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Unheard Voices
Perspectives from those too often ignored.

As You Come Home: Immigration, Reunion, and the Continuity of Power

 Guatemala
Photo by Flickr/npatterson

The Cuchumatanes in Guatemala.

It’s 11:09 pm. In seven hours, a taxi will take me to the airport. I listen to “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and let my mind drift to all the people I will hold and hug and fall into tomorrow. My sister, her son. We’ll cuddle-up on the couch. My best friend, her wife. My baby brother and his baby. We will eat Ethiopian food on the floor without silverware. Mom will cry instantly. And dad, when he sees me, will wrestle his tears and probably lose. And this will let loose in me a careless joy.

***

Yesterday, I bounced along in the front seat of a mini-van through the dirt roads of the Cuchumatan Mountains in Guatemala. As we drove, dust curled up and around the body of the van. We stopped; I pressed my hand against the dashboard. The ayudante, who collects passengers and their money and makes sure everyone has a seat if any seats are left, hopped out of the sliding door behind me, swooped around to the front, and tossed a large rock out of the road. As we continued, he stuck the top half of his body out the window and called out “Nebaj! Nebaj! Nebaj!” — our destination. We stopped again and a gaggle of kids on their way to school piled in.

The driver, like so many, had lived in the United States. In Los Angeles. He, too, had worked in construction. The van was clean. No rips or holes in the fabric, no thread holding upholstery together. “This one’s mine,” he said, patting the light brown steering wheel cover. They have three other vans in their family, all used for public transportation and all paid for with money he made in the U.S.

“Did you come back because you had to or because you wanted to?”

“Yo quería regresar,” he said. He wanted to come back.

“And do you want to go back? To the U.S.?”

“No, I’m home now,” he said. And he gave the names and ages of his children.

***

The “Home” I’m watching, repetitively, on YouTube is a cover by father and daughter Jorge and Alexa Narvaez. The son and the granddaughter of Esther Alvarado. In 1987, Ester traveled, undocumented, to the U.S., where her son and granddaughter now sing songs on YouTube.

How Alexa belts out the beginning “Alabama, Arkansas, I do love my ma and pa….” Her dad whistles without pursing his lips and she moves her face around, as if searching for her own whistle, then suddenly: “One day I’m gonna whistle?” she asks, right in the middle of it. How he looks at her and she understands and keeps singing. How she rests her arm on his elbow as he’s strumming. How she seems to be yawning huge at the end when she belts out “Ho-oh-ome.” And then she lays her head down on his arm.

***

As a human rights accompanier in Guatemala, I pass my days with people who might be threatened, harassed, arrested without cause, beaten, or murdered by those in power or by those sent by those in power. On the day we elected Donald J. Trump, I was traveling the mountain highlands of Ixil in northern Guatemala.

On that day, anyone who talked to me talked about the elections. The kids talked about it, the bus driver, the two men at one of those little front-of-the-house-tiendas where I stopped to buy agua pura. Water in hand, I ran to catch another bus. The local radio station was on, in the Ixil language, which I didn’t understand, but abruptly, “Trump” popped out, right after “Los Estados Unidos.” I thought everyone was looking at me with side-eyes. I kept my head down.

***

If I’m not on a bus here, I’m usually sitting in someone’s kitchen. In one kitchen, an Ixil woman handed me a bowl of water to wash my hands while tortillas cooked on the stove. As usual, I poured water over one hand, then another, letting it splash onto the dirt floor. She put more wood in the stove. A red bandana kept her hair out of her face. She didn’t look at me directly, at least not much, at least not by my cultural standards, but I was getting used to that.

She asked how long I was staying. “Maybe a year,” I said, “but I’m going home next week to visit. It’s hard,” I added, “being so far from my family, you know.” And she looked straight at me. Of course she knew. Of course she understood. They all understand.

Their fathers were taken by the army in the night. Their daughter’s body never found. The scar on the top of the head. The ones that fled, lived on the move in the jungle.

“And we have to rent our land now,” she said. “Work for plantations during harvest — if we’re lucky. It’s hard to find work,” she told me. Everyone tells me.

