Documents and Documentation

Braided Voices

Excerpts from a writing collaboration with Elizabet Barrios and Elsa Goossen

“Poetry . . . a way to attain a life without boundaries”

--Juan Felipe Herrera, as quoted by Stephen Burt

Introduction: “Undocuments”

In his manifesto of resistance, 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007, formerU.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera describes his own border crossings—of nations, states, cities, farmlands, languages, and literary forms. His “undocuments” attempt to turn the concept of documentation on its head and lay bare its dehumanizing effects.

Herrera finds in undocuments the language of true existence—authentic moments “in-between being & non-being” –a bit like the revelations in Elisabet Barrios’s poems: she finds herself neither documented nor undocumented, neither Mexican nor American, neither at home nor alien, neither in existence nor non-existent.

Herrera’s “undocuments” “solicit the voice rather than lying flat (like ‘documents’) on the page, and they often concern undocumented immigrants.” (from a New York Times review of 187 Reasons). The title poem cites 187 absurd “reasons” why Mexicans can’t cross the line, reasons like these five I will read as exemplars to show a nonsense immigration system:

Because it’s Indian land stolen from our mothers

Because we’ve been doing it for over five hundred years already

Because it’s better to be rootless, unconscious, & rapeable

Because of this Aztec reflex to sacrifice ourselves

Because we rely more on brujas than lawyers

Because our starvation & squalor isn’t as glamorous as Somalia’s

Because we still bury our feria in the backyard

Because cilantro aromas follow us wherever we go . . .

These are ‘undocuments,’ too, because they are works of imagination rather than pieces of evidence . . . “ Herrera dedicates 187 Reasons to “all Migrant Homelanders sketching a new continent in-between two homelands.” It is that “new continent” that Elisabet, Elsa and I wished to explore.

The Undocumenters: Elisabet, Elsa, and Raylene

“Where are you from?” I asked Elisabet. She answered with a poem, our first “undocument:”

Where are you from?

In one word or story form?

Are you curious about my birthplace?

A familiar country,

foreign Land-my-heart-misses

And my memories do not know?

Do you mean where I learned

To read

To write

To work

To be ashamed because

I don’t belong

Are you asking where I found my voice

For the very first time?

Where I rediscovered my




among a community that echoed:

“Undocumented and unafraid.”

Do you mean the city I fell in love with?

Where I was interchangeable with my friend,

Because we were brown.

Where my English was commended

And my Spanish was worthy!

to the vendors and the Market Lords

Maybe you’d like to know where

I faithfully build my home

[Every single day]

while political waves promise,

to sweep away my existence

years of sacrifice


Like a castle made of sand.

Do you ask about the countries

my soul belongs to?

The ones if I explore,

Will cost me everything I know?

Before you learn to say my name

You ask

Where are you from?

I wonder why you ask

And how much you want to know.

I am from God

and of the Earth

Where areyoufrom?

Elsa, our second writer, responds to Elisabet’s question of how she got started on this path of border-crossing.

I had little knowledge of contemporary immigration issues growing up in Kansas, where I attended a majority white public high school. My first memory of making a personal connection with someone directly impacted by U.S. immigration policies is—remarkable—from my senior year of high school. I was traveling to San Antonio, Texas, with my church youth group for a week-long service trip, and we stopped briefly in Dallas to visit our congregation’s sister church, Iglesia Menonita Monte Horeb. We received wonderful hospitality at this Spanish-speaking church, and enthusiastically offered to return the favor in Kansas if anyone from Monte Horeb wanted to visit us.

Their response—that many members of the congregation would be afraid to risk a long drive crossing state lines, due to their undocumented status—was a reality check for me, a 17-year-old who had never considered such a barrier. I don’t think this experience led directly to my eventual pursuit of immigration-related work, since many of my interests in college (peacemaking, language, gender studies, faith-based activism, American Studies and Latin American Studies) eventually converged to lead me on that path. But that encounter in Dallas sticks in my mind, partly because of the lateness of my awareness.

If I, a relatively social justice-minded high school student, had virtually no knowledge about current U.S. immigration, little to no contact with anyone who had personally experienced it, and zero concept of how my life as a U.S.-citizen was systemically intertwined in the lives of immigrants, then what about the rest of White America? It’s no wonder that xenophobia has become such a disease in this country.

