“My family, we came to this country illegally fair and square,” Felipe Esparza declares. The crowd erupts into laughter and applause. He then explains that despite living in America for 35 years, his parents still can’t speak English. “I’m like, ‘Deport these motherfuckers.’ You can’t say ‘Cheesecake Factory’? Get the fuck out.”
Esparza’s HBO special, Felipe Esparza: Translate This, released last month, is a rollicking and hilarious exploration of relationships and family. It also delves into the ins and outs of growing up undocumented in America. As a formerly undocumented immigrant, he’s one of the handful of Latinx performers who have been breaking up the heart-rending narrative of undocumented immigrants with a bit of humor.
“I never understood why people said laughter is the best medicine,” Esparza told me. “Until I started getting funny and I had people coming up to me like, ‘Man, I was feeling like shit all day, but when you were up there for one hour, I forgot about all that.’”
America’s treatment of undocumented immigrants has gotten worse since Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, throughout which he promised to deport all undocumented immigrants, ‘terminate’ the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and enforce a mandatory minimum sentence for “criminal” immigrants “convicted of illegal re-entry.”
Over the first nine months of Trump’s presidency, ICE has detained thousands of immigrants, targeting the most vulnerable, like domestic abuse survivors and those applying for green cards, and staking out locations like Children’s Hospitals and courthouses. Several people with legal status have been detained by ICE, and least 10 people have died while in ICE custody.
While those things are no laughing matter, today’s undocumented comedians are carrying on an American tradition of finding the humor in tragedy. The Civil War gave rise to the “age of practical joking”; as the war became more and more brutal, the comedy grew darker but stronger. The genre of screwball comedy grew out of the Great Depression. During the civil rights movement, black comedians like Moms Mabley, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dick Gregory used their visibility and wit to fight against black oppression.
For performers who are undocumented, comedy and joy is part of survival, an important way to combat the demoralizing treatment of undocumented immigrants by the government and by the media.
“The stories are kind of daunting, you know?” Yosimar Reyes told me over the phone. Reyes is a poet and performance artist and artist-in-residence at Define American. His work revolves around culture, migration, and sexuality, and he said he wants to incorporate more humor into his work. “You get tired of seeing the same narrative, and I think humor is kind of self care and mental health care from the policies,” he said. “People connect [to humor] more and it resonates more.”
Of course, there is a specific kind of discomfort when it comes to joking about being undocumented—gallows humor for 2017.
”There is something inherently silly about the whole thing,” Johan Miranda, an undocumented comedian, told me about the revelation of his immigration status on stage. “Everyone’s having a good time,” and then all of a sudden he drops a bomb: “Oh yeah, but I might get deported.”
People go to comedy shows for escape, so reminding the audience that their source of entertainment could be subject to detainment pulls the chair out from under them. It’s subversive, it’s sobering, and it can be awkward as hell. Should the audience laugh? Should they sigh or groan? Call their congressional representative?
It’s an absurd and abrupt wakeup call for audience members, but it’s a part of everyday life for the performers, who have had to come to terms with the uncertainty of their situation over and over again.
“It’s weird to see it coming,” Miranda said. “It’s like being on the Titanic and seeing the iceberg coming. It’s coming so slowly, but it’s happening. It’s like, guess we better go to the top deck or something.”
While the anxiety foisted on undocumented people can go latent from time to time (“You can only worry about something for so long,” Miranda said), the jokes won’t be getting old any time soon.
“When I did my special, President Trump wasn’t president yet,” Esparza told me. “I talk about immigration, growing up and not speaking English. I was worried about some of the jokes being dated, like if i do this joke, it’s not going to be funny in a year.” Then, of course, Trump happened, which brought new context to Esparza’s act. “It just worked out well,” he joked.
But for Miranda and Reyes, finding humor in things like deportation isn’t only about giving themselves a break from the constant looming threat. It’s also about giving back agency to undocumented immigrants and allowing them to tell their own stories. Reyes explained to me that often, outsiders—especially the media—don’t take the time to understand the nuances of what undocumented immigrants go through, and instead paint a picture based more on their own assumptions. As a result, a few realities of the multifaceted undocumented experience—an earnest sob story, perpetual victimhood, predominately Latinx subjects—become a monolith.
“That’s not enough,” Reyes said. “You need to consult with us and ask us if that’s how we want to be represented.”
“It’s a little frustrating,” Miranda said of the limited ways undocumented immigrants are portrayed in media. “I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad showing the tragic side. It is pretty tragic. But the solution seems so simple, which is let undocumented immigrants tell their own stories.”
Miranda recounted a time when he did an on-camera interview about being undocumented and was told to appear more somber in order to play up the melodrama.
“They have a narrative where they want me to fit in,” Miranda said. “It’s, ‘We know how to tell your stories so, how ‘bout just dance for us, and we’ll make you look good.’”
By incorporating humor, comedians like Miranda, Reyes, and Esparza are going where no mainstream media outlet could really dare to go. They’re breaking up the standard narratives, giving undocumented immigrants the opportunity to take back their stories.