Seth Michelson is the editor of Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention (Settlement House, 2017), a bilingual anthology of poetry and prose created by teens held in the most restrictive detention center for unaccompanied, undocumented youth in the US. Below is Seth’s essay about his experience working with these children in the weekly writing workshops that he conducts at the detention center, followed by several poems from the anthology.
The anthology Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention (Settlement House, 2017) comprises writing from the past three years by young teens living in isolation cells in one of two maximum-security detention centers in the United States for undocumented, unaccompanied youth. As explained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, these children average a second-grade education, and many are in fact illiterate, partaking orally in our weekly poetry workshops in the detention center. More urgently, as evident in Dreaming America and multiple governmental and journalistic reports, self-harm is a pervasive problem among such children, and suicide attempts are all too frequent. This is complicated further still by their stateless status, which apparently positions them beyond constitutional protections—meaning, for example, that they are not guaranteed the right to an attorney. Consequently, they languish in protracted detention while awaiting their opportunity to proceed through complex federal cases.
With this in mind, the founder and editor of Settlement House, Lawrence Moffi, is donating all proceeds from the sale of Dreaming America to a legal defense fund for the incarcerated children. With the federal government itself publishing correlations between legal representation and freedom for these children, this means that the participants in the poetry workshops are both benefiting from telling their stories in their own words, and partaking in an alternative economic model for publishing that allows them quite literally to write their way toward freedom. Such is the weight of the conditions of their captivity.
This begs the question: How many of us reading this could have endured such excruciating responsibility and suffering as a young teen?
If you will dare to recollect your fourteen-year-old self: What was your hair like? How did you dress? What were your daily worries? Did you angst over the acne blooming on your face? A bully on the bus to school? Were your nights filled with feverish dreams of a newest crush of ineffable beauty, who by day would leave you clammy and staring at your sneakers?
Fourteen for me was Doritos and Street Fighter at 7-Eleven, a grinding geometry teacher of exacting vision, and the joy of swimming in the Pacific Ocean even in midwinter. It was tacos al pastor any time I could get them. It was Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Prince’s “Batdance.” It was A Tale of Two Cities and life in San Diego and Tijuana. It was My Left Foot, my own long-broken body only recently risen from a childhood in a wheelchair and on crutches.
Now think of Oscar,* fourteen, too. Born in Honduras in 2003. Oscar is diminutive, a wisp of a boy hung from two slender shoulders. Barely pubescent, his face is hairless, his nose more childhood button than defined adult feature. He has thick, black hair, and it’s always wildly uncombed.
Oscar likes to laugh, but he rarely does so. His eyes are dark and unsettled, forever scanning the room the way a weather radar scours the skies for signs of trouble. Oscar fled his homeland after a gang in San Pedro Sula nearly beat him to death in the street, their latest offer to join their ranks or die resisting. He was but one of the estimated six-thousand homeless children on the streets of Honduras, who are often beaten and even killed by the police with impunity. To survive, Oscar, orphaned at six, struck out on his own to walk to the United States.
Oscar saw life, even if it required a harsh, two-thousand-mile trek alone to begin to live it. Along the way, he nurtured himself with a constellation of dreams: of eating every day, of having a bed of his own, of going to school, of playing soccer in the park, of learning English, of becoming a doctor or maybe a mechanic. Remarkably, he maintained his poise and courage even when abandoned by his coyote in the desolate Sonoran Desert between Mexico and the United States, where he wandered alone for more than a week without food in that blistering heat, a zone where more than two-thousand corpses of migrants have been recovered since 2003. To survive, Oscar chewed raw cactus and sang to himself for company, hanging on until crossing paths with the US Border Patrol.
Oscar, the child refugee fleeing extreme violence and destitution, now lives in a maximum-security detention center. He is one of the sixty-thousand children who arrive unaccompanied at the southern border of the US each year without papers and filter through our legal system. In the land of the free, the nation of immigrants, he is held in an isolation cell, one of many children who are imprisoned this restrictively.
Oscar is prone to banging on his cell walls and crying out in frustration. He is boxed in, isolated, in the name of the US citizenry. Oscar cuts his forearms with anything he can sharpen, and he has tried to commit suicide while in custody—a stunning truth for a person brave and resilient enough to have survived homicidal streets, a two-thousand-mile walk, and a week in a scorching desert alone without food at age thirteen.
