Open Mic Night Centers Immigrant Narratives

College junior and Obies for Undocumented Inclusion co-chair Zurisaday Gutierrez-Avila speaks at the Immigrant Narratives Open Mic at the Cat in the Cream last Friday.

Photo by Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

College junior and Obies for Undocumented Inclusion co-chair Zurisaday Gutierrez-Avila speaks at the Immigrant Narratives Open Mic at the Cat in the Cream last Friday.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, immigration has been at the forefront of his administration’s policy agenda. Trump seems to have every intention of fulfilling his campaign promise of building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico with little regard to economic or logistical practicalities, let alone the humanitarian impact of this endeavor. When Trump signed his executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim, protesters and lawyers rallied at airports throughout the United States in support of the people being detained, who included children and green card holders.

These national and international incidents coincide with the start of Oberlin’s second Immigration Action NOW! series, which kicked off Feb. 3 with the Immigrant Narratives Open Mic at the Cat in the Cream.

“Immigration can be a really difficult topic, especially since it’s people sharing their own personal stories,” said College sophomore Jack Goldberg, one of the organizers of the open mic. “Given the political climate today, it makes it even harder to be open and forthcoming about these things. We were just trying to get an inclusive space that was willing to be open to other people’s ideas and other people’s experiences.”

Members of the Oberlin community who identified with an immigrant narrative in some way — whether they themselves were immigrants, had immigrant family members or knew immigrants — were invited to share their experiences. Though most speakers told stories, the floor was open to other narrative mediums as well. Goldberg and College first-year Jason Hewitt performed a guitar duet, and College senior Holly Hoang read a poem about her father, who Hoang said “moved around between China and Vietnam before coming to the United States.”

“In general, [migration and immigration are] something that everyone has ties to, but … it’s something that can be very distant and removed,” she said. “But basically, people need to remember that it’s something that can be really deeply personal to people, right now in this moment. … And you can never really know what that history means for certain people and how they navigate their lives.”

The event was MC’ed by College sophomore Laura Franco Zapata and College junior Alex Jabbour, both of whom shared their personal and family stories.

“My mom … used to watch videos on how to lose your accent, how to speak ‘American’,” Franco Zapata said. “She [would] be like, ‘Come here, you’ve got to learn this!’ … And I was like, ‘No, mom, I don’t want to learn that.’ At first it wasn’t because I was proud of my accent, which now I am. At first it was because I was afraid I would fail at it.”

Jabbour told the story of their parents’ immigration from Syria and reflected on the xenophobia that has been given a limelight on the national stage by the new presidential administration.

“There’s a lot of hatred right now towards Arabs in general, especially Muslim Arabs,” they said on stage as they ended their narrative. “It’s unfair. It’s un-Christian. It’s un-American. It’s dangerous and violent.”

In a later interview, Jabbour also spoke about the impact of becoming involved with immigration activist groups on campus, particularly Obies for Undocumented Inclusion. OUI supports undocumented students by raising awareness, creating support and mentorship opportunities and fundraising for the Undocumented Student Scholarship Program.

“Having that sense of connecting back to where your own family is from, it’s important,” Jabbour said. “It feels less like you’re trying to fit in and more like you’re being included.”

College senior Hengxuan Wu, an international student from China, challenged the Oberlin community to be more intentionally inclusive of people who have come to the College from other countries.

“[About] 10 percent of people here are international students, and I wonder for everyone here who cares about immigrants, how many of your friends are actually international students?” Wu asked. Wu is currently applying for jobs and hoping to obtain an H1-B visa, which allows non-citizens to continue living and working in the U.S. for a period of three years at a time. Aside from stringent eligibility criteria, there is also a lottery process — only 30 percent of people eligible for an H1-B visa will receive one, and this percentage may decrease in the coming months or years.

A number of speakers told stories about their or their family’s undocumented status, while others related how their family’s immigration narratives shaped their own definition of what it means to be American. For College first-year Dulce Cedillo, who is on the planning committee for IAN, it is critical that this event and the rest of the series reach the Oberlin community at large.

“Besides educating people and collaborating with Obies for Undocumented Inclusion … we just want to … have people be exposed to something further than what they’ve been hearing,” she said.

Cedillo hoped that white community members in particular would continue to attend IAN series events, since sharing these narratives with people who do not have a similar personal or family background is an important way of challenging bias.

“It was really important to have people that weren’t POC at these events, because … this school … is more white than POC. It would be really important for POCs to feel included, especially immigrants, if we had people educated more — not necessarily only on actual facts, but educated in narratives also.”

“I think it’s easy for people who aren’t immigrants to read the news and filter it and just let it pass them, but I think when you [interact] with other people that you know, who you go to school with, whose lives are going to be impacted because of what’s happening politically, I think that does a lot to motivate people,” Goldberg said.

Another focus of the event, particularly in light of the current political climate, was compassion.

“It’s a rough time, and we need to be compassionate to our neighbors and who we go to school with because you don’t know who’s undocumented and who is going to face consequences from this administration that they don’t deserve,” Goldberg said.