So, they flee. Like her two oldest have done. Like they did during the war. To my country.

***

I like how all I can see in the video is the bed they are sitting on, with a black notebook on it and, in the background, drawn curtains and a yellow wall and how that is enough to remind me of my favorite aunt. To feel myself again in her one-story house with a front yard of half-green grass in the suburbs of L.A. I wonder if they too are in southern California when they sing: “Take me home.”

***

“How long did it take to get here?” asked a friend of mine when I returned to Guatemala. We had met on my first visit five years ago. She lives in the countryside, raises cows, has never seen the ocean.

“A long time,” I said. “Like twelve hours, overnight.”

“That’s it?”

The only people she knows that move between countries, move between them in the desert, in the night. And in the days, thirsty, they sleep.

***

I’m drinking tea as I sit listening: “Home is wherever I’m with you.” I bite my lip and bounce my knees, anxious to see my dear friend who is like a sister, and her son, my adopted nephew, who is like a godson. At the same time, Daniel Ramirez Medina is in a detention center that is like a prison that is a business run for profit in Tacoma, Washington. One of hundreds of immigrants detained in the recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. He is a student, with legal permission to live and work in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA.

When Daniel arrived in the U.S., via the desert I suppose, he was the same age as my nephew. When I arrive in Los Angeles tomorrow, I will swing him, my nephew, in my arms. Two days later, I will fly to Tacoma, where Daniel is detained, to see the rest of my family: my parents and my little brother and my dear friend and her son. We will ride public transportation and when the bus turns right, my adopted nephew will lean into me hard, trying to knock me down. I will laugh and let him push me over.

***

Last week, someone suggested I was a terrorist. Through a bullhorn. I was in line for the security check to observe the trial of a man who, in a different trial, had already been convicted of genocide. I was there for the trial of the Dos Erres massacre. The accused was Efraín Ríos Montt, trained by the U.S. in “counter-insurgency techniques.” The man in charge during the seventy-seven massacres in Ixil. The man responsible for the deaths of the family members of those who drive me through their mountains and feed me in their kitchens.

It made me sweat. The yelling. The bullhorn. “We want you here as tourists, not terrorists.” But afterwards, I calmed down. It didn’t stick. It’s not uncommon for people to shout at witnesses or their observers when ex-military officers are brought to trial. The words, I believe, were not meant to harm me so much as to discredit those I was there to observe, those who survived crimes committed, in part, with U.S. dollars. In my time in Guatemala, I’ve come to understand the power elite as an interlocking web rather than as separate competing groups of so-called legitimate and illegitimate powers.

Currently, thousands of Guatemalans attempt to migrate to the U.S. They flee joblessness, poverty, and violence. In La Libertad, for example, in 2011, narcotics traffickers massacred twenty-seven people. The killers included former members of Guatemala’s most elite military unit: The Kaibiles. Those who can perform surgeries on themselves in the middle of the jungle, whose training includes biting the heads off chickens. Some of whom were trained by the United States at The School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC).

Throughout the Internal Armed Conflict (1960–1996), thousands of Guatemalans fled the violence and sought asylum in the U.S. According to intelligence documents, the U.S. knew about the human rights abuses and continued to give Guatemala’s military millions of dollars. The U.S. knew, for example, about another massacre, near La Libertad, twenty-nine years earlier. In 1982, the Kaibiles, still in uniform then, murdered two hundred and fifty-one civilians. One hundred and thirteen of them children. They were the best Kaibiles. The elite of the elite. What they did to the girls, they did in front of their families. That massacre is known as Dos Erres.

The powerful are still the powerful. They are not giving up their power. And they do what they can to stop those who threaten it. As I waited outside the courthouse to hear the case for the massacre of Dos Erres, I looked at the man with the bullhorn. He looked calm. He looked well-fed. Like me, his skin was light.

***

The struggles of rural Guatemalans are different now. Some fight for land (often taken during the conflict) or against dams on their land (frequently dams built during the conflict or built on land “bought” during the conflict); some fight in court (cases of genocide, sexual slavery, torture during the conflict) and some fight to find the bodies of their loved ones (secretly kidnapped, tortured, and buried during the conflict).

