Growing up in Queens, Evelyn Cruz rarely heard stories that matched her own.
She had immigrated from Mexico with her family at 7 years old and was undocumented. If her classmates in America had similar backgrounds, she never found out — there was a veil of silence around such immigration narratives. That silence, in part, motivated her to write about her experience as a New Yorker who entered the country without legal permission.
“When I was in elementary school, my classmates weren’t open about these things,” said Cruz, now 22 and working toward a master’s degree in psychology. “I never knew another person who had crossed a border at a young age like me. That pushed me to tell my story — not so much to educate, but to give a different narrative.”
Cruz is one of dozens of young undocumented writers who participated this year in PEN America’s "DREAMing Out Loud" workshop, where students put pen to paper to amplify previously untold stories. Under the instruction of award-winning novelist and essayist Álvaro Enrigue, and with supportive feedback from each other, the students honed short stories, essays and poems that paint vivid pictures of undocumented life in New York City — those stories, 58 in total, are now compiled in a book.
Cruz contributed two short stories to the collection, which she says are part of a larger in-progress memoir. The stories revolve around her older brother, who was deported to her family’s home country and imprisoned before he became sick with cancer and died in 2017. It was a difficult story to tell, said Cruz, but one she felt passionate about telling — and one that can’t be divorced from the fact of her brother’s immigration status, she said.
“When I started to focus on telling my brother’s story, I realized a lot of his life decisions in one way or another depended on his immigration status, being in America as an undocumented male,” she said.
The desire to tell these stories is underlit by a new urgency, she noted, as issues surrounding immigration increasingly rise to the surface of political discourse in the United States. The program was, in fact, founded in 2016 with the mission of countering anti-immigration sentiments. The stories, which vary widely in tone and topic, accomplish this mission by presenting a diverse picture of undocumented life.
“Especially now in such a time when people are presenting us in a certain way, I feel that as undocumented students, specifically, we really want to show there are different perspectives and different people in this community,” said Cruz.
Indeed, no two stories and no two voices are the same. Amalia Oliva Rojas, one of Cruz’s fellow PEN American students, tells a lightly fictionalized version of her parents’ immigration story and later divorce in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the form of a one-woman show called “Tonantzin On The 7 Train,” which is excerpted in "DREAMing Out Loud." The tale and its telling are both deeply moving and deeply funny, containing reflections on crossing borders, familial drama and the nature of love.
There was a time not long ago when Rojas, 27, who was brought to the states from Mexico at 2 months old, might have refrained from telling this particular story out of apprehension — but not anymore.
“After I graduated college I went two full years without writing anything — I was completely afraid, given the political climate,” she said. “I felt like there was no reason for me to continue to tell my story, that I was just going to continue not to be heard. Then, joining PEN America, I remember one of the things [Enrigue] told us was, how about you just finish writing a story, then worry about everything else, and there is power in that.”
There is humor and heartbreak in equal measure in her story — it’s far from a neat, simple narrative. It was important to show the truth and beauty of that messiness, Rojas noted.
“People think we crossed this border for a better life, and we did, but we negotiated happiness, and I was dealing with the ramifications of my own family being broken apart,” she said. “Because for so many years — we’re talking since the ’80s — my parents have been here, they have not been happy, but they had to swallow it so we could have this opportunity to dream.”
Rojas participated in the program last year, when she wrote a play. This year, she chose to combine her love of acting with her love of writing by creating a one-woman show. She has just wrapped up a two-day run of the show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Theater Festival in the East Village.
The theater is the perfect venue to tell the immigrant story, she said, because she wants to make her story accessible. The theater, she noted, welcomes everyone.
“I don’t want them to just be like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a Latino play,’ I want it to also be understood by white people,” she said. “I need them to understand what heartbreak looks like from our point of view and I can only do that if I welcome them in.”
Cruz hopes the writing in the new book welcomes readers in as well — she hopes it helps change perspectives and open eyes at a particularly fraught time, when empathy seems in short supply.