The process of writing an oral history
This was the most rewarding project I have done at Dartmouth. When I initially asked Keysi if he would be willing to participate, I took notice of the ridiculousness of my own phrasing. “Keysi, would you be my ‘Latino migrant’”? I both laughed and cringed at the sense of objectification and confinement inherent in labels such as “Latino migrant.” How do societies so easily use and infer (stereotyped) characteristics from words that in reality carry an individual’s intricate and unique history of experiences, including pain and peace, challenges and accomplishment, reflections and hopes. My takeaway impression of this process, and the reason for which I owe it my gratitude, is that it gave me the opportunity to listen to a human, to listen to another human’s life, and to record that in audio files that Keysi’s grandchildren will one day hear. I think there’s a lot of beauty in this world. After doing this project, I’m more convinced that that beauty is lying there in us, dormant, available if one only asks.
Keysi graciously gave me time to ask. The more I listened to him talk, the more I realized there were still pieces missing that I was curious about. I devoted a lot of time to this project because I was awestruck by Keysi’s initiative, bright mind and creativity, and compassion. I was awestruck that the depth of character he shows today, in his care for others and concern for the world’s inequities, reaches all the way back to his childhood, to experiences peering into courtrooms and becoming furious with the injustices of his country’s legal system. This oral history is a tribute to him. It’s as much of one as I can offer, though I know that a website of words, pictures, poems, and voice can’t every really capture the whole of Keysi Montas, and the good he’s done for, and inspired in, the people around him.
I emphasized above that this project let me listen to a human’s story, without naming it a migrant’s story, because there were a few points when I was reviewing my interview recording in which I wondered if I’d asked the right questions. I had let myself deviate from my pre-interview framework, asking questions as I would in a real conversation instead of a formal interview. I felt like I had captured important pieces of his life story, but had I really understood his migration experience? I questioned if I should edit out some of the information that was not directly related to being a migrant when writing the oral history.
Then two ideas occurred to me. Even if, for example, the idea of being an atypical police officer while in Albuquerque, picking figs for the children, seemed more indicative to me of Keysi’s personality than his identity as a migrant, it may have indeed been influenced by his connection to the Dominican Republic. With no intention of speaking for him, perhaps his negative impression of Dominican police and the Dominican justice system – which showed through so clearly in his reasons for not wanting to reside there – shaped him into that kind of personable police officer. The second idea that occurred to me is that Keysi’s story serves not only as a firsthand look at Latino migration, but as a testament to outside readers of the success of migrants. As Professor Gutiérrez affirmed, part of writing these oral histories is to debunk stereotypes – including notions of Latino migrants as uneducated, working class peoples with little knowledge of English, who must assimilate in order to find social mobility. This story of an education-driven poet, dancer, carpenter and law enforcement/college security executive, whose literary success in many way depends on staying attached to his home country and language, challenges this picture.
All that being said, I could easily relate much of Keysi’s narrative to the ethnographies of Latino migrants and the theoretical texts that we’ve read in this course. He expanded my understanding beyond this literature, however, presenting new possibilities within the “migrant experience.” I will comment on the most striking aspects during different stages of his life cycle:
The story of his actual migration to the United States differed from theories that have posited migration as a calculated decision, oftentimes on the part of the household. His decision to live in the U.S. was not about pushes and pulls or his mother and father’s agreement to send a part of the family to channel back remittances. Keysi’s story frames it as an unexpected event and one made by him, the child. They visited his cousins for a summer and he decided to say. This may be the story of students or tourists who overstay their visas. It gave me the sense that the younger generations also have agency over their movement.
From teenager to adult, child to head of household: Early life in the U.S.
I was most struck by 16-19 year old Keysi’s responsibility upon first moving to New York. His comparison between his success living in the U.S., from attending school and learning the language, and his father’s failed attempt, in which he felt like a mute immigrant or non-person, reflects the ways in which generation can affect the migration experience. The responsibilities of younger migrants, such as school, may provide them tools to better incorporate into U.S. society. Parents working long hours in low-paying jobs that may primarily employ other Latinos, in turn need to rely on children for English or for navigating local institutions. In thinking about younger generation migrants becoming self-sufficient, Keysi’s story made me wonder about the need for emotional self-sufficiency. Keysi spoke of moving up through ESL classes in high school and ultimately ranking second in his class of 658 students. His job was to give a welcoming speech to parents at graduation, but his parents were not there. I had to laugh at my own ignorance in my follow-up question, “Where was your mom?” She had to work. From an interviewing standpoint, I learned how easy it is to understand something about migration theoretically, yet to still be surprised by the emotional weight of its real-world application.
Interviewing someone as deeply entrenched in both “worlds” as Keysi made me better understand that living transnationally takes effort. Composing bilingual emails, writing poems and stories in Spanish to sustain language skills when English-oriented work and place of residency don’t allow for verbal practice, traveling to the Dominican Republic yearly – all of these take time and mental energy. For Keysi, transnational life is “constructed in relations among people, institutions, and places” (Smith 7), including social structures like the Dominican writers diaspora, for example. While Smith is clear to say that transnationalism is not an all-encompassing identity, it is also important to recognize that it is not a constant. Keysi’s period of disillusionment, in which his political views made him not want to hear a word of the Dominican Republic, may be a reality of other migrants. Such ideological reasons for temporary (or permanent) disengagement are important to consider alongside the economic, legal, or family-related (passing of relatives or movement of whole network to U.S.) obstacles that inhibit transnational movement or thought.
The future: visiting, but never moving back
Keysi’s reasoning for not moving back to the Dominican Republic is that he would get shot or end up in jail. Because he believes in the rule of law, he feels he cannot live under the corruption of the political and law enforcement systems. My first thought was that Keysi has been in the security and law enforcement business too long. Then I realized that this ideological flow represents a social remittance (Levitt). Levitt discusses how migrants are exposed to, for example, government services in the U.S. that shift their understanding of a government’s responsibilities (Levitt 149). In short, migrants’ ideologies may be transformed in the host society. Through transnational exchanges, these new ideologies not only affect how migrants think of the host society, but how its residents in turn think of the United States and of their own country.