Interview with Katy, Author of “Undocumented Queer Parenting: Navigating External and Internal Threats to Family”

Katy is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University. She recently published a chapter titled, “Undocumented Queer Parenting,” as part of the “We Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States” book. Her chapter bridges migration and queer studies to complicate our understanding of family life, including how intersecting identities of being undocumented and queer can shape parenting roles, relationships, and dynamics within the family unit. Katy’s insights reveal the external and internal sources of fear within families, as well as shed light into the types of inclusive policies and resources that are needed to better support undocumented community members.

At My Undocumented Life, we had an opportunity to interview Katy to learn more about her chapter and work on immigration, education, queer studies, and families more broadly. We thank her for responding to our questions via e-mail. In the coming weeks, we are also excited to continue featuring additional Q & A’s with some of the contributors of the collection.

Don’t forget that you can now read the book’s introduction for free and/or purchase a copy of the book directly from Duke University Press.

Q: Can you share with us a bit more about your trajectory into academia and more specifically what motivated you to engage in research that is at the intersection of migration and queer studies?

A: I’m a 1.5-generation Honduran immigrant raised in San Bernardino County, California. I think it’s important for me to highlight these particular geographies and social locations because they have deeply informed my life and academic trajectory. Like several other undocumented students, I didn’t fully realize what it meant to be undocumented until I began applying to college in my senior year of high school. I had been in U.S. schools since second grade and was socialized into believing that I had the same access that my other classmates did so finding out that there were additional hurdles was a bitter moment for me. Fortunately, during this time I did have access to federal and state policies (DACA and the California DREAM Act) that made it possible for me to acquire a temporary form of legal protection and receive financial aid to attend college. This experience shaped how I understood my undocumented status. I felt I didn’t quite belong to this category because although grateful for the opportunities that the activism of undocumented youth made available, it wasn’t a fight I participated in. Of course, this meant I was also entering murky waters as I tried to (and continue to) define for myself what it means to be an undocumented immigrant and student.

In these ways, my experience as a 1.5-generation immigrant was defined by a feeling of constantly being in between worlds—immigrant life at home, an undocumented student trying to fit in, and a displaced racialized subject with limited knowledge of my own history and culture. I tried to define my place within each of these worlds but never fully felt like a part of any of them. That’s where my interest in research developed, a need and desire to find out where I belong in these complicated and messy worlds. My work primarily focuses on the experiences of Central American students in higher education, specifically the various ways they establish and negotiate belonging as ethnoracial subjects in the United States. On the other hand, my research in migration and queer studies is still developing and is very much new to me. Like my work on Central American students, I was drawn into this work because I have had experiences with similar situations in my own life and wanted to understand them better for myself. Beyond that, I also deeply believe that both Central American students and undocumented queer parents have distinct and insightful experiences that differ from the mainstream conversations about Latina/o/x higher education or UndocuQueer subjectivities and therefore need to be heard.

Q: In your chapter, you offer a rich portrait of family life and discuss how members may approach difficult conversations—in this case around sexuality, immigration, fears of homophobia and deportation—as well as the growth, mutual support, and shared understanding that can arise from these. From your ongoing work, could you share a bit more on this process, including perhaps the factors that help families initiate these discussions and the ways that those outside (e.g., friends, organizers) can support families?

A: I think one of the most important factors that helped the family in this chapter initiate discussions of sexuality and immigration was an inversion and negotiation of power dynamics and openness to vulnerability. It was after coming out, that the father of the family and eldest in the family were able to engage in an honest conversation about the harm that homophobia and xenophobia had caused in their family. This was mainly because after coming out parents are placed in positions in which they must be vulnerable with their children. In those moments, in the best-case scenario, children begin to comprehend their parents’ experiences in a different perspective, one in which they hopefully understand that their opinion is tremendously important. Ultimately, the chapter shows us how legal, heteronormative, and gendered structures force undocumented queer parents to be creative and flexible with their family formations, especially with their parent-child relationships. Consequently, friends, organizers, and allies must also learn to be flexible and creative in the ways they try to address issues of homophobia and xenophobia. Moreover, familial acceptance is never guaranteed. One of the ways to help might also be to simply be patient and let undocumented queer parents and family members decide how they want to address threats to their family, allowing them to establish their own terms and thereby assert agency in their healing process.

Q: What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading your chapter?