Things are different since the Peace Accords were signed. Survivors bring military officials to trial for war crimes. The U.S. gives less money directly to the Guatemalan military. Most of the Kaibiles have stepped out of their uniforms. The School of the Americas is called by another name. Indeed, the river of power that threads through Guatemala has changed. But it still runs strong.

***

The people I stand with here are defending their human rights, the ones set out by the United Nation’s International Declaration on Human Rights and by basic morality. For example, you should not be killed for protesting.

Two months ago, during a protest against hydro-electric dams in his region, Sebastián Alonso Juan, seventy-two-years-old, was shot. On hearing the shots, the other protesters fled. Sebastián was not killed instantly, but was left. The company’s private security forces were there. And the police. And he was left. The firefighters were called and did not come.

Four hours later, he would die. In the weeks after his murder — before observers went to the scene, interviewed witnesses, and spoke with authorities — I’d thought Sebastián was just left to die. It is a sick sensation to wish someone had been merely left to die. Even in that short time he had between life and death, those who do the bidding of the powerful did not let him be. I wish I didn’t know. I rub my hand hard along my cheek, trying to make my body forget.

***

“No one should be forced to live away from their loved ones,” Jorge Narvaez wrote when he made a second “Home” YouTube video. This time he sang with both his daughters, hoping to move viewers to sign a petition to bring home his mother Esther. She had been deported.

In this newer video, the “as you come home” tells a different story. The words are the same, but the resonance, here in my chest, has changed. Do we have a responsibility to let in everyone who has suffered? I don’t know. But when we are responsible, in part, for the conditions from which they flee? That, I think, is a different story.

***

What happens to all those men, the Kaibiles and others, trained to bite the heads off chickens, to kill their pets? What happens to all the torturers — some of whom we trained — once the Peace Accords are signed? How can they put their hands to use?

***

Want to know what happened to me that day at the court house? What stuck? I remember it like it is today. After we go in, another man enters. He was outside when we were harassed. He is a friend, perhaps a family member, of the plaintiffs. I hear him tell them what was said to us outside: “Terrorists…blah, blah, blah,” he repeats.

“But,” he says. “Well, I mean…there is the U.S. What they did with the conflict here, the genocide. Their money, their weapons. The training. I mean that part, that part is true.”

The woman I’m traveling with knows I’m a U.S. citizen. She smiles at me, sympathetically. The man talking doesn’t know me, doesn’t know where I’m from. His tone is not accusatory, but informative. He’s just saying what happened. I try to smile at him like I’m okay with it. I try to be okay with it.

It’s not like I don’t know. It’s not like that’s not why I’m here. I know what we did. What we’re doing. It’s why I’m here. But I can’t look at him anymore. It’s too much. I turn away, lean against a wall. I keep my back to him so I don’t have to see.

***

Every day, being here becomes more uncomfortable. In that van in the mountains with the driver who had lived in L.A., I was with a woman from Germany. She sat between me and the driver and it was her, not me, that answered his questions. He asked first where we were from.

She knows what people say when I tell them I am from the U.S. When she tells people she’s German, they sometimes whip their arms out straight or say “Heil Hitler.” And I let her answer the driver’s questions. I let him think I was from Germany. I would rather he think I am from Germany.

***

My dad tells me that when I was little, I pretty much skipped learning to walk and went straight to run. “A speed racer,” he says, making quick motions with his arms. And I talked to everyone, he tells me. And was filled with light. And light fills his face when he says this.

My dad is just over seventy, Sebastián’s age. He walks slow, hunched forward just a bit on his right side from a fall he took a few years back. But whenever he tells me how I was at age two, at age five, at age nine, he embodies me at that age. As he remembers, I glimpse a child-self I could not know without him; I am there in his arms, his walk, his unself-conscious smile that is mine, and in his eyes that shine with pride.

As I watch Jorge’s video, the one before his mother was deported, I think of returning to my family as I think of those who will never be returned. I imagine my short stay at the airport and I imagine the stays of those caught in the administration’s travel ban. Look at them on the bed in that room of light. Look how Alexa looks at her father in that first chorus. Like she has everything. Like she always will.

