Illuminating Narratives of and by the Undocumented

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Documenting the Undocumented: Latina/o Narratives and Social Justice in the Era of Operation Gatekeeper (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016); 296 pages; ISBN 978-0813062594 (hardcover)

• October 2018

Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s Documenting the Undocumented: Latina/o Narratives and Social Justice in the Era of Operation Gatekeeper attends to and examines the multitude of narrative forms that construct human rights stories, thus providing an under-the-hood look at how literary form and style not only reveal structures of political belief but also generate political feelings and political activism. Taking into consideration the variety of forms and styles used to write about the undocumented experience in the United States, Caminero-Santangelo argues that after the 1994 creation of Operation Gatekeeper—which made land-crossing migration across the southern border of the US drastically more dangerous, while also ramping up deportation schemes throughout the United States—Latinx literature attends to undocumented immigrants and their experiences with an increased focus. With this framework, Caminero-Santangelo establishes the outlines of recent US Latinx literature, where it’s been, and where it’s going. She asks a series of questions: “How have Latino/a and non-Latino/a narratives about being ‘illegal’ contested the very parameters of that definition and its consigning into unhearability of the immigrant’s narrative? . . . How do the stories by Latino/a writers and by unauthorized immigrants themselves attempt to negotiate and perhaps even to redraw the boundaries of ‘nation’? How and when do they attempt a ‘reframing’ of the issue of immigration so that we may begin to imagine other possibilities?” (10).

Caminero-Santangelo deftly brings together a variety of major methodological inquiries to bear on her study, constructing a flexible and capacious means of approaching the primary texts she closely reads. For example, trauma studies features prominently in her discussion of testimonials, witnessing, and the construction of collective identity. Democratic theory is combined beautifully with an attention to transnationalism and hemispheric American studies, thus both provincializing the United States and decentering claims to US exceptionalism. Caminero-Santangelo also takes an adaptable and critically productive approach to counternarratives that produce what, combining the work of Gayatri Spivak, Michael Warner, and Nancy Fraser, she terms “subaltern counterpublics,” in which people often framed as voiceless create spaces through which they can craft narratives to represent themselves. She locates the “nodal points” in her analysis as “trauma, testimony, and ethics,” and this triangulation works well in blending her diverse methodological approach (16).

Caminero-Santangelo’s exceptionally lucid prose enables her to carefully explain and utilize literary and political theory in order to create a powerful methodology for reading a variety of literary forms, including journalistic accounts, first-person oral narratives, anthologies, novels, and nonfiction essays. The book moves seamlessly between its discussions of varying genres and styles, attending to the nuances of each without ever losing sight of the bigger picture, thus developing a clear and precise argumentative arc through six chapters. Indeed, Documenting the Undocumented takes great care to explicate difficult concepts, and its greatest strength lies in Caminero-Santangelo’s ability to guide us clearly through the paces of her necessarily intricate argument. That is all to say: this book succeeds because she refuses to sacrifice either clarity or complexity.

In chapter 1, Caminero-Santangelo closely attends to examples of literary journalism and narrative nonfiction by Rubén Martinez, Sonia Nazario, and Luis Alberto Urrea. She takes great care to analyze the writing style each author utilizes, closely examining authorial commentary and mediation within each example. She cautions against privileging of national and heteronormative ideologies of respectability and belonging, and shows how Urrea reroutes the idea of witnessing through the readers themselves.

In chapter 2, Caminero-Santangelo turns to fiction by Ana Castillo, Reyna Grande, Susan Straight, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and Urrea. She argues that in these works, disappearance should be understood as a conceptual framework for thinking transnationally about Latinidad, especially as disappearance (as an act of state-sanctioned violence) shifts from its primarily South and Central American usage and is used to describe institutional violence against undocumented immigrants. As the book’s longest chapter, this study of novels constructs a strong theoretical framework for understanding communal identity via an emphasis on responsibility as affect both within texts and within readers.

