Photo: Raymond L. Williams
With Congress stalled on immigration reform and the Obama administration reconsidering its priorities, Americans might be surprised to learn that recently deceased global citizen Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) offers some well-informed insights into immigration issues.
The 1982 Nobel Laureate in Literature lived most of his adult life as an immigrant, and was once an undocumented worker—in Venezuela, from late 1957 to early 1959. His first immigration experience was in France, where he lived in the mid-1950s with full documentation, working as a journalist for the liberal Colombian newspaper, El Espectador. Soon after arriving, however, he was left unemployed when Colombian dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla ordered the closing of all liberal media. During the remainder of his stay in France, García Márquez dedicated his time to writing the foundational Macondo stories that would eventually lead him to the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, and literary fame. The remainder of his time in Paris, however, involved basic survival—sometimes even collecting bottles on the streets to earn money for food, and negotiating his residency at a small Parisian hotel, on credit, with promises to pay later.
The next stage of his life took him to Venezuela, where he was employed as a journalist writing articles, mostly on political topics. In the 1950s, Colombia’s relationship with Venezuela was in some ways comparable to the relationship today between Mexico and the United States: many Colombians were fleeing to Venezuela to escape violence and seek employment in a nation enjoying a petroleum boom. The Venezuelan government was systematically inviting gallegos (Spaniards from Galicia) and Italian guest workers in order to avoid the potential unionization of workers from Venezuela and Colombia. In a magazine article published in 1959 under the title, Adiós, Venezuela, García Márquez questioned the government’s manipulation of the workforce. He argued, among other things, for better wages—the equivalent of a “living wage”—for the visiting workers from Galicia and Italy.
In France, García Márquez lived the experience of the impoverished immigrant, and in Venezuela he lived the life of the undocumented worker whom he attempted to defend with his writing. The presence of gallegos in the latter contributed to his identification with the workers, for some of his own relatives had originally come from Galicia. In Venezuela, then, García Márquez was acutely aware that the story of immigrant workers was indeed his own story. No doubt drawing on his own experience, he proclaimed Latina America to be “a land of second generations” in his 1959 article, later republished in 1971 as a book titled, Cuando era feliz e indocumentado (When I was happy and undocumented).
After Venezuela, García Márquez became a global citizen, spending most of his adult life in Mexico as well as being a frequent visitor to his own personal residences in Spain and France.
As the immigration debate becomes increasingly intense and perhaps excessively polarized in the United States, the lessons we can learn from the most widely read public intellectual in Latin America are twofold: On the one hand, he reminds us that human movement across borders has historically been a regular and healthy occurrence in the Americas, for those nations that have embraced and not rejected their immigrants. In this sense, the current situation in the U.S. might not be as exceptional (or complex) as it may seem. On the other hand, the supposed dichotomy between documented citizens and undocumented residents is not as black-and-white as some political sectors attempt to portray it—the undocumented not only provide a labor force, but they are also the parents of future graduate students, future scientists and future Nobel Laureates in literature, as was the case for that grandchild of gallegos, the once undocumented writer, Gabriel García Márquez.
Raymond L. Williams teaches Latin American literature at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of several books, including two on García Márquez, and holds the titled of Distinguished Professor.
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