An Interview with Julia Eff

Julia Eff

How does neutrois differ from other nonbinary terms like genderqueer or androgynous? With gender-related language so swiftly evolving, what does neutrois mean to you?

Neutrois is sometimes just written as the null symbol, which in math stands for an empty set but looks like a little “NO!” sign, which obviously stands for “STOP WHATEVER BULLSHIT YOU’RE DOING OVER THERE RIGHT NOW, MY MOST RIGHTEOUS DUDE”. So neutrois is the complete absence of gender, not a queering or blending of genders or taking elements of the binary, plus the fun and excitement of constant dysphoria with no cure that makes you want to claw your own face off.

For me, neutrois is just the empty set. It’s being completely outside the concept of genders and not wanting to look at it or think about it and feeling like nothing, but also an alien and a sick bass line and a snowstorm. It’s a lot of wishing we were all just floating brains in jars, or I could equip the whole world with mind-jamming technology so they wouldn’t make any more assumptions about me based on preconceived notions tied to how I look and nobody knew anything about me that I didn’t tell them. Most of my problems are other people and the body I affectionately refer to as my soggy trash-husk. I’m very comfortable with myself as a floating brain creature.

 

Your book touches on feeling something was “off” about you growing up. How did you arrive at the label of 'neutrois' for yourself and the way you feel?

I don’t know when I figured out my Overall Bad Feelings had gone from “you are crazy and cannot fix yourself” to “you are not the letter it says on your drivers license”, but it was a long ways coming. I always struggled with how I looked not matching how I saw me in my head, not because I was particularly ugly or anything but because everything I did just felt wrong in every direction no matter where I tried, so there was a lot of grasping at straws when I was younger and now I look back on everything prior to like, age 23 with a mixture of shame and sadness. I guess I sort of figured it out for myself after another average garden-variety Julia moment of explaining to somebody that life would have been better if I’d just been born Twiggy Ramirez, and finally just ended up doing a lot of googling. There wasn’t the sheer level of gender discourse on the internet back in 2011 that there is now so it was a pretty hard search and it was a goddamn miracle when I found something. I’m so strong in every aspect of my me-ness that it was not a pleasant thing to have to suffer through cuz that meant not knowing, y’know?.

In 2011, genderqueer/genderfluid and androgyny were emphasized as not having to include dysphoria, and being a mix of genders instead of being separated from the concept entirely so those didn’t fit me. And even when I found the term neutrois, it wasn’t included in the umbrella of “true” transness because there’s no roadmap for a genderfree transition, so Every Thug unfortunately has some pretty weird “I’M TRANS BUT NOT!!!!!!” shit going on in it and now I want to claw my face off when I listen to myself talk, which is I guess an improvement overall since I’m such a cringe factory. There’s an AFI lyric, “we’re the empty set, just floating through and wrapped in skin”, which is equally cringey but super awesome, and I scratched it into all my notebooks when I was younger because it meant so much to me so when I finally found a word that represents “the empty set” as the way to explain myself made me feel so safe in myself, and a lot better than “well...idk...I feel like a girl who’s pretending to be a boy who’s dressed as a girl who dressed as a boy...ok but do u kno what Twiggy Ramirez looks like??”

Over the years I’ve come to use genderfree, gendermagical, genderweird, and genderwizard to describe myself too. Like yeah bruh, I’m a level 96 gender mage with +40 bandaid powers and massive anxiety, the fuck is you?

 

You also mention some people in your life being less than accepting of who you were at the time. Has Every Thug Is A Lady done anything to change the gender views of anyone in your life that may not have been so accepting before?

I don’t think so. I cut a lot of people out of my life before, during, and after writing the zine and haven’t felt the need to really go back and check on people that were known assholes five years ago, y’know? A lot of people I mention in the zine for being dismissive transphobic shitcanoes were already long gone by the time I made the first copies for exactly that reason. I have a hard enough time living with myself some days, I don’t need that kind of nonsense in my life.