Chapter 3 serves as a discussion of Caribbean literature, demanding that conversations about undocumented immigrants recognize differential barriers and modes of access to the United States and national incorporation. By reading works by Esmeralda Santiago, Achy Obejas, Junot Díaz, Cristina Garcia, and Julia Alvarez, Caminero-Santangelo shows how Caribbean authors might go about crafting what she calls “an ethics of cosmopolitanism that might be a basis of reconfiguring connectedness among Latinos of differing origins” and how this often fails because of desires for legitimacy that enable narratives of exceptionalism (108).

In chapter 4, Caminero-Santangelo closely reads the framing strategies behind two anthologies of undocumented narratives, Underground America (2008) and The Border Patrol Ate My Dust (2004). She argues that collections that make visible their editorial practices and mediations create a stronger sense of readerly responsibility than those that that keep the reader at a greater distance.

In chapter 5, we are given an extended treatment of two life-narratives of undocumented migrants, Diary of an Undocumented Immigrant (1991) and Undocumented in LA (1997). Although Caminero-Santangelo applauds the narratives for each enacting “a more resistant, transnational narrative,” she also argues that “they unexpectedly conform to and reinforce anti-immigrant rhetoric that insists on the intractable foreignness of undocumented migrant subjects” (195). Given that both narratives are published by Arte Público Press, it seems that Caminero-Santangelo might have read these narratives within a longer trajectory of critique-oriented Latina/o literature that Arte Público has been publishing, including Don Chipote (1928), El Sol de Texas (1926), and Lucas Guevara (1914), in which the process of migration and return is presented in its complicated context of conflicting desires. Indeed, it would be fascinating to read Caminero-Santangelo’s continuing thoughts (from chapter 4 and the packaging of narratives to this chapter on narratives published by a press dedicated to the Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage initiative) on how the publishing industry might also have an interested and invested take on im/migration.

In chapter 6, Caminero-Santangelo showcases work she has done through interviews with various activists who self-consciously identify as DREAMers. Taking her cue again from trauma studies scholarship, Caminero-Santangelo examines the formal emplotting of life-stories by DREAMers she has interviewed, arguing that shared structures of expression and narrative reveal “a sense of a larger community of undocumented youth” and “a sense of collective agency” (257). This, she shows, is a conscious and deliberate construction of a subaltern counterpublic.

The laying bare of trauma, suffering, and pain, while central to the testimonio tradition Caminero-Santangelo illuminates and expands in Documenting the Undocumented, might be more thoroughly critiqued. Though she clearly establishes her use of Kimberly Nance’s Can Literature Promote Justice? (2006) and its examination of identification-as-empathy in the creation of readerly desires for justice, Caminero-Santangelo does not delve into the critiques of empathy-as-erasure and empathy-as-consumption that seem relevant to the conversation. In particular, important contributions in the field of African American studies might be acknowledged, such as Saidiya Hartman’s critiques of abjection, subjection, and trauma in the construction of a recognizable and—by virtue of circulation and reception—consumable black person in pain as the only subject that can be accepted by the compromised structures of humanization-through-recognition. By critiquing the unequal distribution of power in the scenes of recognition she considers, Hartman exposes the limits of both empathy and the politics of recognition. Given Caminero-Santangelo’s attention to recognition as a central category of undocumented narratives and the creation of subaltern counterpublics, it would be interesting to see how a consideration of Hartman’s landmark Scenes of Subjection would shape the argument.1

All told, Caminero-Santangelo’s book is an excellent, broad, and exceptionally thorough study of how narratives about undocumented immigrants can create readerly attention and responsibility.


Francisco E. Robles is an assistant professor of English literature at the University of Notre Dame, where he is a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Latino Studies and a concurrent faculty member of the Program in Gender Studies. His work on migration in US literature spans Chicanx literature and African American literature and multi-ethnic American literature more broadly.


1 See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).