B.R.J. O’Donnell: How do you and Jose help each other with the frustrations that come with being undocumented?
Yosimar Reyes: Jose has always told me that freedom doesn’t come with papers, freedom does not come with having a Social Security number. He’s always quoting Toni Morrison: “Freedom is in the mind.” Freedom is in knowing that you have the ability to do whatever, despite these obstacles. So I think for me, that kind of mentorship has been really vital. Before I met Jose, I was struggling. It was so hard, and I just didn’t see an end to it.
O’Donnell: Have you and Jose talked at all about what DACA means for you?
Reyes: It’s interesting because when DACA happened, our roles kind of reversed. I remember he was really excited, saying, “Oh my God, now you have something that I don’t have—you have a Social Security number.” And he told me, “You need to use that as much as possible and take advantage of those opportunities.”
O’Donnell: What is missing from public conversations about being undocumented in 2017?
Reyes: It’s important that we talk about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, but at the same time, I want to remind people that DACA is basically me paying the government $500 every two years for a work permit, and to pay taxes. It’s not legalization—it’s a crumb. At the end of the day, what I have through DACA is a Social Security number that works temporarily. And though I’m grateful for the people that advocated for it, it’s not a solution.
O’Donnell: When did you first meet Jose?
Reyes: Five years ago, he did this film called The Other City looking at the AIDS epidemic in D.C., and it was showing at Outfest [an LGBT-oriented film festival] in Los Angeles. Jose wasn’t out as undocumented at the time. We met and said hello. Then two years later, I was watching TV, and it’s announced that “Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas comes out as undocumented.” And I thought, “Oh my God, that’s the guy I met. He didn't tell me he was undocumented.” I’m always telling people I was undocumented. Soon after that, I got invited to something at Sundance, and so did Jose, and that’s where we reconnected. He saw me perform, and then out of that, we built a friendship.
O’Donnell: What made you want Jose to mentor you?
Reyes: I feel like we share similar kinds of backgrounds. I grew up in San Jose; he grew up in Mountain View, which is 20 minutes away. I grew up with my grandmother; he grew up with his grandmother. Oh, and the other thing we have in common—we are both queers, we are “undocuqueer” [laughs]. So I think there were a lot of correlations.
O’Donnell: How has Jose influenced the way you think about your work?
Reyes: His motto is: “You’re ‘a writer that happens to be undocumented’—you are not ‘an undocumented writer.’” My struggle, as an undocumented person, has been that when people tell me to dream big, I always have a sense that there is a glass ceiling, that there are things that are just impossible for me. And for Jose, his outlook is, “No, everything is possible.” I have seen what he has been able to do, and how he interacts with people, and I think that’s such an accomplishment, because when people find out you are undocumented, doors automatically close.