On Monday, Apr. 29, students and faculty packed the Mead Witter room in Lawrence University’s Warch Campus Center in eager anticipation of the performance to come. Jesus I. Valles traveled from Austin, Texas, to perform and workshop their piece “(Un)documents.” In the spoken word work mixed with theatrical movement and occasional recorded music, Valles took the audience on a journey across the river that separates their homelands, seamlessly moving between languages to find their place as a human being in a nation that strips humanity from citizenship. The performance was organized by the Ethnic Studies department, working closely with Alianza, the Latinx student organization on campus, and was supported by The Diversity and Inclusion Office as well as The Diversity and Intercultural Center.
Valles, a queer Mexican immigrant, teacher and performer originally from Cd. Juarez, México, has a master’s degree in communication studies from California State University, Long Beach. Their degree focused on performance and qualitative research methods, and they mix statistics into their spoken word piece easily, revealing the suffering trapped behind documents and numbers for immigrants like themselves. They are also a recipient of many poetry and acting awards and are a classroom teacher in Austin, attempting to teach future generations of Mexicans how to live in a country that hates them.
A main topic of the hour-long performed poem was language, and Valles often spoke of having a “split tongue”—half for Spanish and half for “American.” Their mouth became a battleground for their two identities. They characterized its emptiness as “darkness—a chasm between my two homes,” just as the Rio Grande had physically separated their two homelands and like the barbed wire that had attempted to keep them apart symbolically. At one point, Valles even exclaimed that they wished there were no countries or borders or papers to sign, just people living together, a sentiment frequently conveyed by immigrants and citizens alike as we look at the state of our nation. They spoke ironically of the debate between speech and silence, saying, “American means to be quiet.” They said this, shouting their truth as a naturalized American citizen to the crowd, taking back their voice and identity. Their mouth, which they first alluded to as “a place to occupy,” became a powerful force against the oppression they’ve faced in this poetic reclamation.
Valles slipped in an out of Spanish as they spoke, and amazingly, the audience did not need to understand the language to know what they were saying. Their bodily expressions, movements and face said it all, silently yet effectively communicating to a group whose majority have not experienced their hardships and truth. This tactic of using both languages gave audience members the uncomfortable or familiar experience of not knowing or being catered to in shared language, versus understanding and being a part the double identity Valles so brilliantly portrayed. They made it clear that by being an American citizen, they must split their identity in half and that this is and has been a physically and emotionally painful journey that involves the loss and sacrifice of their past.
The image Valles capitalized on most (and is hinted at in the title of their new show) is documentation. They used minimal props throughout the performance, but they often brought out and utilized pieces of paper, quoting actual naturalization and citizenship questions they were asked and directing them at students in the audience. They put the audience directly into their own shoes and the shoes of thousands of immigrants attempting to get their shot at the American Dream, only to face ridiculous, diminishing questions and obstacles which force them to sacrifice their self-respect. They referred to immigrants as “painful libraries, oceans of papers,” which are drowned by the weight they must carry with them from one meaningless signature to the next.
In the end, Valles left us with a hopeful message, describing their job as a classroom teacher to students whose families are just like their own. In explaining their advice on what to do if Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) comes to their door to a class of seven and eight-year-old children, Valles asserted, “I make myself a place to end things.” Their commitment to this process of understanding and change is articulated beautifully in “(Un)documents,” and Valles has most definitely made a moving start at Lawrence.