Oscar has tremendous courage and grit. He also has deep creativity. Oscar is a poet. Like almost every child in the workshops, he writes with valor, intelligence, strength, and ingenuity, traits he vehemently disavows in himself, however iridescent they might be to others.
Oscar’s poetry is both his alone and that of all imprisoned children, wherever in the world they may be. It is a poetry of witness, of any human being’s—and especially children’s—struggle for clarity amidst the confusion of carcerality.
In our workshops, poetry is both pretext and tool; it is the cause for our coming together, and the means for the children to recognize what they have endured and achieved, and to give language to their dreams for the future. Poetry is an inalienable skill—it empowers each child, even those in isolation in maximum-security detention centers, to narrate her story in her own words and thereby reclaim some of the dignity and agency that imprisonment strips from her.
Dreaming America features such writing. It is a chorus of the children’s voices singing out full-throated, each in her own key. They have made the book in part to attest that they exist. They are testifying to being here, however hidden in institutional shadows, and they have made the book to nurture their dreams of freedom to come, which lawyers can crucially help them to realize. The book is their greeting to all readers, wherever they may be, offered in the hope that we may one day meet and live in peace and freedom.
Poems excerpted from Dreaming America
To Have a Dream
I dream of being the president of my country
I dream of discovering a world where nothing would matter more than what you carry within
Tener un sueño
Sueño con ser el presidente de mi país
Sueño con descubrir un mundo donde no importe nada más que solo lo que llevas dentro de ti
Without reason to exist
I often forget that I am
real and this makes
the soul I don’t have
ache as if
I’m walking somewhere
unable to find myself.
Sin razón de existir
siempre olvido que soy
real y esto hace que
me duela el alma
que no tengo o que
ando por algún lado
y no me encuentra.
Blows in Life
There are such fierce blows in life, like when you lose someone, a parent, that’s the worst thing that can happen, or you lose a good friend to the streets and he was like a brother, or like when your dad doesn’t love you and you see everyone else and recognize what they have: their parents love them, it makes you feel hideous, it’s something no one wants in his heart, you’re sad, you feel alone and cry, what more can I say?
Los golpes en la vida
Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes como cuando pierdes a alguien, a un padre, eso es lo peor que te puede pasar, o pierdes un buen amigo tuyo por la calle y fue casi un hermano, o como cuando tu padre no te quiere y miras a los demás y te das cuenta de lo que tienen: sus padres los quieren, te hacen sentir feo, es algo en el corazón que a uno no le gusta, estás triste, te sientes solo y lloras, ¿qué más te puedo decir?
The future is to forget
the past and the suffering
Behind lie the mistakes
The important thing is that still
there is life
Ahead is our destiny,
El futuro es olvidar
el pasado y el sufrimiento
Atrás quedaron los errores
Lo importante es que todavía
Adelante es nuestro destino,
There are borders in life.
It’s very hard to learn English,
but I’m trying.
I try because
I want to be someone in life,
I want to live here,
In the United States.
I want break through this border to help my family,
To teach them what I’ve learned,
Like my English.
I can help to change our lives,
Teach them what life is like in another country.
These borders are hard to cross
With their fears, furies, frustrations.
But I keep fighting to learn.
Although borders are hard
I’ll one day make it across and improve my life.
Hay fronteras en la vida,
Para aprender inglés es algo difícil,
Para mí lo intento.
Lo pruebo porque
Quiero ser alguien en la vida,
Para vivir aquí,
En los Estados Unidos.
Romper esa frontera para ayudar a mi familia,
Enseñarles lo que he aprendido,
Como el inglés.
Puedo ayudar a cambiar nuestras vidas,
Enseñarles cómo son las vidas en otro país.
Estas fronteras son difíciles de cruzar
Con nervios, enojos, frustraciones.
Pero sigo con la lucha de aprender.
Aunque las fronteras son difíciles
Algún día lo cruzo y mejoraré la vida.
*Oscar is a hypothetical child, and these details are imagined out of experiences likely shared by many foreign children in maximum-security detention centers like the two in the United States. No specific child has been named or depicted in order to comply with conditions of my work in the detention center, including confidentiality agreements. Similarly, it has been mandated by the State that the children’s poetry must be published anonymously.