“Read this,” the tweet says. “Our government is inflicting unnecessary, potentially lifelong trauma upon little children. This one is five years old.” The tweet links to a New York Times article about a young Honduran boy separated from his father under the new “zero-tolerance” policy announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in May.
I want to reply, read this: Salvadoran-American poet William Archila’s “Three Minutes with Mingus.” This is how the poem begins:
When I read of poets & their lives,
son of a milkman & seamstress, raised
in a whistle-stop town or village, a child
who spent his after-school hours deep
in the pages of a library book, I want to go
back to my childhood, back to the war,
rescue that boy under the bed, listening
to what bullets can do to a man, take him
out of the homeland, enroll him in school,
his class—size ten—unfold the fables
of the sea, a Spanish galleon slamming up
& down the high waters. (98)
Potentially lifelong trauma? Check. Archila creates an intricate portrait. If you parse the first sentence of this poem grammatically, you find that the main subject and predicate occur at the end of the fifth line: “I want to go.” Everything that comes before is prologue. And what a prologue—a portrait of a man yearning for an innocence he never had. I’m particularly taken with the words raised and child poised at the end of the second and third lines. He envies the poets their childhoods, that they were allowed to be children, raised, or, in other words, nurtured by loving parents and allowed the immense, mutually-constituting privileges of education and leisure.
But this is not a poem about the government’s new family separation policy. The Gravediggers Archaeology (2015), the book in which the poem appears, chronicles Archila’s experiences as a child migrant fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. His father preceded him by several years, and he and his mother joined him in 1980, when he was eleven years old. But some things count as family separation, and some things do not, apparently. To Archila’s poetry we might add Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied (2017) or Alexander Lytton Regalado’s Matria (2017), both of which powerfully depict the separation of Salvadoran children and parents from different vantage points. Or we might broaden our view of Latinx poetry and include Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle (2018), with poems about the author’s periodic separations from his parents as an undocumented Mexican migrant. Or reach back to virtually any Latinx poet of the last four decades. It’s a body of work that attests to the chaos wreaked on Latinx families by separations that have been the intended and unintended results of US policies for the last century.
Who is allowed childhood? Who is allowed innocence? Editorial pages and social media have exploded with liberal outrage about this family separation policy, and for good reason—it’s reprehensible, repugnant, ineffective, inhumane.
And yet, there is a cynical reading to be done of liberal outrage over the current policy. If it is repugnant for the government to separate children from their parents at the border, isn’t it equally repugnant for the government to deport hundreds of thousands of parents and children, as it did during the Obama years? Isn’t it equally reprehensible for the government to materially support the waging of a war that separated hundreds of thousands of parents from their children by way of forced migration, detention, and death, as it did during the Reagan years? Why have some Central American children suddenly come into the spotlight after languishing in obscurity for decades?
In her brilliant book The Queer Child, Katherine Stockton observes, “It is a privilege to need to be protected—and to be sheltered—and thus to have a childhood” (31). Stockton argues that these privileges accrue uniquely to white, middle-class children: “Experience is hard to square with innocence, making depictions of streetwise children, who are often neither white nor middle-class, hard to square with ‘children.’ One solution to this problem … is to endow these children with abuse. As odd as it may seem, suffering certain kinds of abuse from which they need protection and to which they don’t consent, working-class children or children of color may come to seem more innocent” (32-33). I am tempted to say that our current indignation finds a convenient outlet with the announcement of the family separation policy. The Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan children seeking asylum at the border are only now earning their innocence by being torn away from their parents at our borders.
My hope is that the current moment amounts to more than just instrumentalizing Central American children for the larger project of being pissed at the megalomaniac clown occupying the White House. The noncynical reading of the current outrage is that it presents an aperture, an opening in what was previously a seemingly smooth narrative of twentieth-century liberal progress. Read Archila. Read Zamora and Lytton Regalado and Hernandez Castillo. Read Daniel Borzutzky, Rosa Alcalá, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Monica de la Torre. Peek through the aperture and see the disallowed innocence of generations of Latinx children.
Long before he was the poet laureate and elder statesman of Latinx poetry, Juan Felipe Herrera asked us to look with him through this opening. “Exiles,” the opening poem of his first collection, Exiles of Desire (1982), describes the haunted and haunting presence of Latin American refugees throughout US cities. Read this, another in a series of meditations on the impossibility of Latinx innocence:
We peer out to the streets, to the parades, we the ones from here
not there or across, from here, only here. Where is our exile?
Who has taken it?