Often, literacy is remarked as a source of empowerment. Literacy (note that I used the word literacy as a definition most commonly defined in forms of assimilation) is considered transformational, increases knowledge and competencies, fosters civic participation, promotes better health, and furthers educational and economic gains.
But the following poem by Jesus I. Valles also reveals how “papers”—an artifact of literacy—has power over us in myriads of ways that many of us likely take for granted. It reminded me of a time, decades ago, when I crossed the border from Michigan into Canada alone. I was stopped, both my body and vehicle searched, because in the words of the border patrol: You don’t talk like people from Ann Arbor. I had only my driver’s license, no other “papers.” Nothing to indicate that I was indeed deaf and that my accent was a result of my deafness.
years ago, in an archive somewhere
in a file folder, a ream of white fibre and
black ink stains my name, place of birth, country of origin
none of them sound anywhere like here
in a file somewhere, the metrics of a lifetime
the merits of citizenship unfurl
judgment between pages, calculating the time you lived here
how long? where? when did you get here?
somewhere in an archive, i am burning soft and young
i am pages of testimonies, receipts, report cards
case numbers making up the limbs i lack on the page
and somewhere else, my brothers, their papers
deportation proceedings, testimonies, receipts, criminal
records scratched and bound and gone and
case numbers making up the limbs they lost leaving
“sin papeles,” we say, “without papers,” but the term is wrong
we are wounded libraries of nothing but paper
oceans of thin cuts on the skin we lost along the way and here
it is how we live, every step recorded, alphabetized, filed
and before they raid workplaces, don’t they build files, too?
in this country, isn’t there always some piece of paper somewhere
our names threatening a safety you think possible, a fiction you lust for
and i’d like to imagine an undoing, a less painful way to paper
a license, a passport, a birth certificate, a visa, a green card
when we are dead, we will leave behind our bills, our mountains of
leases, loan applications, past due notices, our names on envelopes
and i’d like to imagine we’d leave our love letters, the notes we passed
our longings and poems and prayers and things we scrawled on the wall
and those are documents, too, proof we were here once
In addition to official identification “papers,” how do “papers” begin to define children starting from a very young age? The papers in their CUM folders? Test reports? Reading benchmark levels?