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Why I Write What I Write
A programming note for readers of this newsletter.
I’m not sure exactly what caused my love of writing. Perhaps it was the intriguing life of the grammarian who lived across from us growing up in Venezuela, whom I’d innocently spy through my window coming and going in his Volkswagen Beetle, accompanied by his wife. Whenever Tito Balza Santaella came home, I imagined he retreated to a home library filled with books—technical tomes on the Spanish language, novels, encyclopedias. He wrote more than 15 books throughout his life, including dictionaries, a grammatical analysis of our regional anthem, an entire volume on the gerund, and manuals on punctuation. I met him a few times, though I can’t recall any of our encounters. We moved away from that neighborhood when I was young, but he somehow left the lasting impression on me that language was the kind of thing that someone could command.
When I came to the States, I thought I could approach language with technical precision. Because English had been a foreign language for most of my life, I learned it the same way that others learn foreign languages: by studying verb tenses and memorizing odd grammar rules. In English I, I was great at identifying subjects, verbs, and objects, but outside the classroom, people looked at me weird if I greeted them with a “How are you?” instead of a “Sup.” I could tell you that the g in finger is pronounced differently from the g in singer, but I was completely speechless when one of my teachers asked me what I thought Miss Maudie Atkinson in To Kill A Mockingbird meant when she said, in response to an ungratefully critical comment made about Atticus Finch in his home, “his food doesn’t stick going down, does it?” One of my first assignments in high school was to submit a five-paragraph essay to a computer program for grading. It was due by the end of the period and I had no idea what an essay was, or why it had to be exactly five paragraphs. The computer issued its verdict: I was writing at a sixth-grade level. Sitting in English I Honors, that may have been the first time I felt like a fraud.
The next year went a bit better, though I was still insecure. After I wrote another essay, I went to see my teacher after school to get some more feedback, telling her that I was an immigrant and that I wanted to do well in English. She read it and noticed I had used the word “indefatigable” in one of my sentences. I don’t know where that word came from—probably because when my mom was tired, she said in Spanish she had “fatiga”—but Mrs. K said I was doing really well. The next day she read the assignment out loud in class, anonymously. I was fifteen.
My English teachers—they’re the guilty ones! Please address all your complaints to Lake Nona High School.
For the last six months, Alienhood has been a refuge. I started this newsletter because there was, and there continues to be, a shortage of narratives about what it’s like to be undocumented in this country. There’s more to the immigrant experience than the usual stories about young people not being able to go to college or seeing a loved one get deported. At some point, the rest of the country will realize that that high school student whose story they heard 10, 15 years ago continues to age and move forward through life without a change in their status. Coming of age and growing up and getting old just hits different for the undocumented. Many of them, when confronted with one choice or the other, learn that they need to go a third way.
This happened to me in law school. As I learned more and more about the law, the less I liked staying in the incubator of hypotheticals that the classroom can be. I needed a way to tell people about the texts, statutes, and doctrines that organized our lives and dictated our conduct. But writing about the law for non-academic audiences was somehow foreign to most people I went to for advice. There just didn’t seem to be a path there. Scholarship interviewers and fellowship committees and acquaintances loved to raise the question: “Soooo do you wanna be a lawyer or do you wanna be a writer?” I told them that I never saw the need to pick between those two. I was going to graduate from law school and I was going to continue writing. Somehow, I’d make it work. I had already gone through the hardest part (telling my own story about how I fell into this status) and I didn’t get deported or banished from the writing world, either. If anything, that essay helped my writing career.
I want other undocumented people to know that they don’t have to hide a piece of who they are to become writers. This strange status does not have to be a ball and chain weighing you down. In fact, it can be freeing to write so you may know this is not all there is to you. My top post on this site is, in fact, about being queer. Over at Joyfully Liberated, Karla Mendoza combines her experiences as an Afro-Peruvian undocumented citizen with her knowledge and work as a grassroots theologian. Our lives are kaleidoscopes, and none of us can speak for any or all of us.
Next week, I’ll be starting a new position writing full-time about the law—a dream of mine. I am excited and I’ll have more details to share soon, but it means that my focus will shift away from this space, though I still plan to share some (very) occasional personal updates about my career and my writing. And this is such a flexible platform that I can’t write off returning to it, in some form, in the future. Thanks to the team at Substack and your support, we’ve been able to build a modest subscriber base. I hope all 1,200+ of you came away from this newsletter having learned just a bit more about what it means to be undocumented, and I hope you all stay subscribed. I’m really grateful to Roxane Gay for this incredible opportunity, and I’m elated that we’ll continue working together through the inaugural Joel Gay Creative Fellowship. Last but not least, thank you immensely to Meg Pillow, who each week has been a sharp editor and relentless ideas contributor.
In the meantime, don’t be a stranger, and know you can always reach me on socials (@jesusrodriguezb) or by replying to this email.
As always, thank you for being here.