NEW HAVEN, Conn. — First, you must know about the birds. The birds are important. My partner and I, we feed birds in our neighborhood. I have a special fondness for the birds that the garden stores that sell marble bird baths consider pests — crows, blackbirds, ravens, blue jays, grackles, starlings. For a while, the crows behind my house brought me gifts, but I felt weird about it. I wasn’t interested in the transaction. I wanted them to trust me. I wanted to be loved.
Then the crows left for months. When they returned, they brought news. A crow appeared, and I needed emergency oral surgery. A crow appeared, and I was longlisted for an award. A crow appeared, and a teenager I love revealed that her boyfriend abused her. And so on.
This past Saturday, my partner saw something in a tree. A group of lime-green parrots, monk parrots, being boisterous. She thought she was crazy. She pointed them out to a few runners, who all thought they were crazy, too. That night, I got a notice from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. My permanent residency had been granted. It was three days before the election. I held my breath. The card could take months to arrive.
The birds appeared Thursday morning, and I got my green card in the evening mail. I am no longer undocumented.
James Baldwin once said, “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a [Negro] in the first place, because I’m not a [Negro], I’m a man, but if you think I’m a [Negro] it means you need it.” I understand the context of this quote in the Black struggle, but it also had meaning for me as an undocumented immigrant. I have noticed that when people try to be nice, they often call immigrants “undocumented laborers.” I think it’s a funny little thing to be hated for your essence and loved for the dialectical small of your back and the apparent jointlessness of your hands.
Over the past four years, undocumented immigrants have been vilified by the right in boring and classically genocidal ways. Donald Trump used immigrants to drum up support, telling people we were coming in caravans to sell them drugs, take their jobs and inspire their children to tattoo their faces. Under his administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounded up law-abiding immigrants who’d lived here for years. They lost migrant children. Does that make an impression on you? Small children have, in effect, been disappeared. Women in detention facilities say they have been forcibly sterilized.
As I wrote this, and the votes came in, and it looked more and more likely that President Trump would lose, I still plucked my own feathers out, like every domesticated parrot, because I feel lonely in this country. Because there is a belief, even on the left, that because we chose to come here, we had agency in our own desecration. That we carried our own crosses to the hill of Golgotha, wrists bound by nothing but promises of a full night’s sleep, a cut of meat, freshly sharpened pencils for our children, and so we have smaller claims to justice.
Latinx kids of immigrants always want to do this thing where we bond by talking about our ancestors and about not being from here, and aside from thinking this is a false binary and also not very interesting, I just never got it. We could be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. When I lie down in my bed, having taken a beta blocker for my panic attacks, I feel my heart slow down, I can hear it beat with some effort in my neck, and I feel so ardently in New Haven, so fully a weight on the bed in the home I have built with my partner, a home where the young people in our life who are queer, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, undocumented or mentally ill know they are loved. I don’t think about the First World. I don’t think about America. I know where I am and to whom I belong.
But I also feel nowhere. The past four years have turned me into a writer of immigration, into a symbol of the undocumented migrant. And now I am not that. America really liked me as an undocumented immigrant. James Baldwin would say it needed me. I’m not the sort of writer who gets many death threats. I get a lot of mail from men who hoped I’d see salvation implied by their Anglophone surname and women who wanted a blood transfusion from me, for all that cortisol and adrenaline. Who will I be to America now, a green card holder under a Joe Biden presidency? Will I start feeling safe while jaywalking? Will I ever stop feeling terror at the thought of joining a protest? Will I ever smoke a joint?
I am maybe one of five undocumented immigrants who have a big platform, and certainly I am the least emotionally stable among them, and all I wanted this summer, as I mourned the deaths of day laborers and poor Latinos I knew in New York, and made lists of why I should remain alive, was for one person to see our systematic erasure through camps and cages and a novel virus as part of the greatest civil rights movement of our generation. I fell backward into a field of imagined lilies, chrysanthemums, orchids and other funerary flowers, and tried to write about very small things: how we are people, how some of us love pit bulls and some of us love very burned potatoes, how we are as diverse as the beetle populations on this continent, which some say is ours and some say is not ours and some say I don’t care, I’m here.
The election results weren’t in yet when this story went to press. But this morning we saw the parrots.
Jonathan Franzen, the novelist and birder, told me it’s “a mistake to inflict ourselves on animals anthropomorphically, rather than respecting their otherness and autonomy.” He explains: “It implies that we’re the measure of all things, which amounts to a further subjugation of them. More generally, I think superstition is a disservice to reality — it inflates the importance of the human observer while relegating reality to the role of bringing meaning to him or her. Are we really so important that animals feel compelled to gather together to create omens for us?”
I am. I think I’m that important. Partly because my bloodline is largely Indigenous and birds have been messengers for us for a long time, and partly because I am very mentally ill. There is a blue jay perched on a branch outside the window by my desk as I write this. He is enthusiastically bashing a peanut to smithereens on the branch, as I used to punch walls. The blue jay is beautiful, maybe saying something, maybe saying nothing. But the only thing on my mind is that Stephen Miller may have some free time soon, and I suggest he pick up birding.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of “The Undocumented Americans.”
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