Undocupoets Working to Open Contests to Undocumented Poets

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Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and an aspiring poet, realized during his teens years that the experience of poetry in the United States was not as accessible to him as it was to his peers who held citizenship.

Interested in pursuing the craft, Hernandez Castillo began researching prizes and publishing contests, but he found that “a lot of the contests and presses require citizenship,” according to an article at Fusion.net. Now, several years later, Hernandez Castillo has legal U.S. residence, and he’s sharing his experience to bring awareness to this issue affecting undocumented writers. The poets Javier Zamora and Christopher Soto have been working with Hernandez Castillo to affect change, and they have created a group called the Undocupoets.

Undocupoets’ aim is to “end citizenship-based discrimination, first in first-book contests…and eventually marquee opportunities like NEA grants, Guggenheim Fellowships, and the Pulitzer Prize.” A recent Undocupoets petitions states, “We must strive, as a poetry community, to allow ALL of our comrades the same opportunities that documented poets are afforded.” The petition aims to raise awareness and support because, as Hernandez Castillo points out, the poetry community doesn’t realize “how it’s bearing down on undocumented writers.” Said petition has garnered over 400 signatures to date, and Hernandez Castillo is hopeful, commenting that “for the poetry community, that’s a big number.”

The Undocupoets petition also makes some bold assertions regarding the organizations that prohibit undocumented writers from entering their contests. According to Zamora, some of those who have been identified in the petition have responded, though reasoning varies. For instance, one organization claims that an SSN is vital because the prize money is reported on a filed W-9. Zamora, however, rejects this logic as he explains that “Most undocumented poets…have DACA…and DACA provides Social Security numbers and work permits.” Therefore, Zamora argues, “there is zero reason for anyone to say they require proof of citizenship because of Social Security numbers.”

Not every organization has been resistant to revision of contest rules, however. Notre Dame, for example, reviewed their guidelines and found the rule to be outdated and unnecessary. Zamora says after speaking with Notre Dame representatives, “they quickly changed the sentence so now they don’t have that anymore.”

Undocupoets plans to continue their efforts and hopes that more organizations will respond like Notre Dame and take action to modify current rules barring undocumented writers from participating in contests and prizes, specifically for potentially career changing prizes such as first book contests.