Welcome to Alienhood 💫
A meeting place for ideas on politics, law, and living at the margins
MY PROFESSOR KEPT looking behind me, at the back of the room, as if a ghost watched. I had asked her to meet me a little while before the class she taught, a journalism seminar called “Telling the Truth,” because I wanted to talk about something. I had calculated the risks and the positives—she was a Pulitzer finalist, seemed unafraid to call things immoral, and might be able to help me get a job in journalism—and decided to tell her.
“If I were you, I would lie through my fucking teeth,” she said, her gaze returning to me as soon as the words came out.
Someone must have walked in through the open door, because I remember little after that other than her scribbling an immigration lawyer’s email on a piece of paper. I knew that in journalism, the first command was to always report the truth. I’m certain she meant well, but that moment changed something for me. From then on, I understood that I could not become a writer if I didn’t first tell the world the deepest truth about myself: that for years, I had been living as an undocumented immigrant. Last summer, two years after that conversation and ten after coming to America, I did.
As we say in Spanish, it was a desahogo, an undrowning. I didn’t expect to feel immediately unburdened, because I had been telling some very close friends for years and bothering others with my anxiety-ridden rants all through the eight-month-long editing process. But time and again, when I went to do my little survival mental math in my head—Does this person know about my status? Is it safe to tell them? Do they need to know?—I remembered that was a muscle I could gladly allow to atrophy.
And suddenly, I could imagine new futures.
What is Alienhood? And what is “alienhood”?
This newsletter is an attempt to reject common but vexatious narratives about undocumented immigrants: that we were all “brought here” by our parents at age two, that we don’t understand this country’s laws, that we are irredeemable criminals. Every day that we manage to stay in this country, despite a system that often aims to diminish us in numbers and break us in spirit, is an act of survival.
Now for the practical stuff: Each Friday, I’ll be using this newsletter as an exercise in truth-telling, with all the messiness, sappiness, and absurdity that comes with being human. Because life is nonlinear, the format of the newsletter will inevitably vary: some weeks I’ll do longer essays on ideas about politics and law, others I’ll send along some poems or reflections, and others still I’ll be interviewing other immigrants or writers (many of them friends!) who are trying to make their own meaning despite the fact that they are from marginalized communities—or, perhaps, because of it. To foster conversation, we’ll also be having some discussion threads.
Which brings me to “alienhood” itself. I went back and forth on this newsletter’s title. I originally pitched it as Alien Life, but the more I thought about it, the less right it felt. I was drawing inspiration from a Lucille Clifton poem (yes, that one) about how people of color—specifically Black women—build a kind of life despite having the odds stacked against them, and how that alone is worthy of celebration. Being undocumented often puts us in the position of making way out of no way, and that’s what this newsletter seeks to celebrate. Not so much that we’ve been rendered “illegal,” but rather that living outside the law has made us see the world differently. Alienhood is, in some ways, a kind of personhood.
Something similar, I’m sure, could be said of other experiences. Because of the insidiousness of discrimination and racism throughout U.S. history, millions of people who are not undocumented also live in a kind of legal limbo, unable to access the benefits of full citizenship. This newsletter is also meant to be a space to understand subcitizenship across identities.
This may sound like a lot. But like everything human, the most this newsletter can be is a work in progress. That’s why your feedback is very much welcome.
Wait, wait—who are you?
I’m a writer and soon-to-be lawyer. I have written in lots of different places, including Politico Magazine, The Atlantic, Vox, The Hill, and the Brennan Center for Justice. I’m a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, where I published the magazine’s first article in Spanish and have reported on everything from the migrant caravan’s democracy, to Kamala Harris’ law school years, to a new push for reparations for Japanese Latinos. I went to law school to better understand the doctrines that have long kept undocumented people, and other communities, in a state of constitutional abandonment; now, as I near the end, it’s become clear to me that writing and law cannot exist detached from one another. The narratives that were once excluded now need to become central.
This year, I am one of three members of the inaugural cohort of the Joel Gay Creative Fellowship, a program started by Roxane Gay to honor her late brother. I’m incredibly honored to have her support and mentorship as I launch this project.
I am also a fellow of the Periplus Collective, a mentorship program for writers of color. I don’t know how I ended up being a writer, but I do know that going to public high school in Orlando, Florida, had something to do with it.
Originally from Maracaibo, Venezuela, I live in Washington, D.C., with my partner and our dog, Pilot Jones. You can find me on Twitter @jesusrodriguezb.
I hope you’ll stick around, subscribe, and tell your friends about this little experiment I’m trying to build here. If you have something to say, please leave a comment or hit my line at email@example.com.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.