Amor de Lejos: Who’s Telling Immigration’s Human Story?

By Guest Columnist Sep 16, 2009

by Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity Last September in Chicago, I saw a play called “Amor de Lejos,” which is Spanish for “love from afar.” It was performed by a theater company of high school students, and offered a few short but vivid slices from the grueling lives of Mexican and Central American day laborers in Chicago. Watching it was one of the most moving and provocative experiences I’ve had in some time. Not simply because the performances themselves were so wonderful. Not just because these 14, 15, and 16 year-old students had conceived, researched and written the play themselves. And not even only because the real stories the students told were so compelling. No, the piece made such an impression on me in large part because I realized in watching that I had so rarely seen anything like it in any format — the lives of poor, mostly undocumented, Latino immigrants, rendered holistically and with compassion. What these student-actors brought home that night was that these men — all the narrators were men — have histories, aspirations, people they’ve left behind, people they long to see again. These would seem to be obvious points, no? But the truth is that our national context for discussions of immigration over the last several years — the national “immigration debate” — typically abstracts away from the textures of the lives and decisions of those at its core. The stories made clear that the day laborers sacrificed a great deal to get to the United States and accepted the terrible risks of doing so with eyes wide open. Surely it’s incumbent on us to better understand why. The popular “bottom line” argument that undocumented immigrants are, by definition, “criminals who must be treated accordingly” must ring at least somewhat hollow when assessed against the deeply humanistic testimony to which these Chicago students gave voice. It is both remarkable and shameful that such testimony plays so small a part in our national dialogue.