January 16, 2015

Undocupoets: End Contest Discrimination!

Poets Launch Petition to End Citizenship & Residency Requirements in Contests

Roque Dalton García

"Too often, the submission guidelines read “Proof of US Citizenship” or “Legal Residents Only.” This small, but powerful, statement serves to exclude 11.7 million undocumented people (according to the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project in 2013) from participating in a multitude of poetry opportunities—from first book contests to applying for major grants."

I work with amazing poets who happen to be migrant farmworker youth and I'm proud to have signed this petition. Chances are that some of the youth are undocumented. I don't ask. If they want me to know, they'll tell me either in person or or in their writing.

They are part of the reason I write to share our stories, our lives. My hope is that they will embrace their natural storytelling skills and become writers or at least be more confident in their ability. I know it's only a matter of time until one of them, one of them takes the brave step to submit work for publication.

That's why I signed the petition.

According to the organizers, some journals say they must support citizenship/residency requirements because they receive federal funds. Yes, that's true. However, having worked at nonprofits, I can tell you there are times when federal residency requirements are not and cannot be collected (street outreach, public lectures, workshops/panels, etc.). Even if it were possible to collect the information, nonprofits don't have the resources to investigate and confirm residency or citizenship claims.

Since it's unlikely that states and the federal government will eliminate such residency regulations in funding, there's a way around it -- DON'T USE STATE OR FEDERAL FUNDS FOR THESE CONTESTS.

I get it, offering a prize like publication of book is a really big deal and it can cost thousands of dollars. If an organization relies on one funding source for such an endeavor and that one source is the state or federal government, it's only a matter of time before said funding is restricted or eliminated. Clearly, the organization has bigger problems than keeping undocupoets from submitting work.

Aside from first book contests, some journals offer a cash prize. While some cash prizes are in the thousands, usually a contest prize is less than $500. Some offer no prize at all other than publication of the work and maybe a free copy (or discounted copy) of the journal. What's the logic in excluding undocupoets from these contests?

I know things are rough for presses and journals, but with the recent efforts of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #DontSelfReject, excluding voices from publication based on residency is about as crazy as limiting them based on education (don't get me started on that). 

Because of these and similar efforts, presses and journals now feel the urgency for diversity in publication (whether they act on it is a different story). But maybe these publishers simply want the diversity of a community college course catalog where an older white guy sits at a table with a Black girl who has her book open while an obviously young Gay Latino on the other side of her smiles. An Asian man at the same table laughs at a joke and white girl sits in a wheelchair holding a tablet as they all study at one of the many outdoor study areas. It's fun, it's pretty, and most of all it's not complicated. 

Perhaps some publishers use this residency regulation to screen out possible "complicated" diversity that comes with undocumented writers, trans writers, disabled writers, or other writers with "intense"  or "messy" (meaning possibly offensive) issues. Avoiding complicated diversity means silencing complicated voices, negating complicated stories and histories, and ultimately shunning complicated readers. That might be alright with them but it's not alright with me.

One day soon a young farmworker from the Midwest, perhaps undocumented, who has shared her story only with a select few, will feel the support and encouragement of her mentors and friends. And with a prayer on her breath, she will be bravely submit her words to a contest for publication. 

Not only does she deserve the chance to win, she deserves an opportunity to be heard.