Queer Undocumented Poet Yosimar Reyes Doesn't Care About Impressing Racists
"I want something for all undocumented people to be like, 'Oh my god, I resonate with that.' I want that to be my audience."
Photo courtesy of Define American
It's easy to shy away when situations become complicated. But Yosimar Reyes, a 29-year-old, undocumented, queer, poet and performer from a working class background, makes work that explores all aspects of his complex intersectional identity.
His latest work, Prieto: Growing up Queer and Undocumented is a one man show that tells the story of his childhood through the eyes of his eight-year-old self. It ran for three nights last month at Company of Angels in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Reyes was born in Guerrero, Mexico, and grew up in San Jose, California. He describes the Eastside neighborhood he was raised in as an immigrant community, where all of his neighbors were undocumented.
Our current political climate has sparked a new wave of conversations around the subject of immigration, and Reyes says he's taking advantage of this moment to tell his story his way. “I think when we think about undocumented people we think this monolithic idea that were all living in fear or that we are hiding and I want to flip that,” he told me. “Honestly, I am an undocumented person and I’m out here hustling. I'm not ashamed of it because I have no control over it. If anything, it's pushing me more to achieve my goals.”
I spoke to Reyes after one of his shows about the piece, and why he creates work around themes of class, status, and sexuality.
VICE: When did you come up with the idea for Prieto: Growing up Queer and Undocumented?
Yosimar Reyes: We came up with the idea about three years ago. I met Kat Evasco and she had a one woman show called Mommy Queerest. I saw her perform and I was like, oh my god, I want to do something like that. Usually, for poets [and] spoken word artists the next transition is theater and she was like, “I want to help you produce it.”
Why did you name your show Prieto?
I named it Prieto because, in Spanish, there is no direct translation to it, but it means dark skin. I feel in Spanish it has a very negative connotation and in Mexico no one wants to be called that because we are so colorist and whatnot. So I started thinking of it more as a metaphor, like a stain on your body. My experience as an undocumented was always like a stain, something negative. I wanted to use that and transform it into something positive.
How have you, in previous works, intersected the issues of being queer and undocumented?
I always talked about it, I want to complicate the idea about being undocumented. I think there’s this idea that we are all living in fear or that we are hiding. I’m not ashamed of it because I have no control over it. If anything, it is pushing me more to achieve my goals, that's why I’m so unapologetic telling people. My queerness is fun.
Would you say it's something that you always try to [put] into your work?
Yeah, I try to use it all the time because I feel there is not a lot of representation out there. I have a lot of people that are like, “Oh my god, I can relate to that story.” It’s pretty cool to hear that. When I started doing poetry, I started writing more about class. I was 16, writing about my grandmother who recycled bottles and cans. At the time immigration wasn’t such a hard conversation like now. I never really thought it was anything special. I was like, Oh, whatever I don’t have papers. But then I started writing about my sexuality, being a queer boy, and then I started writing about my status as an undocumented person because I felt people weren’t getting it right. Now, that I’m older I interweave the three: class, my status, and my sexuality to really talk about agency. If anything, we embody all of these identities that people tell you are negative that you have no voice no power. I want to rip that, show people you could be poor, but you still have dignity and agency. It’s important to me that I have the ability to say yes or no.
Would you say your work focuses on making political statements on the issues you personally identify with?
I think it’s just my life and it just so happens that I’m highlighting the current situation that we’re under. We used the  Pete Wilson and [the] Trump video [in the show] because we wanted to highlight the fact that undocumented people have always been under attack. It was this idea that Trump just got in office and all of a sudden it's so horrible for undocumented people. When the reality is it's been horrible for all of us since we got here. I’m interested in highlighting how the political manifests into the interpersonal and how they create conditions in our lives that make it really difficult for children to thrive. I guess it’s political in that way, but its not really my goal. For me it’s more about the human connection with the characters.
How has your work changed post-Trump and the change in political climate?
It’s gotten more unapologetic, now I don’t really care. I’m unapologetic about my audience too. I don’t think undocumented people are thought of as an audience. I want something for all undocumented people to be like, Oh my god, I resonate with that. I want that to be my audience. I don’t really want to convince racist people to like me. If you don’t like undocumented people I can’t do anything about that.
Can you share with me your experience of coming out as undocumented and also coming out as queer?
Well I’ve always known I was undocumented, I never really had to come out. My grandma told me everybody in my block was undocumented. I never really had to tell people it was just like, Yeah, your life is going to be more difficult. And then my queerness I think I just grew into it. At 16 it was hard because I’m in the hood, kids are mean, whatever. Now, it's part of who I am. The hardest part was coming out to myself. From then on I have been really unapologetic; this is who I am.
In the play you said “I told my grandmother when I grow up I want to be president” and she told you “that’s cute, but your undocumented”; would you say your grandma placed your feet back on the ground?
Yeah, my grandma would always be like okay come back. I think that's harder now that I’m older because I work with Jose Antonio Vargas [founder of Define American, journalist, and filmmaker] and he's always like, dream big. Which is something that no one tells poor kids from the hood. It was very hard to imagine that we fuckin' did this show now, its like, "Wow we actually achieved it." But yeah, my grandma was always like, “Just stay here.”
Why was it important to [start your show] from the age of eight years old?
I wanted to tell it from a kids perspective; we don’t see how kids absorb all this fuckin’ shit this country throws at us and how we’re just innocent in all this. I also wanted to show how, in the midst of all this, in the kid’s imagination he is still creating a world and still having fun. He doesn’t really know whats happening, but he still manages to laugh and play.
Would you say you were present in the political climate then?
I was present in it; I didn’t have the language to articulate what was happening because it was normal.
You mentioned you also incorporate class; how has your socioeconomic position led you to deal with these issues internally?
Yeah, growing up poor I don’t think we talk about that a lot so, I wanted to make sure to honor that. The violence that poverty brings all of those circumstances that kids get exposed to and trauma we don’t really process how poverty does that to you.
Anything you'd like to add?
I’m really grateful for the response the show has received. I’m grateful so many people came to sell out three nights. I think it's really dynamic and it speaks to the hunger people have to see stories that are not told.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Currently there are no upcoming dates on the show, but the goal is to develop Prieto into a full production. You can keep updated by following Yosimar Reyes on Twitter.
Follow Yazmin Nunez on Twitter.