Welcome to Open Borders

S. Garcia
The first time I told my story to a group in the U.S., I had to cover my face with a bandana.  I was afraid for my life, since I had been labeled as an illegal alien.  I imagined myself being arrested by immigration agents, being deported and– once back in my homeland– being taken by soldiers, thrown into a secret prison and tortured to death without anybody ever knowing.

I had lost several members of my family at the hands of the Guatemalan military.  Afraid for my own life, I fled and crossed the US/Mexico border through the Arizona desert.  I was one of the lucky ones who made it to America, escaping from political persecution. I was fortunate because in the 1980’s many Americans were furious about their government’s wrong doing in the wars that afflicted Central America.  Some even risked their lives in defense of justice. As it has happened so many times in history, many innocent lives were lost in wars in the name of God and democracy.

I have spoken about my experience many times, about my reasons for having violated immigration law and about the importance of listening to the stories being told by many who, like me, had come to America to tell the truth.  And the question that really mattered: Whose truth was that? It was my truth, and whether people agreed with my truth or not, having the opportunity to tell my story in public saved my life.

I can say now, with all certainty, that I owe my life to those Americans who walked with me across the Arizona desert, to those who welcomed me –the stranger- in their homes and gave me food and shelter.  But most importantly, I owe my life to those who listened to me.

Being able to tell my story somehow helped me to own my own reality, to become more aware of what had happened to me and my family. It gave me a vehicle for expressing my grief in a constructive way.  Otherwise, I could have easily become severely depressed or self-destructive, or violently taken my rage out on other people.

Instead, telling my story saved me and made me better understand my own life, my dreams and my frustrations.  It helped me express ideas that would have otherwise remained hushed or unprocessed.  It even helped me an awful lot with improving my broken English.

My truth confronted the official truth.  Through my story I connected with many others who saw in me their own pain, who identified with me not because they felt we had issues in common, but because we had common values.  It was this connection that gave us hope and a sense of power.

Time has passed now and the wars have long been over.   However, twenty-something years later, more people continue to leave their homes and families behind in search for an opportunity in this land of milk and honey. For poverty sometimes can be the greatest killer.

During the last several years I have worked with many newcomers helping them to tell their story.  Listening to them has taught me more about the power of storytelling, that whether we record the story, film it, write it or simply follow it in reverent silence, the story is everything.

–Manuel Portillo


It is time for immigrants in the United States to take back their stories—stories that have been re-written by people in a campaign to drive them out of the U.S. The revised stories read in the press and heard on the streets, promulgated by mayors and legislators and citizens who have a vision of America the Way It Used To Be go something like this: our towns are being taken over by (dark-skinned) immigrants who drive our crime rate up and overwhelm the criminal justice system; these immigrants drain our economy, sucking our resources for schools, health care and welfare programs; they take away jobs from Americans and drive our wages down; they don’t really want to be American—they stick to themselves, won’t learn English, they are only here to take advantage of our way of life and not contribute to it; and now, post- 911, they are a terrorist threat.  Citizens, we are being invaded, take back your communities before it’s too late.

One problem: the stories are not a true reflection of our community of immigrants. The truth is reflected more accurately in the story of Jesús Villicaña López, age 16, who picks mushrooms over 80 hours a week, lives in one room with eighteen men, and has built a new house for his family in Mexico.  Or the story of Sarbelia C., who teaches immigrants computer skills, trains them about their rights in case of an immigration raid, supports three families,  and grieves daily for her son in Ecuador who she hasn’t seen in seven years. Or Salvador Garcia, who had to sing La Bamba to the judge before she would grant him his green card. Or Mayra Castillo Rangel, a recent college graduate who is living the dream that brought her parents here.

Who is the rightful owner of our stories?  How do we give a voice to our lives? How to we find a way to be heard?  For the last three years at Open Borders Project / Proyecto Sin Fronteras, in Philadelphia, we have worked with immigrant teens and adults in the Healing Stories Project.  Participants record their stories, mix them with music, and share them on CDs, the radio, webcasts. The process of creating our stories and sharing them has been profound.  Listening to each other’s stories and reflecting on our common experience is an act of honoring our lives and affirming our dreams and sacrifices. Through our stories we develop a collective identity as immigrants. Telling our story allows us to take risks, to talk about missing our families, our isolation, our frustrations as we try to feel at home in our new world. Our stories create openings for conversations with our friends and family, to say things unsaid. And now we are taking our stories to the world—to immigration authorities developing deportation guidelines, legislators who are deciding whether to provide healthcare for undocumented children, communities terrified by the specter of immigration raids.  These stories must become part of The Great Immigration Debate.

We invite you to listen to some of these remarkable stories, filled with honesty and risk-taking and possibility and anger.  Over the next few months we will share stories of sacrifice, separation and grief, of teens who talk about pregnancy and homelessness and finding a way to connect with their father at a baseball game, of farmworkers who harvest our food, of the terror of immigration raids and deportation, of high school graduates who came to the U.S. ten years ago and whose dreams of going to college are deferred because they have no documents, of learning English while hanging on to their culture, of frontier justice.  And more. We will tell the story around the story—how sharing stories changes the way people see themselves, each other, the world.  How stories demand an act of listening—the basis of all relationships.  You will be able to listen to many of these stories on this website—three to six minutes in length, often produced by the storytellers themselves.  All will be in English; some will be in Spanish, as well.

Immigrant stories are part of a universal diaspora:  of Mexicans crossing the desert into Arizona, of Haitians going to the Dominican Republic, Turks going to Holland, Algerians going to France, Indians going to Dubai. These stories need to be told, demand to be heard, to set the truth straight, and create a dialogue between immigrant communities and their new countries.  Our stories give us a voice, make us visible. We invite readers of WWR to submit stories of the immigrant experience—both in writing and audio. We prefer that the stories be personal, telling the story of individuals while reflecting the universality of immigrant experiences. Written commentary that puts the story in context is also welcome. Our general guideline is to limit the audio to less than six minutes.

–Mark Lyons

Murals by César Viveros Herrera Painted for the book, Espejos y Ventanas/ Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families New City Community Press and Syracuse University Press

Murals by César Viveros Herrera
Painted for the book, Espejos y Ventanas/ Mirrors and Windows,
Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families
New City Community Press and Syracuse University Press

Mark Lyons

Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.

He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety  issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.

Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.

Manuel Portillo


Manuel Portillo

See other contributors.

Manuel Portillo is originally from Guatemala and came to the USA as a refugee during the Central American wars of the ‘80s.  Under the protection of The Sanctuary Movement, he traveled extensively speaking publicly about the atrocities being committed by the military governments of the time.

He is a former community organizer with the Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, a grassroots organization based in Philadelphia that works with faith-based groups, where he worked on issues of public safety, education and city services.

For the last eight years  Manuel was the Executive Director of Open Borders Project, a non-profit organization that provides language and technology programs to newly-arrived immigrant communities. He is currently co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project.