byroN José sun: Informing the Word

by Melanie Davis
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Olga pic MayBy Olga Sanchez “Understanding my past is necessary to understand why I write the stories I do,†says byroN José sun, a talented young writer from Guatemala who wants to use his creativity “to promote a vision of humanity, compassion and justice.†His journey has not been an easy one. He’s witnessed violence and cruelty but also deep compassion in the world he reflects through his writing. He says, “I strongly believe the writer mustn’t try to replace the world with a less-violent vision, but rather present it as it is.†ByroN was born into a life of poverty, the result of political leadership that favored the economic interests of foreign investors over those of the people. When he was 2 years old, his mother took him from Guatemala, crossing all of Mexico to be reunited with his father in the United States. At that time people from all over Central America moved in a mass migration known as the Sanctuary Movement “that resembled the Underground Railroad for slaves in search of freedom in the North.†First, byroN and his mother were guided by a threatening coyote. Then, after they escaped they were led by a careless one. “The sewage tunnel dumped us in San Isidro where La Migra arrested us,†he says. “A few days went by and we were able to post bail; however, we never returned for our mandatory hearing, disappearing instead into an undocumented life in the U.S.†For the next seven years, byroN lived in California. Too young to remember life back in Guatemala, he “was educated in English and spoke Español at home. For my birthdays we celebrated with piñatas. For Halloween, I dressed up as the Power Rangers and the Ninja Turtles.†He says he assimilated into the mainstream U.S. culture “through school and popular TV shows.†Life seemed to be settled until byroN turned 9 years old in 1995, the same year as the passage of the Immigration Enforcement Improvement Act, which aggressively secured borders and sped the deportation of illegal aliens. INS agents informed his parents that his mother and he had 10 days to leave the country. If they did so of their own free will, they would earn the possibility of one day returning legally, recounts byroN, “otherwise we would be deported right then and there and never be given a path to citizenship. The 10 days we had left as a family were filled with tears, as we had to sell almost every belonging we had to be able to afford the airplane tickets and have some spending money once we got to Guatemala City.†He found himself in a new world once again, with a new culture to learn, but he shares that within four years he became “accustomed to the violence; to the indigenous people begging; to the drunken men fighting over dimes; to the gun shots; to the dead bodies laid out in the street the next morning; to the abusive husbands beating their wives; to all the children with plastic bags huffing 50 cents’ worth of glue to forget their hunger; to the clapping hands making tortillas and to the blessings that I got from elderly women.†Though it was challenging, he liked living in Guatemala. However, he could never feel at home, because his father was still far away. At the age of 13, he and his mother received the pardon that ended their exile. They could return to the U.S. legally. By this time his father had moved to Oregon, so that’s where he and his mother went. He had to relearn his English language skills and U.S. culture. He came to define himself as a member of the one-and-a-half generation, “a child who is born abroad, whose education begins in the birth country but who comes of age and completes her/his education in the U.S.†Although he has now spent 22 of his 28 years in the United States, he holds tight to his Guatemalteco culture. “This part of my identity and my determination to share my experience are components that define my life as well as my writing,†he says. “During my time in Guatemala City I saw many acts of violence, but that wasn’t all that I saw. I also saw acts of incredible compassion that have showed me to look beyond the acts to try to understand human behavior and recreate them on the page.†Over the years, his teachers have recognized and encouraged his writing talent, and after attending the University of Idaho, Oregon State and University of Oregon for his undergraduate studies, he earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Texas El Paso. He says it was appealing to him that “half the students were from the U.S. and the other half came from all over America Latina.†His plan now is to get his Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing in order to teach at university in the future. For the moment, he is in Oregon with his family, enjoying the great outdoors and working on his first novel, about a young woman who works in a tortilleria. His grandmother worked in a tortilleria for many years, and he adds, “During my time in Guatemala I lived next to a tortilleria, so I got to see how their bosses treated them, their working habits and their overall living conditions.†ByroN José sun, who intentionally spells his name with a lowercase “b,†an uppercase “n†and a lowercase “s†as a personal way to take ownership of his identity, recently joined the Latino writers group Los Porteños. He will share his original work during the upcoming reading “Poetry from the Interior: William Stafford and Miguel Hernández†at Literary Arts, 925 SW Washington St. in Portland at 7 p.m. Tues., May 12. Admission is free.