But what the zine has done is make it easier for new people to be welcomed into my weird little world. If anybody has any questions, I can direct them to the book or its follow-up zine Whatstheirname. I wrote it originally as a way to get my friends and people around me up to speed on the situation without having to talk about it all the time, so it’s actually served that purpose really well.

 

You wrote Every Thug Is A Lady five years ago. That's a long time. How do you relate to it now as an artist and as a person five years down the road?

I didn’t expect it to take off the way it did. The first run was like, 30 copies, just for friends. So as an artist, it’s surreal to be thinking of how many thousands of people have read this now and still be talking about it five years later. Pioneers picked it up as a book because I threatened to take it out of print cuz I was really just sick of looking at it--it was in the right place at the right time and became this force of nature on me, so it’s weird as an artist to have that be the thing that people ask me about all the time when it’s not the thing I’m the most proud of at all, because I’m my own worst critic and there’s things I’d go back and change in a heartbeat but I won’t because it’s a time capsule of who I was and where I was artistically at a point in time. It bums me out when my more recent stuff gets overlooked in favor of the thing that I’m like OH GOD WHY I COULD HAVE SPACED MY LINES SO MUCH BETTER THAT DOODLE IS STUPID OH GOD I HATE IT about, but it’s really cool to still be getting letters from people saying this helped them somehow, or they saw it and it resonated so perfectly with them that they went out and made their own zine too.

As a person, I’ve grown and changed so much in the last five years that I look back at 2011-me and go “damn kid, you were a hot mess, but ya got a lot of heart”. I’m grateful to myself, though, cuz this was the foot in the door to the zine community again and now I’m involved and go to events and have met so many cool friends and inspiring artists from it. I hate it sometimes, but it’s put me in a spot where I can do the things I’ve dreamed of doing since I started doing zines in 2005. I’m happy I made it but like all the other things I made when I was just a couple years out of high school, I want to bury it in a deep hole and never see it again cuz the perfectionist art-shaming asshole side of me is so real.

 

Along similar lines, what have you been up to since ETIAL came out? What are you working on these days?

EVERYTHING. At the moment I’m:

• compiling a Marilyn Manson fanzine called The Devil In My Lunchbox.

• working on a bunch of stuff that revolves around Myspace, shitty bands, fan culture, and archiving the internet.

• trying to properly assemble my zine collection into something worthy of being called a public archive, but that’s probably gonna come more after I move into this house I’m buying and it’s got space to be  organized instead of just crammed into some paper cases in the corner of our living room.

• following my lifelong dream of becoming basically a record producer for zines, helping cool people with cool ideas but a lack of technical zinemaking experience make shit. So I’m collaborating with a few friends at the moment to help them get their first (or second) zines out. This winter I did the layouts and collage work for my friend California Rachel’s six-foot-long zine about Indiana Jones, Truly The Shittiest Archaeologist Ever, and we’re working on her second one right now, which is sadly not about Indiana Jones but still really good.

• Last year I did a series of mini zines about growing up in a small shitty farm town, and overall I’m working to get more back into the satire-with-a-message stuff I was doing when I first started doing zines, but right now I’m focusing on the music end of things cuz those are the feelings I’m having at the moment. This summer I’m doing a reading at Plan-It X Fest in Indiana (which fulfills my lifelong dream of doing zine things in a music festival context, so even if it’s not Warped Tour [and lbr it’s way better than Warped Tour] IT’LL DO) and I’m hoping to put together some readings and zine-y events in Detroit real soon!

 

Where is the best place readers can find all of your work?

If you want to read all my things, my webstore (crapandemic.storenvy.com) is the best bet. If you just want to keep abreast of my hollering, I have a tumblr (crapandemic.tumblr.com) and a twitter (twitter.com/julia_eff), but people follow that a lot expecting insightful zine things and then unfollow me when they realize I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m literally just a bag of anxious raccoons that just wants to make high-pitched wailing noises about emo bands and have a good time.


To read an excerpt from Every Thug Is A Lady, check out Please Stop Trying, You're Obviously Never Gonna Understand It...


Julia Eff is the author of Every Thug Is A Lady: Adventures Without Gender. Julia’s latest zine is called Brothers and Sisters, I am an Atomic Bomb.