Ilka Oliva: It has been the written words that have given voice to the unfathomable emptiness that inhabits me

Translated  by Marvin Najarro 

By Mariela Castañón

Ilka Oliva is a Guatemalan writer who has lived in the United States for almost 15 years. She migrated to the United States without the proper documentation after a professional disappointment. The challenges she has faced have not kept her from exceling in writing. He has published 12 books that have been translated into several languages.

Oliva gave an interview to La Hora Voz del Migrante and explained the reasons why she is away from Guatemala, the situation of the migrants, the challenges and the goals accomplished.

LH Voz del Migrante: How long have you been living in the United States, and what circumstances forced you to leave Guatemala?

 Ilka Oliva: On November it will be 15 years since I’ve been living here. I emigrated because of a professional disappointment, I was a football soccer referee in Guatemala and I was preparing to become an international referee, that was my dream, I wanted to represent Guatemala in women’s refereeing, I bet on my country, I fought with all the forces of my being for that dream, but in the Football Soccer Referee Committee they wanted to get me into bed in exchange for the international referee’s badge. I was so disappointed that without thinking it twice I decided to put some distance between me and Guatemala, the only option available for me at that time was to leave without documents, crossing Mexico.

LH Voz del Migrante: What did you do before leaving the country and what do you do today?

Ilka Oliva: In Guatemala, as physical education teacher, I taught in the morning and in the afternoon I studied psychology at the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, and in the evenings I trained to be physically in shape for the weekends football soccer games. Since I came to the United States I have been a kind of odd job woman. At present, I work as a babysitter, which is like being a domestic worker, because it is the same job but with a different name. But you have to do anything, any work that is available, is the reality of the undocumented in this country. During all this time I’ve been cleaning up snow, cleaning houses, offices, shopping malls, serving dinners at Jewish parties, cleaning restaurants kitchens, as a football soccer referee; everything that comes out.

The United States Soccer Federation treated me differently, they wanted to give me the opportunity to referee a at higher level, because I am still the only Latin American woman in Chicago who referees men’s soccer games, but I did not have the documents, it was a great opportunity that was lost. But in the other hand, for ten years I have administered European, African, Asian, Latin American and American soccer games, something perhaps by being an international referee I would not have achieved; life has its nooks and crannies. Dreams have so many forms that they camouflage very well. It could be said that the dream I have longed for have come true thousands of miles away from my home country.

LH Voz del Migrante: What are the main challenges of migrating without the proper documentation?

Ilka Oliva: Losing life is the main risk. Crossing Mexico undocumented is putting your life at risk. The abuse comes mainly from the country’s authorities who are also part of the criminal gangs that kidnap, disappear and murder migrants. They are abducted either for labor and sexual exploitation or organ trafficking on the black market. The danger of losing life is also present on the border between Mexico and the United States, entering the United States means to be the target of gunshots, blows and killings by the Border Patrol, which no one will notice because they occur in the desert. The migrant is used as a bird of prey for hunters of migrants who go at night to play target shooting with them. Whoever migrates without documents is already a living dead, only a person out his or her mind can dare to such a feat.

LH Voz del Migrante: When did you start writing books and what motivated you to do it?

Ilka Oliva: My first book is about my experience as an undocumented migrant on a journey from Guatemala to the United States. I wrote it in 2014, 10 years later, because 10 years lasted the silence, the deep depression, ten years to recover and take the decision to narrate what we as undocumented experience on the journey to the United States. What moved me to write the book was to tell from the experience of a migrant what millions live. Since there are many who make films, documentaries, reports, books, art exhibitions about us, it was already necessary to tell the reality from within: from our own voice, from our experience as migrants in transit.

LH Voz del Migrante: How many books have you published and with which you identified the most? 

Ilka Oliva: I have published 12 books, Historia de una indocumentada, travesía en el desierto Sonora-Arizona (History of an Undocumented: Crossing the Arizona Sonoran Desert) which has already been translated into Italian, Swedish, Portuguese and French and is being translated into English. Post Frontera (Post Border), collection of poems Luz de faro (Beacon Light), En la melodía de un fonema (In the Melody of a Phoneme), Niña de arrabal (Slum Girl), Destierro (Exile), Nostalgia (Nostalgia), “Agosto” (August), Ocre (Ochre) and Desarraigo (Estrangement). Relatos (Stories), Crónicas de una inquilina (Chronicles of a Tenant) and “Transgredidas” (Transgressed), published on Amazon.com. They are all my offsprings, but the book that defines me is the last collection of poems, Strangement, which encompasses my complete life. They are 19 unpublished poems that I wrote to Comapa, Jutiapa, the town where I was born, and Ciudad Peronia, the slum where I grew up; my great loves.

LH Voz del Migrante. Besides the published books, do you have other spaces of opinion?

