Written by Senior Editor, Mark Lyons
TELLING LILIANA'S STORY
I met Liliana Velásquez four months after she came to Philadelphia to be placed in a foster home while awaiting the decision of the Immigration court about whether to deport her or allow her to stay in the country. She had begun to participate in a program called La Puerta Abierta—The Open Door—run by a remarkable family therapist named Cathi Tillman. LPA is a safe harbor for children in the same boat as Liliana, who have fled Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador or Honduras alone, were captured by the U.S. Border Patrol, and are at the mercy of the Immigration authorities.
When I heard of the work of La Puerta Abierta, I approached Cathi about the possibility of creating some short videos with the kids in her program, a chance for them to tell their stories. Over the last thirty years I have worked with migrant farmworkers, refugees and undocumented immigrants, as an organizer and health provider, and have listened to compelling stories about their lives back home, the risks they took to come to the United States, and the challenges they faced trying to make a better life for their families here. I became determined to work with these communities to help them tell their stories, to have a voice in the immigration debate that is raging around us. I edited Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, a book of oral histories of Mexican farmworkers; and, as director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project for the last twelve years, have worked with the immigrant community to create audio stories documenting their lives.
So, I met with the teens at La Puerta Abierta, and they decided, yes, they wanted to record their stories. Liliana sang a song she wrote about wanting to re-unite with her brothers in North Carolina. A year and a half later she came to a reading I was doing from Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, my short story collection, and said, “I want to tell my story, to write a book-- will you help me?” Of course.
Liliana and I met over forty times over the next fourteen months. We just chatted the first few sessions, no writing, no recording. Why do you want to tell your story? Who is the story for, who is your audience? This is risky business--are you ready to talk about the painful parts of your story, your feelings, your dreams—the places where people will really know who you are? How do you feel about sharing your story with complete strangers? How shall we begin? How would you like me to help you tell your story? I assured Liliana that she would have complete control of her story: what to include and not to include; what photos to use; the cover design; how her book would be shared in the larger world. This is a huge project we’re taking on here, hours and hours of work—are you up for it? I asked for descriptions, feelings, reflections. That’s a great scene you just described—we should definitely include that in your story. I realized that this young woman, this teenager, had a remarkable memory for detail and understood why that was important, that she was brave enough to talk about her feelings concerning painful memories, and welcomed questions probing for more detail that would make her story alive. We began to relax with each other, to laugh. Our time together moved from the stiffness of an interview to having a conversation. Then I knew we were ready to begin.
This is how we worked: we met at Lili’s house every week or two and recorded parts of her story in Spanish. She decided she wanted to begin talking about fleeing Guatemala and her trip through Mexico. Then she would talk about living in foster care in Philadelphia while awaiting a court decision about her deportation. Finally, she would return to the most difficult part of her story—life back home in Guatemala. I recorded our conversations and transcribed and edited our session. I then gave her a print-out of her edited story—usually three or four pages—which she read and wrote comments on. Subsequent sessions had two components: first, we reviewed her comments on the draft I had given her, which then became edits for a final draft; and we continued recording her story. Record and review, record and review—the rhythm of our time together. As we moved toward the conclusion of her story, I felt that something was missing: what did this process—this sharing of her life--mean to her, how did it change her view of herself and her world? We added one final chapter—Reflections—in which she talks about how her story is a message to herself about her ability to dream and survive; it is a message to North Americans who know little about the lives of immigrants who must flee their countries; it is a message to fellow immigrants, her compañeros on their mutual journey; it is a letter of love, remorse and forgiveness to her family in Guatemala; and a letter of thanks to the people north of the border who have helped her along the way. Liliana looked at me and nodded: her story was finished. Then one more review of the final manuscript, a few changes added. I was amazed at the care and seriousness with which she reviewed and commented on the drafts I had given her, and had to remind myself that she had but one year of formal education in Guatemala. Finally, after we both agreed on the final draft in Spanish, I translated her story into English. Then Liliana and I worked with the production team at New City Community Press, choosing photos, reviewing the layout and cover design. Liliana signed off on each step of the process.
Except for an occasional transitional phrase, Liliana’s story is entirely in her own words. As interviewer and guide, my role was to help her explore her story more deeply, share feelings and reflections, and enrich her story with more detail, descriptions, scenes and dialogue. As editor, I worked to provide an arc to her story, eliminated redundancies, and ordered her story into chapters and sections which reflected the external reality of her experiences and the internal reality of what she felt and learned, how she grew.
Liliana and I became friends. When you read her story, you will understand why--sharing stories will do that.
Liliana’s story is uniquely hers, but it is also the story of thousands of children who have fled violence and poverty in their home country to make a safer life in the United States. In this time when the issue of undocumented immigrants is causing great divisions within our country, much is written about them; but little is told by them in their own voice. Her story needs to be part of our national conversation.
Editors that helped tell her story
Mark Lyons wrote, translated and co-edited Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, published in Spanish and English by New City Community Press, and from which a theater piece was created for the Border Book Festival. He also wrote a collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, published by Wild River Books, which won a Kirkus Book of the Year award in 2015. He edits Open Borders, a series of immigrant stories in the on-line literary magazine, Wild River Review. He is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice.
Lyons is director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in its work with teens and the immigrant community. Participants record their stories, mix them with music, and share them on CDs, the radio, webcasts, and public venues. He produced a series of audio stories on homeless veterans in collaboration with the photographer Harvey Finkle. He also does workshops with high school and university teachers on using oral histories to explore communities and improve literacy.
Lyons has worked in the Latino community for the last thirty-five years, as a physician assistant and community organizer. He was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety issues and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a health provider and planner.
Rafy is an undergraduate student in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse University. Her work regarding digital media and popular culture has been published in Teen Vogue and She Did What She Wanted, an online magazine where she is an associate editor. Growing up in Orlando, Florida as the daughter of a Peruvian immigrant, she is dedicated to the intersection between culture, identity, and social media.
Zach is an undergraduate student in Writing and Rhetorical Analysis at Syracuse University. Zach currently also works as editor for Computers and Composition Digital Press, and serves as president of the Writing and Rhetoric Student Organization. Born to an uneducated Haitian father and European mother Zach believes in the importance of giving a voice to those who might ordinarily face silence.
Molly Velázquez-Brown is the Assistant Editor for Multicultural Publications at New City Community Press. She graduated from Syracuse University in 2017 with a degree in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Communications and a minor in Psychology. She is from Cambridge, Massachusetts and is now working in Boston, Massachusetts post-grad.