The Weight of Shadows

THE Weight of Shadows cover

The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement

by José Orduña
Beacon Press | 2016
ARC e-Reader copy
Paperback: 240 pages (978-0-8070-7402-2)
Genre: Adult/Memoir/Immigration/Latin America


An advance reader copy was provided by Beacon Press through
  in exchange for my honest opinion.


“This is America.

Each passage and inscription of a human being as “illegal” is a reiteration.
We are in the zone where justice reaches its vanishing point,
sheds its veneer, and reveals itself fully as punishment.”

José Orduña

José Orduña was born in Veracruz, Mexico.  His mother, Yoli, was a semester from graduating with a degree in agronomy when she found out she was pregnant. Unmarried, Yoli was forced to quit school and summarily disowned by her parents.  Martin Orduña , José’s father and his parents gave her a home.  After they married, Martin left his wife and new baby with his parents while he joined his Aunt Hilda in Chicago hoping to find work. When José was 2-years old his mother and he joined Martin entering the United States on a tourist visa.

Yoli and Martin struggled to make a life for themselves and José in the US.  Limited by legalities and language, lived in shadows; caught between two worlds.  Yearning for Mexico but needing the US for for a life.  Fearful of ignoring the need for “papers” and fearful of living under the radar just one small mistake from the unimaginable without them. 

José as a child was aware there was tension in the home but growing up “American” he really didn’t grasp the dangers facing his family.  He knew that he wasn’t one of “them” facing bullying and discrimination in the community and school but he couldn’t remember any other life. Their labor class income limited their options, but nonetheless, his parents were determined to make a better life for their child and they did the very best they could for him.

It must have taken extreme courage for Martin and Yoli to begin the process of obtaining their “papers.”  Once they step out in the open and into the system they would be exposed as “undocumented” and subject to the arbitrary whims of every “politically correct authority”.  The smallest misstep- running a stop sign, failing to signal a turn, anger a neighbor – could result in displacement.    

Orduña relates his life’s story with a sharp edge in The Weight of Shadows .  Every sentence conjures a raw emotion.  He holds nothing back in explaining his ambivalence at having to “earn” his right to be here; a place he feels he already had a right to be.

He lays his story and the story of friends and relatives all out straight with every wart and wrinkle exposed. The hypocritical history of immigration into the US is laid open across the path of every “undocumented alien”.  An immigration system so unwieldy, unpredictable and arbitrary that is often safer to just stay in the background.

It’s a tough story to read.  Every page sizzles with his unrestrained emotion.  The descriptions of the desert crossings, the inhumane treatment of detainees, the despair, the fear, the hunger, the pain, and the desperation. You cringe at what you know to be the truth that an employer would take advantage of an undocumented status to pay inadequate salaries or withhold time off with the threat of job loss.

“We’ve been used as disposable, malleable bodies that can be drawn in and purged according to labor demands and cyclical xenophobic trends.”  

“It is difficult to establish happiness and a necessary sense of communion with members of a society that allow for you, in actuality and in representation , the space of a maid, a nanny, a janitor, a day laborer, or a landscaper, and nothing else, and who barely meet your eye.”

And in the end, following the rules, José Orduña was sworn  in as a naturalized United States citizen in July of 2011.  It is not a day to celebrate.  The piece of paper just makes him legal.

He says, “I feel a[n]…ambivalence about being here [at the ceremony]…because being here doesn’t feel like a celebration or an accomplishment.  It’s something of a relief, of course, but it also feels like acquiescence – like I’m tacitly agreeing that this is necessary and legitimate…I am one of the ‘good ones’ and that I have ‘done it the right way’.

At times I didn’t think I could read on…The use of Spanish in the beginning without context felt purposeful.  The described trip to the Philippines was unnecessary and salacious.  But, as a debut work, it’s a truthful chronicle voiced by one who knows too well what it means to be an “illegal alien”.  There is no doubt Orduña’s voice will be heard again and again.


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