A Story from the Arbitrary: José Orduña's The Weight of Shadows

Day 30

I hear the phrase "must read" tossed around a lot, and when I find a book particularly captivating, I'm often tempted to use it myself. It comes up especially when a book illuminates something about society, so that reading it is "homework" for the ongoing process that is being a good member of the community.  It's overwhelming, as a reader, for so many "musts" to come out each year. I recommend José Orduña's The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement in part because it's well-balanced between analysis and emotion and touches on many people's experiences. If you only read one or two of this year's must reads, I recommend this one.

Orduña writes expressively of his own experience, of challenges faced by friends with different immigration statuses, and of people he meets in his travels. It's a compelling book which reads like a novel when Orduña is talking about his family or childhood. He reflects on the slow process of coming to understand that his families situation was different from other families he knew after coming to the United States from Mexico as a toddler. He also speaks frankly about risks he has taken such as accepting a fellowship which took him out of the US while in the final stages of his citizenship application. I appreciated that the book rejects the notion that immigrants need to prove their worth and respectability. Orduña writes about going on all-night benders and other exploits without self-flagellation but without any "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" style bravado. While our political climate paints immigrants with a broad brush, the choices that he makes in how he portrays himself underscore the fact that the author is a person, as unique and common as anyone else.

The Weight of Shadows also successfully balances Orduña's need to speak from his own experience and analysis of situations much more dire than his own. He looks at intersections of race, nationality, and the effects of colonialism while describing his visit to the Philippines. He discusses how arbitrary it is that he is in a position to bring water to would-be immigrants in the desert on the US-Mexico border. On one of these trips, he met a group of men from his mother's home region, who picked up on the regional accent of his Spanish. It's a difference of circumstance only that these men are crossing the desert to improve their lives, and US border patrol and paramilitary vigilante groups deny them access to food, water, and medical care, while Orduña is there by choice. Despite all of the systematic reinforcement of power structures in the immigration system, he gets strange looks and rude words from fellow US citizens, but nothing more. 

My main complaint about the book is that the chapter about his time volunteering with No More Deaths to save the lives of immigrants crossing the border stands out from the others with its intense emotional weight, so the rest of the book feels disconnected from it. Orduña tries to connect it to his own journey with immigration, and I think he does a decent job, I just wished for more. For all that it feels like a novel in some places, the book lacks a strong narrative arc, which bothered me. Perhaps, since the sheer meaninglessness of many of the immigration regulations is a recurring theme in the book, that's part of the point. 

Surrealist painting in which a slender dark silhouette of a person walks off the frame to the left. Behind it, the "shadow" of the figure stretches over several stairs. The thing that should be the shadow is a person in full color, while the figure walking is a shadow.
Remedios Varo, Fenómeno, 1962. Orduña says the painting speaks to the zeitgeist of Latin America in the 1960s and more recently, of living with the spectre of murders and disappearances orchestrated by the state. 

I added The Weight of Shadows to my reading list for this blog because I believe that being informed about what's going on in society and how that affects individuals is necessary to teaching and creating good museum experiences. I'm not alone -- just for museums, there is a growing tide of resources and groups devoted to creating more civic-minded, welcoming spaces. The Incluseum, #museumsrespondtoferguson, and The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum are a few. What The Weight of Shadows did for me was remind me of the importance of empathy -- we never know how complicated people's stories are. Additionally, it made me think I should be more proactive about providing multilingual resources in the museum where I work. If someone lives here and English is not their dominant language, they probably face many more barriers than communication every day, and they deserve all of the consideration and courtesy we can extend to them.