Review: The Weight of Shadows

The Weight of Shadows

The Weight of ShadowsJosé Orduña. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.

Summary: In this personal memoir, the author documents his own experience of naturalization, and the shadow existence of both documented and undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Citizenship. If you were born in the USA, you’ve never thought much about this except when applying for a passport, or as I was doing today, TSA Precheck. I never think twice about my presence in this country, and celebrate the rights affirmed in our constitution. What this book reminded me of is that these are citizen rights. For immigrants on visas, and even those with the coveted “green card” who have Lawful Permanent Resident status, they are in a shadow land of being permitted without belonging. For those without such papers, life is even more in the shadows, fearing a trip to the hospital or a traffic stop or a raid on one’s workplace (where one often is paying taxes, working at low wages doing work Americans don’t want).

José Orduña, Mexican by birth, grew up in Chicago, obtained a green card, and while a graduate student at the University of Iowa, became a naturalized citizen. The first half of this book describes his own “shadow” existence and that of his friend, “Octavio” who has no papers. One senses the efforts to escape the weight of this shadow life as they binge drink together. Orduña weaves their stories with those of others who live with the constant fears of arrest, deportation, and separation from family. He helps us begin to see the contradictions in our local and national economies that depend upon the undocumented and yet punish them, and how that shadow of this fear is troubling even to those legally in the country. This part culminates with his application to become a citizen, the interviews, the biometrics, and finally, the citizenship ceremony. He describes the moment, when he is welcomed via a video of the President to U.S. citizenship:

“How strange to be welcomed now, since I’ve lived my life here from before I can remember. My cultural references are decidedly eighties and nineties United States–Urkel, Alex B. Keaton, Tom & Jerry, Biggie–and despite my best efforts I sometimes slip into a Chicago accent, cutting my A’s short. When I did visit Veracruz as a middle-schooler, the kids I played pickup games of soccer with would immediately detect that something about me was off. I had my first kiss in a bathroom in Bucktown in Chicago in grammar school, and I lost my virginity less than a block away in a church parking lot.”

The second half of the book shifts from his own experience of becoming a citizen to his time working with No More Deaths, an organization providing water and basic supplies in drops for those attempting to cross deserts to enter the country, and other organizations that try to advocate for those arrested in the attempt, often without receiving needed medical aid nor legal advice. We learn that our border walls and patrols channel people into the most inhospitable parts of the American Southwest, where death is a constant danger, where over 6,000 deaths have been documented (how many more that are not?) and where deportees often are returned to areas where they are most likely to be killed by Mexican drug lords. The question that cuts through all the ambiguities of our immigration policies is the question of basic human rights and the priority obligations of protecting human life. While their shadow existence has become weighty and dangerous, their real dignity is often stripped by lack of due process and abuse, rape of women on both sides of the border, and a contempt for life.

Toward the end of the book he describes this shadow existence by comparing it to Fenómeno, a painting by Remedios Varo:

“The painting is of a man and his shadow, except the shadow walks upright filling the three-dimensional space of the man while he is confined to the flat parameters of the shadow world.”

He goes on to say that the painting captures what was happening to many of his people, either in Mexico, or the desert, the murdering or “disappearing”.

Immigration policy is certainly contested ground. This book won’t resolve it but it will help us hear “other” voices besides the ones most dominating our media. Neither the author, nor other immigrants are presented to us as saints, but rather simply as human beings who work and strive for the same things many of us were born into. It challenges us to not reduce immigrants to shadows and stereotypes while facing the contradictions between our articulated values and the lived reality of the American “dream”.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a LibraryThing giveaway. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”