I, Raylene, am the third strand of our braid.

I grew up thinking of myself as the inheritor of a proud Mennonite immigrant tradition, but I have come to see in recent years that I never recognized my privilege as a European colonizer--alongside that great stream of immigrants who still benefit from The Doctrine of Discovery which gave all of North and South American land to white Christian Europeans without regard for the lives of the people already living on the land. I wanted to use this conversation to rethink my own immigration story in light of Elisabet’s experience.

Dehumanization Through Categorization

Otto Santa Ana, linguist and professor in UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies, argues that no human being is illegal. “We don’t call pedestrians who cross in the middle of the road illegal pedestrians . . . or a kid who skips school to go to Disneyland . . . an illegal student.”

Historically, the term “illegal alien” was corrected to “illegal immigrant” (first used, as Elie Wiesel pointed out, when the media described Jews fleeing to Palestine without authorization). The label was again corrected to “undocumented immigrant” and then “upgraded” to the supposedly neutral label, “unauthorized.” All such terms are essentially negations of humanity behind which hide the slurs that continue to appear on posters condemning immigrants’ presence or existence. We further obfuscate, drawing endless distinctions between “immigrants” and “refugees” in order to sort people into comfortable legal/illegal categories.

Here is a second “undocument” from Elisabet:

January 27, 2017, the day I stopped being a person

written on the bus today

I walked down the street, squeezed through the crowds:

Something about immigration; they were shouting

Bilingual education In America we speak English

Haven’t you heard? In God we trust

Land of the free This we’ll defend

Illegals hurt U.S. Take our jobs

Reward Their criminal behavior

Freeloaders Rapists Parasites

Living Off the welfare of our land

Build a wall If they climb it, shoot ‘em

On the other side, a banner for Immigration Reform

(Surely, they’ve saved a place for me)

Dreamers the hope of tomorrow

No dreams of their own

Embody the American Dream

Work their way up the ladder

Make a good living

Stay out of trouble

Good upstanding citizens

It’s their parents who broke the law

They are: Illegals

Sin papeles, sin miedo! Sin papeles, sin miedo! They won’t give us reform, we have to take it. Shut those streets down! Disrupt the system. Arrested for la causa. You can’t stop the movement. Sal from the shadows, challenge their power. Recuerda, tus derechos son el resultado of the only way to win battles! So many people like me, against me, for me, and still . . . . I don’t exist . . . No one hears my laugh . . . or pauses to ask . . . what . . . I’ve learned. . . . Everyone else has it all figured out, but I don’t. The answer must have flown . . . right past me while I was living . . . out my dreams . . .

Elsa writes:

Since working in immigration legal services, I - like both of you - have struggled to navigate the labels, the endless categorizations, the twisting, shifting boxes that we try to squeeze people into for the purposes of organization, accountability, judgment. All this sorting boils down to a simple, problematic question, with complicated, problematic answers: Who deserves to come, who deserves to stay, and who deserves none of those things? Legal representatives are forced to work within those ugly, nonsensical terms, but immigrants are forced to live them. So what to do if your life doesn’t fit into a box, into neatly-drawn boundaries that ignore our world’s messiness and punish its resilience and vitality?


Last August in anticipation of a solidarity walk from Tijuana to Los Angeles with immigrants and justice seekers, Elsa reflected on a part of a semester she had spent earlier in Tucson, specifically an experience she had in an earlier field placement with “No More Deaths,” an organization that offers water, food and medical assistance to those crossing the remote Sonoran desert. As preparation Elsa had read The Death of Josseline, an account of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl who died in the Arizona desert in 2008 as she walked to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. In a moment of epiphany, Elsa realized that she and Josseline had shared a birth date: September 15, 1993.

. . . We were born on the same day just a few countries apart, vulnerable like all babies, waiting for someone to nourish us with food, warmth, love. But neither of us inherited a blank slate. Our lives would be shaped, in disparate ways, by the history of U.S.- sponsored violence in the Americas and the ugliness of white supremacy.

