Poet Yosimar Reyes shares stories of joy within the immigrant experience

Yosimar Reyes speaking with a projection of a photo of his grandfather at Oxy Arts on York in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 20 2020. Isabel Liebgold/The Occidental

Students and local residents packed the performance space in the Oxy Arts building on York Boulevard Feb. 20 to hear stories from the nationally-acclaimed poet Yosimar Reyes during an event titled “Undocumented and Thriving.” Approximately 30 people attended the event, where the LA-based Reyes spoke about his experiences as an undocumented immigrant and a member of the LGBTQ+ community growing up in the U.S. Over the course of three untitled performances and interspersed commentaries, Reyes spoke about family, class struggles and sexuality, alternating between humor and sober moments.

According to Reyes, he immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1991 when he was 3 years old. He said he remained undocumented until he became eligible to apply and receive a work permit through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows him to stay and work in the U.S. because he immigrated at a young age. Presently, Reyes said he travels the country sharing his stories in an oftentimes comedic manner, as opposed to discussing immigration in a strictly grave tone.

Yosimar Reyes speaking with a projection of a photo of himself the day he became an American citizen at Oxy Arts on York in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 20 2020. Isabel Liebgold/The Occidental

Despite the heavy subject matter of his work, Reyes continually performs his stories with humor and energy. Through telling his stories, Reyes said he wishes to dispel the idea that being gay and undocumented in the U.S. is purely a depressing experience.

The first of his three performances was an excerpt from a play that Reyes is currently working on, which he said he intends to debut this June. After providing context for the work, he launched into an energetic reading about his youth in Eastside San Jose, CA where he said he grew up after immigrating from Guerrero in southern Mexico.

“It’s one thing to be poor,” Reyes said. “But it’s a different thing to be gay and undocumented. If being oppressed was an Olympic sport, I think I will come in first place.”

Reyes rarely gave the audience a chance to breathe as he kept the jokes coming at a fast pace. Occasionally Reyes alternated between speaking in English and Spanish, with some jokes intended for Spanish speakers in the audience in order to connect more directly with them. Reyes joked about finding work, knowing English better than Americans and acquiring a fake green card, among other topics.

“Whoever made my ID, he didn’t even bother to use an X-Acto knife to cut around the picture,” Reyes said.

Yosimar Reyes speaking with a projection of his grandparents at Oxy Arts on York in Los Angeles. Thursday, Feb. 20 2020. Isabel Liebgold/The Occidental

The second performance centered around Reyes’ relationship with his grandfather, who voluntarily deported himself back to Mexico in 2013. Reyes said he was able to visit his grandfather in Mexico for the first time in 2016, shortly before he passed away. Because of his status as a DACA recipient, Reyes said he could only visit his grandfather by applying for advance parole — otherwise, he could not leave or return to the U.S.

“I can’t believe I’m near the place I was born,” Reyes said. “The place that I hear so many stories about. For so long this place was a myth to me, and now I can feel the heat against my skin.”

The final performance focused on Reyes’ grandmother, who stayed in the U.S. while Reyes’ grandfather left. Reyes said he has had to become a provider for his grandmother, who recently turned 86 years old. According to Reyes, she tends to hold onto the past, both physically by hoarding items and in the idea of one day legally returning to Mexico. Reyes said in his performance that he wants to make sure she is living as well as she can while in the U.S.

“Now then, mi abuela [my grandmother] is out here living her single modern Latina life,” Reyes said. “Simply because this country plays games with our spirit does not mean that an undocumented abuela does not deserve to have the best.”

Highland Park residents Carolina and Midori González, daughter and mother respectively, both said they enjoyed Reyes’ performances and commentaries. Carolina said she appreciated how Reyes shared his stories through poetry and with humor, as opposed to adopting a serious tone. According to Carolina, she heard about the event through her mother, who follows Reyes on Instagram.

Midori said she found Reyes’ stories that night particularly relatable. She underwent a naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen, so she connected with Reyes’ own stories of being an immigrant. She also said she liked how Reyes incorporated humor into his stories.

Reyes said after performing at OxyArts, he plans to keep traveling, performing and working on his new play, which he recently received a grant to work on. Upcoming programming at Oxy Arts will continue to explore themes of queer and Latino identities with the play “Statute 21.06: Homosexual Conduct” in March and the ongoing “Shizu Saldamando: LA Intersections” art exhibition.