glory was featured in poetry video form on mitú. Can you talk more about reclamation of gender identity and why this poem is particularly crucial?
I am expected not to reclaim anything. Good immigrant myth disciplines many of us, especially badass migrant femmes of color, to be humble. I want to celebrate me/us in any opportunity I can. Solange once said in an interview how stating your accomplishments, especially for women of color, is considered as bad and ego inflating, so we are told to quiet down and be humble. No! I will own my brilliance, I will own my femmeness and my queerness, and my resilience, and my style, and my flyness. And if I co-created or helped found an organization or project, I will state it because it’s true and labor went into it and why would I not want to highlight my hard work? Oh I get it, erasure! Fuck being humble, I am unapologetic about my skills, experience, and creative.
The other part of this, fat round femmes of color, more specifically those who are migrant/undocumented, are not given the space to flourish or to even claim those identities. So I am going to have all the audacity and reclaim those things. There is a mis-representation of what femme is or looks like, and it is mostly white, rich, and skinny looking. There is a mis-representation of what gender nonconforming folks look like, and it is mostly white, centered on masculinity, and thinness. So I will disrupt that. My poem “Glory” is exactly that , an ode to femmes of color who are artists, fat, disabled, Black, brown, migrant, refugee, undocumented, working class, with thick accents and thick thighs…. It is an ode to my mother who taught me how to adorn and create ritual for my body. Every morning she would get up at 6 am, and effortlessly she would begin her morning shower followed by make up and picking out clothes for the day. In this moment, her lack of papers did not matter. Every morning she recreated herself over and over again, not for you, or us but for herself. Glory is a poem for me, an ode I wished I had heard growing up while making sense of my body, and an ode I wished my mother heard while she navigated her womanhood in NYC.
As one of the first poets, as well as organizers, to write on being undocumented on a national level with your project, Undocumenting and with the flux of Undocu-mics in the early 2000’s, what themes are you noticing in writing and poetry by your communities, specifically Queer and Transgender Migrant and Undocumented poet artists?
I am noticing the rise and emergence of more migrant (specifically undocumented ) poets, artists, filmmakers, and writers. I remember being one of few poets about a decade ago that pushed for writing workshops for and by undocumented writers back in 2008. I remember that it was usually women of color/ femmes who pushed for these creative spaces. I remember creating and hosting open mics like “Undocumic” in 2010 and it being a space where undocumented folks felt safe to share their creativity. But the next day, the energy was just redirected towards marching, protesting, and working on legislation.
As also an organizer in those spaces, I recognize at that time reactionary work was needed; now, I think we need an abundance of multiple approaches like those that center the creativity of undocumented migrant folks. Our larger movements and social justice organizations have finally come to a place where they recognize the importance of art, culture, and shifting narratives. Yes, we are finally in this place of centering and lifting up artists and cultural workers. However, I see that it is only fostering a specific voice, it is not fostering or mentoring or sharing resources with femmes, women of color, trans and gender non-conforming undocumented/migrant artists and writers who don’t have financial privilege.
I believe when folks throw around cultural equity they are not thinking of migrant femmes/woc. That is not to say that we are just here waiting for people to give us resources and structures. We long have been building our own infrastructures, informal mentoring, and resource sharing. That doesn’t mean it is recognized as lineage for writers and artists now or even recognized at all. Many of the queer and transgender migrant and undocumented poets and artists have cultivated their presence on social media, and like myself, we are publishing our own work, and creating works that not only discuss our lived experience as undocumented but imagine us whole. We illustrate and imagine us into the phenomenal ways we are, and the possible worlds we can live and create. I want to see us as witches, in love, heartbroken, figuring out relationships, camping, slaying dragons, chasing waterfalls, as vampire slayers, as super heroes. My hope, and the work I am committed to aims to is be there for emerging and younger femme of color and Brown and Black migrant undocumented writers–because I know how isolating it is.