This is my truth: the white, English-speaking body that I inhabit has never felt the ache of forced separation, never been targeted as a foreign object when seeking welcome, never been compelled to walk or run long distances for any reason besides personal whim. . . . What kind of future did Josseline imagine for herself at age 14? . . .

Josseline’s ghost startled me with the knowledge of our bound fates. As I continued dropping water in the desert that spring, more ghosts ventured into view: a child’s backpack, a stray sock, a hidden campfire ring still warm with coals. . . .

Elisabet and I walked (in spirit) with Elsa on The Camino del Inmigrante. Elisabet could not have crossed that national line at all to visit her people on the other side without risking her immigration status. However, Elsa’s stories of walking into Los Angeles reminded Elisabet of the stories she knew of her people entering Los Angeles, and she recorded her memory as follows:

Por Tu Cuerpo

Por tu cuerpo, por tu alma, por tu espiritu

Sigue, toma un paso

Sigue otro, uno mas

You’ve come this far

As treacherous to return

As it is to move forward

Movimiento es vida

Stuck when you stop

Keep moving, a little further

A little farther, a little more

Three . . . Six . . . Nine

Times you were denied a human right

Shoved back to the starting line

Tenth try, you understand

The Angels was an oasis for life

Long before it became a city on a map

The trodding of your step drowns

the throbbing of your heart

Sodom and Gomorrah, don’t look back

Run if you must, escape the urge to give

your mother one last kiss

Awfully heavy, considering everything

you had was left behind

Sodom and Gomorrah, all is salt

All who perished before you,

under you, for you, compel you on

Port u cuerpo, por tu alma, port u espiritu

Anda nina, acude a la fuerza del espiritu

Barefoot, you kneel by the river

You trust that She will lead during this peregrinacion

You’ve come this far, manna is on the other side

Your faithfulness will swing you de lo visible

a lo invisible, sacred to mundance and back

Left at the mercy of All, in the hand of faith

In yourself and other, God

Sigue toma un paso

Sigue otro, uno mas

You’ve come this far

As treacherous to return

As it is to move forward

Stuck when you stop

Movimiento es vida

Keep moving, a little further

A little farther, a little more

Walk and it will be given to you;

Walk and you will find;

Walk and the door will be opened to you

Leaving everything behind

For your body, soul and spirit

DACA-mented before, DACA-mented after, DACA-mented in the future?

Elisabet came to this country with her parents when she was four and holds the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals designation which keeps her from deportation at this moment, though it does nothing for her parents. DACA authorizes her to possess a federally issued employment authorization card, a driver’s license, a social security number, even specific permission to leave and re-enter the U.S. for employment, humanitarian, educational reasons like study abroad, using a travel document known as Advance Patrol, which Elisabet would clearly not risk using. In-state tuition is available to DACAmented young people in some states.

Before the 2016 election Elisabet wrote:

I hate that I desire to be acknowledged by the system that currently diminishes my existence. When Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals passed in 2010, I learned that many of my contemporaries, though eligible, were not applying because accepting DACA would be ‘accepting second class citizenship.’ In fact, some of my contemporaries saw it as a way to appease the voices calling for immigration reform. They said DACA felt like bread crumbs. . . . I live in limbo. The immigration system is allowing me to build a future, with a fair warning of dismantling it. Should I feel glad, or concerned, that through DACA the legal system labeled me worthy to (legally) work and drive, while my parents, who fled poverty and violence, were not?

After the election Elisabet wrote:

In the months preceding January’s inauguration, I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to protect myself and my family- was there anything we could do to prepare for the anti-immigrant attitudes and policies that would flood America?

I spoke to my brother, Andres, about deportation and Trump’s intentions. His teachers had consoled him that Trump could not do everything he said he would. (I guess our hope is an ineffective White House administration.) As of two months ago, my brother became a DACA recipient, but DACA is not enough to undo 17 years of hiding. DACA does not give him freedom of expression. He fears the day his friends will “find out.” A few weeks ago, Andres told my father that he would not go to community college: “What’s the point if I get deported?” he shrugged.

In 2012 DACA seemed like a step in the right direction. I can’t say the same today.

If DACA survives this administration, nine years will have passed over my face and still, no immigration reform.

I think of my mother and the 16 years she’s lived in this limbo. I think of her spirit which aches for “home.” I feel her motherland tugging, whispering for her return. El lago del los colibris wants her back but I want her kisses. Is it possible to have both?