A: As painful as the chapter might be, there is a lot of hope for a better future imbued in it as well. I think the main things I would like readers to see in this chapter are:
1. Queer and Undocumented are not mutually exclusive experiences or categories. Various authors in this anthology speak to this truth, my chapter asks readers to think about who might fall under an undocumented queer subjectivity by focusing on the experiences of parents who are undocumented and queer. Many of us learn from our parents, the fight for undocumented and queer rights can also gain to learn from their experiences.
2. There is value in looking inward. We cannot underestimate the power of tackling structural oppression at every scale including the family unit. I figured that most people at some point and in one way or another have been a part of a family whether chosen or not. I feel this might be an experience or space that can be particularly useful to look at in relation to structural change. Working towards structural change can be exhausting, overwhelming, and seemingly never-ending so by highlighting how this one family is fortunate enough to address issues of patriarchy, unequal gender dynamics, homophobia, and xenophobia then readers might also look at their close relations or family units (whatever that means for them) and feel that structural change is feasible and sustainable and doesn’t always have to look like the most visible form of mobilizing for social justice.
3. By looking inward, we can also clearly see that there are intersecting issues beyond legal status that need to be addressed within undocumented communities (heteronormativity, patriarchy, gender, homophobia, etc.). In my chapter, I argue that although immigration policies and the threat of deportation are thought to be the most fundamentally disrupting threats to immigrant families, for the family I focus on, homophobia creates an immediate rupture in family ties as well. Of course, this is not to argue that the consequences of homophobia are greater than xenophobia. As Liliana Ramirez argues in this anthology, totalizing master statuses hide more than they reveal. When looking at UndocuQueer subjectivities, we cannot privilege either undocumented or queer identity, both shape the self simultaneously and must therefore be examined simultaneously. The family I focus on doesn’t get to pick and choose which system of oppression they must deal with (xenophobia, homophobia, gendered inequality, racial capitalism), so as scholars we must try as best as we can to understand their experiences as a whole.
4. Lastly, as illegible as these experiences may seem, they do exist. From experience, I know there’s something extremely encouraging in knowing that you’re not alone, so I hope that readers, whether parents, children, or friends can see themselves in these experiences in part or in whole.

Q: Lastly, many of our readers are undocumented students who are hoping to apply to graduate school. As someone who has navigated the process, what are 1-3 pieces of advice you would share with prospective undocumented grad students either about the application process or about conducting UndocuScholarship?

A: Whether you’re applying to grad school or conducting UndocuScholarship, one of the most important things you can do to ensure your own growth and joy during these processes, which can be very isolating and overwhelming, is to check in with yourself and your objectives. It may seem counter-productive but if you’re thinking about graduate school it is extremely useful to ask yourself if graduate school is really something you want to do right now. And if it is, why? I struggled quite a lot deciding this for myself. I was unsure if I wanted to pursue graduate school because it felt like the next safe step to take amid the rescinding of DACA or because I truly wanted to explore my academic interests further. Looking back now I think a gap year or two would have been good both for my scholarship and overall health so don’t be afraid of also taking that time to care for yourself.

Once you’ve decided graduate school is what you want to do then start looking into what programs would be best for you and would let you do the work you want to do in the way you want to do it. Try to keep an organized system of what you might need for graduate school (statements of purpose, additional funding, letters of recommendations, etc.) and notes about each program’s requirements. Reach out to graduate students in programs, they’re very generous with their advice and can share important insights about how the program works and whether it might be a good fit for you.

Above all make sure to find people that believe in you, will support you, and understand what you’re trying to do. I was extremely fortunate to have had my first research experience through UndocuBruins at UCLA, a research program specifically for undocumented students. The program’s femtor, Yadira Valencia, was extremely kind and patient. She didn’t assume we would know how to do research, and walked us through the fundamentals of theory, framework, methods, and findings that would work best for us. She was respectful of our interests and never expected or forced us to engage in our research in a way that would force us to relive our trauma for trauma’s sake, whether our research focused on undocumented issues or not. To her, our research stood on its own. If I had not received the guidance and encouragement that I did from Yadira and various femtors like Leisy Abrego I’m not sure that I would have pursued graduate school. They equipped me with the tools, resources, and emotional well-being to feel confident enough in my own skin and my own thinking. You may not have the answers to everything right now but if you have kind supportive people that genuinely care about you as a human being then you will be able to take that next step into the unknown with a little more confidence.

KATY is a first-generation DACAmented student. She is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include challenging the homogenization of Latina/o/x student experiences by highlighting the lived academic realities of Central American students. In addition, she examines the complex ways in which Queer Undocumented parents create and navigate family.


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