We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults

Author / Photographer: Susan Kuklin
Candlewick Press, 2019 
grades 5-up 
(Colombian, Mexican, Ghanaian, South Korean, Samoan)

The original title of Kuklin’s book of interviews with undocumented young people was to be Out of the Shadows: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults. This was during the time of the Obama administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which allowed individuals who were brought to the US as babies or children without documentation—US passports, green cards, or visas—to receive renewable two-year periods of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for Social Security, work permits, driver’s licenses and other necessary documentation. The book was to feature Kuklin’s stunning portraits of the young tellers who were, indeed, out of the shadows. 

However, after the book was imagined and planned and accepted by Candlewick Press for a 2017 release, the interviews accomplished, the portraiture shot and developed, and the book laid out and ready to go to print—the incoming Trump administration moved to repeal DACA, spreading hateful, divisive messages about immigrants, migrants, and refugee and asylum seekers. And the young people, among some 700,000, were forced back into the shadows.

A painful decision had to be made, and everyone decided to stop the presses. But after some two years, during which this volume of young people’s important, truth-telling stories sat in a drawer somewhere, all agreed—Kuklin, Candlewick, and the courageous young people themselves—to bring the book into publication. This was too important, they all said in their own ways, to leave it unpublished. At the same time, it was decided that changes had to be made for the protection of these young people. Here, they are referred to only by their first initials, empty frames replace their portraits, and all other identifying information has been redacted. As Kuklin told me (see interview below), their safety was everyone’s first priority.

In We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults, nine young people from Colombia, Mexico, Ghana, Independent Samoa, and South Korea—now living under the constant threat of deportation to their countries of birth—narrate their “American” lives and, for those who remember, what their lives were like in their countries of birth and what circumstances brought them here. Each chapter is narrated by one or more of the young people. Their narrations are raw and honest. 

Kuklin’s stark, black-and-white photos in Chapter 3 are foreboding images that complement the young people’s stories. They include a sign that warns travelers about encountering “smuggling and illegal immigration,” a heavily-armed Border Patrol officer, a barbed-wire-topped enclosure, surveillance towers, footprints and empty water jugs. 

From G—, who came here from Mexico:

When I say good morning to my parents, I’m never sure that I will be able to say good night to them. I’m afraid to go to school, because it could be the last time I see them for a while. My dad’s got to go to work. He’s got to drive to get there. Because he does not have a US license, if a police officer pulls him over, he could end up in jail. Once he’s in jail, he could go through deportation proceedings. It’s happened to some of my friends—their parents get deported, and they are left alone.

And from Y—, who arrived from Colombia:

A lot of people grow up with shame and anxiety about being undocumented. It’s not something you want to share with people. On the news you hear about “the illegals,” and about all the resources they take from Americans. I don’t think people have a particularly nice image of us. So when I say, “I’m undocumented,” it’s hard to tell how people are going to react….

Maybe next time they hear someone railing about how terrible immigrants are, they’ll think about me. I’m a real person. I go to school with their kids. I have a wonderful family. Maybe after listening to me they will feel differently about immigrants.

Rather than being told (and interpreted) by outsiders, the voices in We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Young Undocumented Adults are authentic and impassioned and moving. This volume is highly recommended; and I look forward to holding an edition in which readers can feel the voices and see the faces of these courageous young people.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 5/1/19; revised 5/2/19, last sentence above.)


Note: Susan Kuklin is an award-winning author and photographer whose main interest in her more than 30 books for children and young adults is to address important social issues. Her photographs have been shown in the Museum of the City of New York and in documentary films, as well as published in Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She cares very much about young people and getting the story right and, as I found out, she is generous with her time as well. 


INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN KUKLIN


Beverly Slapin: How did you originally envision this book? How has this project evolved? How and why have you and the young people you interviewed had to change your plans since the election of Trump?

Susan Kuklin: The book depended upon who came forward and volunteered to do an interview. One person led to another person. For example, Y told me that she felt really safe in New York but had she lived in Arizona, she probably would not have felt safe. P, a young woman from Mexico, really wanted her story to be in the book, but she was shy. Very, very shy. We met four or five times, but I was unable to get the details and introspection necessary for a narrative. Oh, how she wanted to do this. At one point in between our interviews, I went to Arizona, into the desert, and took photographs for an essay that appears in the book. When I returned, P— and I attempted another interview. I just happened to show her the photographs. “That’s exactly where I was!!!” All of a sudden, her experiences came rushing out. It was a magical moment. And by the way, she’s not shy any more. In fact, P’s arms are on the cover of the book and in the video on my Website.

So these interviews are organic—they’re flashes of memories, with one memory opening to another deeper memory.

How have the young people you interviewed reacted to Trump’s election? How have their lives changed since the election?

Their emotions range from scared to angry to defiant. And those emotions changed from day to day—from hour to hour. Can you imagine what it’s like to wake up one morning and learn that all your documentation—all your hopes and dreams—are down the drain? And also a new government hostile to immigrants has your address and telephone number and all your personal information?

The election was scary for me, so I can only imagine how it was for them. But still, the participants wanted the book to come out.

I felt responsible for their safety and well-being. I didn’t want to do anything to put them in jeopardy. I also realized that I was in effect sending them back into the shadows, the very shadows we saw the book as obliterating. They were much braver than I was. They kept texting me to stop worrying so much!

How has the book been received? How have the tours been received?

Very, very positively. People have been so compassionate about these kids and want to know how they’re doing now. Since the book came out, I’ve gone to border states and have met a number of DREAMers there who appreciate that the book was published.

The full-page frames with no photos in them are jarring; especially since they are all captioned as if they in fact contain portraits. They remind me of so many of the “disappeared” in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and other fascist regimes of the time, whose families and communities still struggle to obtain the remains of their “disappeared” relatives. Who arrived at this decision to focus on the young people by “disappearing” their faces and names? Was it a collaborative decision? What do the young people think of it now?

Although it was not my intention to write a political book, the young people’s stories make a statement about what is going on now. 

For the year-and-a-half the manuscript and photos were in a drawer somewhere, I thought the book would never be published. But the participants had made it clear that they wanted their stories told, and those stories needed to be told. I gave them options to help me make the final decision: publish the book as is, publish it using names but not photographs, publish it using photographs but not names, or publish it without names or photographs. They also had the option of dropping out of the project. Everybody had a different idea of what they wanted to do. I decided—based on their views and based on their safety—that we should omit both the photos and names. I told them that I wanted to protect the most vulnerable people in the book. Basically, everyone agreed to protect each other.

I see these empty frames as telling people who look at them that we live in an unfree country and that many people who live here are in real danger. 

Yes, this is our reality. 

Despite the fact that these are all narratives, the book reads like an authentic collaboration. None of the young people who entrusted you with their stories have been named. How were they involved in the editing process? How were they involved in the decision-making process? 

While I was working with my editor, the young people had the opportunity to read the drafts for accuracy, authenticity, and voice. It was back and forth almost until the book went to print. Everything is in their voices, their syntaxes, their rhythms. Their stories are intimate. It was a true collaboration. 

Where are they now?

On one hand, they are in limbo and, on the other hand, their lives go on. Five have graduated from college, four are in graduate school, two are teachers, one’s becoming a journalist, one’s married, another has been able to bring his whole family here. They were raised as typical American kids. They know how to organize. They don’t take fools lightly. At the book launch that most of the New York participants attended, they immediately felt comfortable with each other——it was like they’d been friends forever.

All the participants are looking forward to the time when we can republish the book with their names and photographs—when they can actually come out of the shadows. 

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