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‘At the Border of Understanding’: An Interview with Paul Hlava Ceballos

Posted Tue, 8/06/2019 - 9:45am by  |  Category:

On Tuesday, August 13, we’ll be hosting a benefit reading to help support migrant justice. Readers include Claudia Castro Luna, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Raul Sanchez, Natalie Ann Martínez, Sarah A. Chavez, and Catalina M. Cantú. There will be a silent auction of work by Fulgencio Lazo Arte, Jake Prendez, and more, as well as work by the readers.

Suggested ticket price is $10; all proceeds benefit Immigrant Families Together and Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund.

The reading was organized by Paul Hlava Ceballos, a poet and community organizer. To learn more about the reading, the cause, and Paul’s work, check out the interview below!

What inspired you to organize the Poets and Artists for Migrant Justice reading?

I guess on a personal level, I am a child of immigrants and grew up in a Latinx community. This means that I am alive and here because of my mother’s ability to migrate. I am indebted to immigrants and their safety because of the care that they passed on to me.

I started organizing this reading because I was feeling horrible about what has been happening. The imprisonment of people exercising a legal right to ask for asylum. The profit being made from it. The raids. Language crafted to dehumanize us.

A friend did a bake sale for migrants, which I found so inspiring. It was something bigger than helplessness. What could I do? A reading feels small in the face of such an aggressive cultural moment, but maybe poetry can be a way to take language back.

Proceeds from the event will benefit Immigrant Families Together and Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund. Tell us a little bit about how you first connected with these organizations. What made you want to support their work in particular?

The current state calls for direct and immediate action. Friends told me about Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund, whose work paying bonds for immigrants in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma and paying legal fees seems so necessary and noble. Later, I connected with poets organizing in other states. Writers for Migrant Justice suggested Immigrant Families Together, which also does amazing work paying bonds and legal fees. We can help get people out of detention centers.

How did you get started as a community organizer?

Investment in our community and other people’s well-being is life. My family was always involved in the church. And growing up in California during Proposition 187—which was a keep-immigrants-out, show-me-your-papers initiative—it was palpable how important community was, to stay physically safe and emotionally safe. So I’ve always been involved in some way, whether it was unionizing teachers in New York or teaching English classes for immigrants. None of us would be here without someone else’s support. We’ve got to pay that back.

You’re also an accomplished poet yourself. What drew you to poetry, and what made you want to pursue it as an artistic practice?

For me, poetry is connectivity. My abuelo was a poet. He wrote family stories and odes to his children, and the reverence with which my family keeps his poems and shares them, whole generations later, is the world. I wrote my first book of poems on a notepad when I was 10 and never stopped writing, reading, keeping close my circle of writers.

I struggle reading my abuelo’s work because my Spanish isn’t great and his diction was so high, but there’s something magical in that too. That’s what poetry is for me: being at the border of understanding, a connection to something bigger than myself.

How, if at all, does your work as a community organizer inform your poetry (or vice versa)?

This poetry reading at the Hugo House on the the 13thPoets and Artists for Migrant Justice—might be the first time these two separate parts of me have come together. And it’s heartening how easy it’s been. Every person I’ve reached out to has been thrilled to help, and people are giving us their time and giving us their art because they care about this too.

My current project is a history of bananas in the Americas. It’s a cento, so every line has the word “banana” and comes from a different historical text. So far the texts include Carl Linnaeus’s Musa Cliffortiana, the first Western scientific book about bananas from the 1720s, history books from the 1800s, and from the 1900s, lots of declassified CIA documents, commercials, recipes. As a person with an ancestral connection to a rich and troubled history, I want to speak more honestly to that in my own writing. The work of the readers for this event, their words and their readiness to help—it’s heartening.

What else can members of our community do to support migrant justice?

Support Immigrant Families Together here. Support Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund here.

Get involved with amazing organizations in Seattle like Casa Latina. Write our Congress-people and tell them that ending the indefinite detention of migrants is of utmost importance to you as a voter. Come to our reading and connect with other folks who feel the same way.


Paul Hlava Ceballos recently received a 2019-2020 Artist Trust Fellowship award, as well as a Poets House fellowship, a Cave Canem Writing Across Cultures workshop, and a 4Culture Artist Grant. His poems have been published in Narrative, BOMB, the PEN Poetry Series, Acentos Review, the LA Times, among other journals and newspapers, and have been nominated for the Pushcart. He has an MFA from NYU and currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.