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Davis, California

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Dreaming America: poetry by undocumented youth

Poetry performance provides space for cultural understanding

On Feb. 21, the International House hosted a reading of “Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention.” The 2015 book features poetry written by undocumented, unaccompanied children detained at the Shenandoah Valley Youth Center in Virginia, one of two maximum-security detention centers that have a contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The other center is located in Woodland, Calif.

Acme Theatre Company, a youth-run theatre company based in Davis, performed 12 poems from “Dreaming America.” The performance was followed by a moderated community discussion.

Emily Henderson, director of the Acme Theatre Company, spearheaded this project.

“I’m a theatre artist, and I really believe that theatre has an opportunity to humanize stories, to personalize stories,” Henderson said. “When I read this selection of poems, I felt like it was an opportunity for the youth in our theatre company to dig deeper into the issue of immigration.”

The poems were read in both English and Spanish. In addition to being read by members of Acme Theatre Company, poems were read by local community leaders. Garth Lewis, Yolo County’s Superintendent of Education, and Gloria Partida, Mayor Pro Tempore of Davis, both participated in the performance. Julie Burns, Supervisor of the Yolo County Office of Refugee Resettlement program based in Woodland, also participated. Other readers included Ramon Urbano of the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network, Eliana Kaimowitz of Immigrant Integration Fellow and Rabbi Greg Wolfe of Congregation Bet Haverim. Several members of SPEAK, a student-run organization that seeks to support undocumented students at UC Davis, were also present and participated in the reading.

“I was very concerned about bringing this together,” Henderson said. “This is a very divisive topic, and even when advocates are in agreement that we should be supporting youth, particularly unaccompanied, detained minors, I was worried there was going to be a lot of schisms within the ranks. I think those schisms do exist and are important, and I was very grateful we were able to share it together.”

Unlike traditional poetry readings, the performers presented in the center of the room with the audience surrounding them on all sides. This created an intimate, interactive experience.

“I think there’s something about when you have actors moving in three-dimensional space that helps the poems come alive,” Henderson said. “It was something Anoosh [Jorjorian] and I talked about: whether we would just provide a music stand and a microphone, and we decided we wanted to stage it in the round [formation] to help bring the poems to life.” Jorjorian is the Program and Outreach Manager at International House.

The poems reflect a wide range of trauma, pain, memories of the past and hope for the future. The youth in these centers often flee violent situations in their home countries and or seek work in America, all in search of a better future. Often these children undergo long and dangerous journeys to arrive at the American border and face treacherous conditions to cross it. Apprehended by ICE officials, unaccompanied minors fall under the care and custody of ORR and are taken to facilities where they receive housing, physical and mental healthcare and access to educational and legal services.

Youth who are considered violent or have criminal histories can be transferred from these staff-secured facilities to one of the two maximum-security detention centers. Several of the poems were collected from children subjected to isolation and who struggle with self-harm and suicidal tendencies. In the past, detained youth have spent between 49 and 67 days in the Yolo County facility. They are then typically released to family members or group homes.

Cypher McIlraith, an actor with Acme Theatre Company, read the poem “I have a dream” and felt that they connected with it on a deeper level.

“It was about a kid who was in a very dark place, and they didn’t care what happened to their life,” McIlraith said. “They seemed vaguely suicidal, and that is something I have had to struggle with myself, not for the reasons they’re probably dealing with it, but for my own personal reasons. I felt very connected to [the poem], and it was very powerful.”

Gray Blair also performs with Acme Theatre Company.

“Just the fact that these are kids my age are going through things I’ve never had to deal with, I’m reading the descriptions of these kids who traveled so far, and knowing they were my age,” Blair said. “I don’t really know the word, it’s different. I have friends who have family who immigrated from the area. The way that these kids are being treated, it’s not that bad here, but it’s still a lot worse than I wish it was.”

Blair advocated for a poem titled “From the earth” to be included in the performance.

“There’s a lot of levels to why I like the poem so much, partly because it’s so short and easy to memorize,” Blair said. “It’s going to stay with me forever now. But also, just something about the poem made me really want to get to know the person who wrote it, I guess. It’s short, it’s concise, it’s well-written.”

“From the Earth” brings attention to the unseen labor that is integral to American food industries.

“Most people my age, outside of our small community of social activist teenagers, don’t really think of where their food comes from,” Blair said. “There’s a level of metaphor. You see these beautiful things like these poems, and they’re like delicious fruit. But you need to stop to wonder what is going on with the person who made them or where they came from. It adds another layer of appreciation of anything beautiful.”

Henderson hopes to use the theatre company to lift up the voices of undocumented youth. While this has been their only performance of “Dreaming America,” she is optimistic that other groups and venues will want to work with them.

“If anyone is interested, they should absolutely reach out to me,” Henderson said.

The moderated discussion ended on a hopeful note, outlining ways to help undocumented youth. The consensus was that the most important thing to do is to stay educated on immigration-related matters and current events, as well as to educate friends, family and other members of the community on these issues. Events such as the “Dreaming America” poetry reading help disrupt patterns of bias and fear in local communities. Exposure to different voices reminds documented individuals that the handful of stories presented by the media does not represent all undocumented people.

Safe Yolo lists local immigration events online. Other organizations that help undocumented people include NorCal Resist and Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network.

Written by: Cheyenne Wiseman – arts@theaggie.org

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