A new addition to your chapbook is America Runs on Immigrants. It has a sharp title that is obvious sarcasm and brings readers to immediacy within current U.S. politics and it’s harmful effects on migrant and undocumented community. You hold up tangible testimonies in list form with an incredible build. It reads almost as both incantation and confession with harsh heartbreaking moments. In a nation that runs on migrant labor, what do you think artists and poets need to do (or not do) to uplift migrant and undocumented community and art?
Many of the wins for migrant undocumented communities have been as a result of undocumented femme/women/gnc leadership. Don’t believe the hype that it was done by cis straight men. The labor that many of us put almost a decade ago has been erased at all levels and spaces. From cultural institutions, to academia, to funders, and national organizations; they have actively erased the work many of us began. For example, the initiatives for undocumented writers was something that was started by Kemi Bello, an undocumented Black Nigerian writer, and myself, a brown fat Latinx poet, with the support of CultureStrike.
Both Kemi and I, women/femmes of color put labor into creating the first and only writing retreat for and by undocumented writers in 2013, and then highlighted and featured these artists on undocumenting.com. This information is not naming half of the things we did prior to that in our individual local and online spaces. These efforts for undocumented writers and artist came from community, came from our labor, came from us: two undocumented writers at that time, and was not started by those in academia or in art institutions, or MFA programs. Till this day, our efforts are coined and thrown around and claimed by non-undocumented writers, by people who were never part of our community. I continue to see that writing on undocumented and migrant issues are never by those who have lived those experiences. I see the funding, awards, and space allocated for writers (that are not or never have been undocumented) to write on migrant undocumented things. Because immigration is an “it” topic, I see non- migrant non-undocumented folks picking it up and taking up the space from actual migrant writers of color.
By not moving back, what you are saying is that migrant folks are not capable of imagining and so you will imagine and create for them. This is the same mentality that continues to dehumanize my community. I ask that the broader poetry and writing community evaluate their approach and ally ship to migrant writers. What are y’all doing to support migrant writers, not just a few or people indirectly impacted? If you have no idea where to begin from, how can you bring in migrant writers like myself and Kemi, in order to advice?
Lastly, congratulations on this amazing chapbook and all the gifts/time/collaboration you forged for it to exist. Are there any new plans for this chapbook, your poetry, and over all #PapiFemme world reclamation? Tell us the real story on what you are up to!
Thank you! On December 5th, will mark officially a year since I launched Nostalgia and Borders. I am taking back chapbooks, like doing a cultural intervention in literary spaces to disrupt the almost robotic form of publishing. I feel this formalized and “publishing” chapbooks to be inaccessible and builds a rubric of who is a real writer and a real poet. Of course, writers of color already marginalized and with less access to presses will not be able to claim “writer” or “poet” under these standards.
What happened to chapbooks being created and personally published by the poets themselves? Is as if people look down at this process. Chapbooks were originally began this way. They were fluid, from the heart, not a completion, not a hierarchy, still an undertaking. So I am taking it back, I published Nostalgia and Borders on my own. This was such an intentional process. My designer and collaborator, Rommy Torrico, is a migrant undocumented gender non conforming artist. My advisory committee and editors were [yourself], and Emilia Fiallo. I am grateful for spaces like VONA/Voices, BOAAT, and the UndocuWriting Retreat that served as a place to work and edit my poems. I am happy to have pushed out that first chapbook. Now, I am working on my next chapbook: #PapiFemme. It is a conversation between my younger self and the person I am becoming, a deeper look into my gender and presentation, a discussion of intimacy within queer community and migrant family. #PapiFemme is a term I have developed over the years to capture my queerness and my Latinx identity Naturally, it will be a project in collaboration with fellow femmes and queer trans migrant artists. I am hoping to push it out in Summer/Fall of 2018 on soniaguinansaca
Also, where can people purchase your chapbook?
SoniaGuinansaca.com, and also on Twitter, @TheSoniaG and Instagram, @The SoniaG