I was born in Guatemala and grew up in a privileged family. My father was a lawyer, and I went to a private school. Later, I graduated from law school myself.
I traveled to many different countries, including the United States, and I loved meeting people, learning from different cultures and tasting new foods. I was fascinated by the ways that people experienced the world differently. It gave me a different perspective, and I think it fueled my nonconformist personality.
So when my family decided to move to the United States on work visas, I didn’t expect it to be so hard.
Once we’d moved to Texas, however, I felt stereotyped wherever I went. People saw me only as an immigrant. They assumed that I was undocumented, that I didn’t speak English and that I was uneducated.
I made the decision to speak only Spanish with my children, because I wanted them to be fully bilingual. One time, as I was going to the post office with my kids, an older white man stopped to tell them that they should learn how to speak English in this country. Before I could say anything, he walked away.
Ultimately, these experiences made me feel closer to other immigrants. If I experienced these hardships as a relatively privileged person, there was no imagining what undocumented immigrants faced here, I thought. I sought out my fellow immigrants and began listening to their stories.
I spoke with Angel, a husband and father of three American-born children who is a construction worker and mechanic. He was stopped by the police because his car windows were too dark. He was driving without a driver’s license (because he didn’t qualify for one) and was detained. He spent six months in a detention center and was later deported.
I also learned Raul’s story. He came to Texas as a child and now has his own remodeling company. He has tried to do everything the right way but has been waiting 25 years to get residency, paying numerous attorneys who have taken his money but done nothing to advance his case.
The more I listened and learned, the more my heart was broken — and the more I saw how powerful these stories are. They don’t tell people what to think but have the power to go straight to listeners’ hearts. We can’t get anywhere in the policy debate without changing hearts and minds. And minds follow hearts. Stories can help overcome our differences, lower our defenses and increase our understanding.
As I learned about the difficulties that undocumented immigrants face, how they were living in the shadows where no one saw them or cared for them, I wondered: Where are all the so-called Christians — to take them in, to be their allies, to stand by them and for them? What happened to loving your neighbor?
I was convicted that I had to do something about it, with or without others. I experienced a fire within me that I couldn’t contain. It was holy anger. I prayed to God and said, “Here I am God. Use me to help my community!”
In 2015, God responded to that prayer with an opportunity to work at Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Seminary. My job quickly became my ministry. I understood clearly that God had opened a door for me and had prepared me to start a ministry for my Latino community.
A year later, Undocumented Stories was born to educate people about immigration through storytelling. We hope that hearing immigrants’ stories will help others see them as people, not as stereotypes, and that ultimately we can educate our congregations, communities, youth and children and gain allies in the effort to enact immigration reform and create a pathway to citizenship. Bearing witness to the stories of others can keep our feet on paths of love and understanding, which the world desperately needs.
With our storytelling events, we provide a platform for immigrants to share their own stories in their own voices. People gather for one-hour events and listen to three or four immigrants speak for 10 to 12 minutes each.
Sometimes, interspersed with the stories, we include music from Javier, a talented Ecuadorian singer-songwriter. Sometimes Reina, a Salvadoran woman with hopes of setting up a catering business, prepares and serves pupusas and other traditional Salvadoran foods.
We hear the story of Patricia, who overcame her fear of public speaking and now has shared her story countless times at our events. Patricia came to the U.S. when she was 10 months old, and she knows no other country. This is her home. But she, too, has had to wait 25 years and has paid more than $20,000 for temporary work permits that she has had to renew every two years while waiting to get her residency.
Her voice cracks every time she shares how her biggest fear came true: her then husband was deported. She had to carry on life on her own, caring for her four children and running a welding business. Her marriage ended because she had to make the difficult decision to keep her children in this country.
She shares the fears and trauma that her children went through during the former presidential administration, when undocumented immigrants were threatened with deportation, persecuted and criminalized, and families were cruelly ripped apart. Naturally, her children were terrified that she’d be deported too.
She ends her story by inviting everyone to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” The audience is deeply moved and sings along with her:
From California to the New York island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
As we sing, our hearts are filled with hope — hope for a future beyond this storytelling event, where hearts are moved, minds are opened and change happens.
Over time, the
Undocumented Stories project has reached thousands of people and done about 50 storytelling events around Austin, mostly in congregations. I remind people that these are the stories we need to be listening to. Not only are they truthful, but they come from the people directly affected by immigration policies. It is not through the news or other sources that call them criminals and rapists but through storytelling that we can change this narrative.
Continuing with our mission to educate through stories, we have created resources for congregations and others. I co-authored a book called “The Truth in Our Stories: Immigrant Voices in Radical Times,” which contains 12 stories highlighting the immigrant experience. We offer online learning, in various formats, as well.
We also created two books for children. “The Holy Stranger” tells the story of Jesus as an immigrant, fleeing to Egypt to escape an evil king who slaughtered all boys age 2 and under.
And “Doki: The Immigrant Dog” tells the true story of a dog that walked all the way from Venezuela to the Mexico-Texas border with his family, which was seeking asylum. Through Doki’s journey, readers engage questions of identity, life changes, boundaries and love.
Christianity is rooted in storytelling. From the very beginning of the Bible we find stories — of how we came to be, of our relationship with God, of our relationships with one another. Jesus, the central figure of the Bible, uses stories to teach us. Storytelling remains the essential tool for teaching and engaging our congregations and communities. We resonate with stories of depth and stories of human connection.
I am simply carrying on the tradition of storytelling. While we may not always remember the facts or statistics that flood our daily lives, we all carry stories we will never forget.