The Weight of Shadows: An Interview with José Orduña

By Patrick Reilly

April 28th, 2016

On April 28, Global Voices Interviews Editor Patrick Reilly spoke with José Orduña, who visited the University of Chicago’s International House to discuss his new memoir, The Weight of Shadows. Mr. Orduña was born in Córdoba, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, but was brought to Chicago by his parents as a baby. In his new memoir, Mr. Orduña discusses the challenges of growing up without legal status.

Global Voices: You’ve come to discuss your new book, The Weight of Shadows, about your experiences growing up undocumented in the United States. What was the most difficult part of writing this book for you?

José Orduña: I should clarify that I’m not sure if my particular situation would be referred to as “undocumented.” My family and I came to the US with a tourist visa, which is technically documentation, that then lapsed. I think many people would refer to that situation as “undocumented,” but it’s somewhat different. The most challenging part for me was deciding to take on this subject matter. It felt incredibly daunting, because it is a very urgent topic at the moment—really it always is urgent—but it seems to be more in the public discourse now. I felt somewhat intimidated inserting myself into that public discourse. So I think the most difficult part was actually deciding to go for it.

Global Voices: Was there a particular reader or audience you had in mind as you were writing?

Orduña: I think I always have many different readers in my mind. Some are actual people, and some are imagined figures that I tend to keep with me. One actual person is my mother. My mother is always one of my first readers, so I always keep her in my mind as I’m writing so that her presence kind of shapes the way I’m writing and the things I’m writing about. In different parts of the book I also imagine myself speaking to the American empire. So not a particular person, but this amorphous power structure. And I’m also thinking of various other individuals, writers, and many different readers.

Global Voices: Speaking of this amorphous power structure, as I was looking at your book, I kept thinking of a series that the New Yorker ran this past November about the United States-Mexico border. It profiled several Hispanic border patrol agents and many of them joined with the goal of humanizing the agency and treating migrants with compassion. In your book, you take a very critical stance toward the border security-immigration complex, but do you think people like that have a chance of changing it?

Orduña: No. I think that particular tactic of hiring and employing people who are of Latin American familial lines, who may identify as Hispanic is purely a PR tactic, and it’s one that we see used in a variety of different ways and arenas. But I think the institutional role of the Border Patrol is one that cannot be humane. There is no way to be humane in its stated goal and project of excluding people from entering the United States based on national origin and class. I don’t believe that there’s any way to humanely do that.

Global Voices: Are there any other aspects of the situation of immigrants in this country that you’d like to see more coverage of?

Orduña: I think that more coverage is not necessarily what I would want to see. For the 24-hour news cycle, “more” just might mean repetition of the same sound bites and truncated narratives. What I would like to see is a much more honest and expansive treatment of immigration as an issue, something that includes the history of the various countries sending migrants, something that includes a discussion of the economic policies that compel migration, something that includes a discussion of sexual violence against women in these detention facilities. So I guess I would just like much broader and honest appraisal of what it means to exclude based on national origin.

Global Voices: In the first chapter of your book there’s a pretty strong criticism of President Obama’s actions on deportation. Since he deferred action on the deportation of people who came here as children, has your attitude toward him changed at all?

Orduña: No it hasn’t. I think, again, that this deferred action is mostly a PR tactic. I mean the first two letters in those acronyms for Obama’s policy, [Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals], point to the fact that these are not real things, these are not legislative measures. These are simply promises from a politician, and we all know how much those are worth. So no, it hasn’t changed my mind because at the very same time that the Obama administration is deferring action on childhood arrivals, it continues to deport people at a record-breaking pace. I think the latest figure is 2.5 million people. He’s deported more people than nearly all of the other presidents in the twentieth century combined, at a rate of about one thousand per day. So no, those two very small steps don’t really change my mind at all.
Gate: We’ve talked about the media and we’ve talked about president’s current policies. In this election campaign cycle, are there any questions you’d like to see the media ask of any of the candidates in particular that haven’t yet been asked?

Orduña: I would like the media to press all of the candidates on the concrete measures they’re going to take to alleviate the suffering of people that are suffering, in terms of immigration policy. But I would also very generally like these candidates to be pressed on the very sort of essential and foundational injustice of immigration, which is that it’s a central inconsistency for liberal democracies to consider themselves liberal democracies and yet exclude people based on national origin and class. So that’s something that I would like seriously discussed, but because of my cynicism, or realism, I know it won’t be.

Global Voices: Right now, there’s an undocumented immigrant who is recently seeking sanctuary at a church a few blocks from here. Would you have any words of advice or encouragement for him?

Orduña: I have no advice. That’s a very difficult situation to be in, and I have nothing but respect and solidarity for his position and his struggle. I wish him all of the best.

Global Voices: So you’ve just finished this new book, what’s next for you?

Orduña: That’s a difficult and interesting question. I’ll be moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico very soon. I’ve been reading a lot about the poverty rate in Albuquerque in particular, so that’s something I would really like to investigate and become immersed in in order to write about it.

Mr. Orduña’s visit to International House was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Lecture Series, El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, and the Organization of Latin American Students at UChicago. This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.