Author José Ángel N. discusses “Illegal”

On Thursday, April 21, the Volunteer & Community Service Center (VCSC) hosted José Ángel N., author of “Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant,” as part of the ninth annual Fox Cities Book Festival. Since the book embodies an inspiring read about the author’s true journeys of crossing the U.S. border from Mexico and living as an undocumented immigrant in Chicago, the VCSC hoped that hosting the book discussion would be a nice bookend to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Read & Reflect event earlier this year on Jan. 18.

Senior and Cultural Support Coordinator for VCSC Cynthia Tobias introduced N. as students, volunteer staff and friends gathered in the Diversity Center. By reading passages in his book and sharing his personal experiences as an undocumented person living in the U.S., N. engaged the room in conversation about the complex but very important issue of immigration.

At age 19, N. knew that staying in Mexico would not lead to a promising future. He described that going “up north” to the U.S. as a rite of passage where he would be able to find opportunities to work and earn money for his family. While it has been almost 22 years since this journey, N. says that he still cannot believe that he made it to the U.S. He faced challenges upon arriving to the country, realizing that in order to be functional he needed to learn English and find a “good job.” Encouraged by his cousins to stay working at a factory, N. knew that he could not live solely dependent on others.

In Mexico, N. said that it was not uncommon to leave school early to work. With only a secondary diploma, equivalent to a middle school education, N. did not know there was a chance for higher education. In fact, he admits that his plan for coming to the U.S. was to find work and then return to Mexico where he would hopefully be able to have enough money to open up his own business.

N.’s first encounter with chances for higher education came in the form of the opportunity to take ESL classes at a nearby community college in Chicago. Working for almost five years washing dishes and taking classes at the college, N. finally obtained a GED, and his next goal became applying for college. As a first-generation student, N. said that he set a precedent for his family, and it was interesting to see how far he had come already. Leaving behind a mother and two younger brothers at home, N. was the absent brother, the “one on the other side” who watched his family change and grow up through pictures and video chat.

When N. obtained his first job as a professional Spanish-English translator, he observed that people like himself come to the U.S. to clean tables and for manual labor, not to sit in an air-conditioned office and have their own nameplate, set of keys and badge. While it was hard to maintain the job without having legal proof of citizenship or being able to provide identification to work in the U.S., N. found his experience as a translator to be something he could share with others about the hardships and challenges of living undocumented. N. described being found out as a relief and said that it is “liberating to talk about [immigration] in public.”

“I am the author of this book, but it is the story of many people,” N. said. Every day is a risk for undocumented immigrants, and N. hopes to open conversation to those who do not understand or sometimes do not want to talk about this growing issue.

With the initial impression of American politicians as smart, pragmatic leaders, N. soon realized “the unwillingness of Congress to move on [the issue of immigration]” and that the system is broken in addressing this issue through politics. However, undocumented immigrants make up the backbone of the manual labor in the U.S. and without them, N. said, the economy would go down.

Though the title of his book is “Illegal,” N. feels that this terminology diminishes people like himself as lesser. Instead, he uses the word “undocumented.”

Right now, N. is working on a second book that will be written in Spanish. A stigma exists that Mexican immigrants are uneducated and unprepared to come to the U.S., part of which stems from the portrayal of these people in Latin American literature. N. hopes that he can reach a different audience and come to terms with Mexican literature, allowing these authors to see the side of immigration that he has lived.

Following the book session, Lawrentians were invited to lunch with the author and to engage in further discussion about upcoming legislation that will impact undocumented immigrants.

This event presented an opportunity to engage in conversation on campus about a pressing political issue in the U.S. With the recent efforts towards a more inclusive Lawrence community, N.’s book talk proved to be a positive step in the right direction.