Movimiento es vida, may our spirits find life in movement.

More Braiding

Elisabet didn’t march in the January women’s marches. Elsa marched in Denver and felt the keen prickle of her white privilege as she stood among the marchers. I marched in Topeka and was buoyed by the thousands of women I marched with into a new sense of hope in the resistance, much of which I have lost in the months since then. However, all of us felt solidarity with the fifty women Elsa reported to us who had actually braided their hair together on a pedestrian bridge between Juarez and El Paso on the U.S. Mexico border. (“Women on U.S.-Mexico Border”)

“They stood back to back holding hands, and with their hair interwoven into a braid with the woman behind them. Blue hair was woven into black hair, and brown into blonde. Those with hair too short to braid tied scarves to their heads instead. . . Several women remarked that they were there representing those who could not be there—the undocumented, the occupied, the invalid. . . . ‘I’m here because my mother is from Juarez, my daughter was born in the United States in Denver, Colorado, and I feel like I’m a bridge between them.’”



In the moments when my feet are moving over a ground that seems unstable, I remember Israel. Wandering, wondering, homeless but free, following a pillar of fire to the promised land.

Por tu cuerpo, por tu alma, por tu espiritu. Sigue, toma un paso Sigue otro, uno mas. As treacherous to return, as it is to move forward. Stuck when you stop.


We all experience a collective brokenness – albeit in different ways – from the physical, symbolic, and psychological walls that divide our communities. In Alamosa, the railroad tracks carve a border through the middle of town, roughly separating residents by race, class, and immigration status. I feel incredibly fortunate to take part in blurring this boundary through my work, even in messy and imperfect ways. For those of us who are white U.S. citizens, our privilege comes with a responsibility to recover the parts of our souls that are damaged by white supremacy, to begin reversing the alienation that starves our hearts from the inside. The cracks through our communities, in turn, can become sites of healing.


What else is there to say? We are all three caught in a broken system. Elsa is working on a sanctuary system she hopes she won’t need, advising people on deportation resistance she hopes they won’t have to use. She is teaching English to people who have little chance to use it toward naturalization and citizenship. Elisabet is moving forward with her education while dangling on the whims of a government that threatens her and her family without offering them any path forward. How can she resist living in fear? How can she feel like a full human being in the America she claims as her country?

I am an ineffectual resister in 2017; as an idealistic young woman I believed that I actually had an impact on ending a war. My protests today against a broken immigration system seem feeble, like spitting against the wall. . . . But all of us have a voice.

Elisabet Barrios is a graduate student at DePaul University, Chicago IL.

Elsa Goossen finishes this summer a two-year MCC term of service providing immigration resources in Alamosa CO.

Raylene Hinz-Penner is retired from teaching English at Washburn University in Topeka KS.


“Book Reviews: ‘187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border’ and ‘Half of the World in Light’” The New York Times (August 11, 2008). Web.

Burt, Stephen. “’Punk Half Panther.’” The New York Times: August 10, 2008. Web.

Gambino, Lauren. “’No human being is illegal’: linguists argue against mislabeling of immigrants.” The Guardian: 6 December 2015. Web.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. City Lights Publishers, 2007. Print.

Regan, Margaret. The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. Beacon Press, 2010. Print.

“Women on U.S.-Mexico border weave their hair together in giant solidarity braid as Trump gets inaugurated” in Fusion.Net by Sasha von Olderhausen. January 20, 2017. Web.

About the Author

Raylene Hinz-Penner

After retiring from a career of teaching Contemporary American Literature and Creative Writing at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas and Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, Hinz-Penner has been writing about place--the land and its peoples, its history and geography. Her first book, Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite was published in 2007. East of Liberal: Notes on the Land, a “land acknowledgement” about the southwest Kansas Dust Bowl land where she grew up, was published in December 2022. Field Notes on the Levee, a manuscript of poems and field sketches about the Topeka site where she lived for 20 years includes the forced Potawatomi march to Kansas and their early life on the land where Hinz-Penner lived in southwest Topeka. Now living in North Newton, she is an active member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, maintaining wider fellowship status with Southern Hills Mennonite in Topeka.