Ilka Oliva: Yes, I have a personal blog called Chronicles of a Tenant where I frequently write opinion articles, stories, poetry, and my opinion articles are published in more than 150 alternative media sites around the world. They are translated into English, Italian and Portuguese. I can mention to you, for example, Telesur in Venezuela, Cubadebate in Cuba, South AmericaPress in Sweden, Latice Magazine in Sweden. Pagina Popular en Argentina, Rebelión in Spain, Nostramerica in Italy, Diário Liberdade and Revista Diálogos do Sul in Brazil. Clarín in Chile, Noticias Énfasis and Somos Más in Mexico. I also have a radio column that is broadcasted in more than 25 countries. And I am the publisher of a cultural website called Latin America Exuberante that I created myself for all Latin Americans outside of the Patria Grande (Great Homeland).

LH Voz del Migrante: What challenges have you faced in getting your books published? 

Ilka Oliva: In Guatemala I knocked on doors in all the existing publishing houses, my dream had been to publish in my country, again I put my faith in my country; no one wanted to publish my books. I am not a person with connections, nor I rub elbows with prominent people, I am an outcast, and on the other hand an undocumented domestic worker living in the United States. I think that greatly influenced my work not being taken into account and rejected by stereotypes and classism. In the United States I cannot publish because I lack documents, I could not work with any publishing house here. Then I found the option of the Amazon Publishing, which in the United States is number one, amazing but many writers have left the conventional publishing houses and have decided to publish on Amazon. It is an international platform, you can publish and buy books from anywhere in the world. Thanks to the fact that editorial Edizioni Arcoiris, in Italy, was able to see my work and not my origin and legal status, my book, History of an Undocumented: Crossing the Arizona-Sonoran Desert, could be translated into Italian, and it is already on sale. The same with the publisher Éditions Nzoi in France which has already published it, and as far as I know, also in France and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We are still in talks with the Portuguese publisher that will publish it.

LH Voz del Migrante:  What is the situation of Guatemalan migrants -at least in the state in which you live- What affects them? How they live?

Ilka Oliva: It is like that of all undocumented Latin Americans. Here we are all Mexicans, and are treated like Mexicans. We are exploited as a workforce, we are cheap labor. And people in order to send remittances to Guatemala have to work up to three shifts a day, from Monday to Sunday. In any job; we perform a wide variety of low skilled jobs. Without documents you cannot practice as a professional. The paranoia of deportations, which are an everyday occurrence, is a reason for people to get sick, what we know as psychosomatic, and no matter who the president is. Moreover, it has been proven that Democrats have deported more immigrants than Republicans, for example, Obama has been the president who has deported the greatest number of undocumented in the history of the United States. And he won the presidency with the Latino vote who believed in his promise of an Immigration Reform.

Here people go from home to work and vice versa, here we do not talk about vacations, a weekend of rest, or a holyday, here we work from sunrise to sunset, because without documents there are not labor rights. You cannot leave if you are an undocumented, driving can lead you to a traffic stop and an immediate deportation, you cannot travel by plane, there is migration on domestic flights and if you are unlucky, immediate deportation. Money is no enough for three days of vacations, nor it is possible to get time off from work, nor can they leave for fear of deportations. People come to the United States to go from home to work and from work to home. It is so in all of the country’s states.

LH Voz del Migrante: What worries you most as a Guatemalan citizen?

 Ilka Oliva: I am worried about the abandonment on the part of the state; a government infested with criminal cliques that is incapable of looking after the well-being of its people to whom it oppresses, defrauds and abuses at will. And I am concerned about an indifferent society sunk into faith, racism, classism and double standards that is unable to react collectively to provoke a radical change. I am worried about the childhood of my country, their uncertain future with a government of corrupt individuals and a society that consent them; a childhood that like yesterday and like today, will be forced to migrate to another place looking for what their country denies them.

LH Voz del Migrante: Do you plan to return to Guatemala some day?

Ilka Oliva: My relationship with Guatemala is bittersweet, it is the country I love, and it is the land where I have suffered the most discrimination. It is not in my plans to return on my own, at least I do not see it as an immediate plan, but I am undocumented and deportation can come at any time. Until that day I will remain here, in this no man’s land, in the diaspora, uprroted. Anyway, I never left; I’m still in Guatemala, in every market vendor.

LH Voz del Migrante: How do you feel about your achievements as a writer?

Ilka Oliva: It is something curious because writing came as a catharsis, as a discharge, as a way to save my life, as a last attempt. As a teenager I wrote poetry and I stopped doing it. Many years later, in my self-exile, I sought it again, to take refuge in it, and it has been the written words that have given voice to the unfathomable emptiness that inhabits me. I never imagined that I would publish books, let alone being translated and published in so many countries in the world. It is something that I still don’t quite assimilate. Because I still see myself as a girl selling ice creams in the market of Ciudad Peronia. And from that market I see the distant horizon where my writings fly away, away from me. They have found the freedom to travel to other lands. They are the realization of my soul.

LH Voz del migrante: What goals do you have in the short term?

Ilka Oliva: As you know, I don’t make plans, I used to do it many years ago when I lived in Guatemala. I used to set my mind on goals, and setting expiration dates on them, and I lived like this, trying to climb one step further of a stair to nowhere, because while I was trying to climb it life was going through another place. Since I crossed the border and survived that journey, I live the daily life, because it is the only thing you have.

I continue to write, and painting my abstracts, because they constitute my happiness, and I am working on my next book of unpublished stories, entitled: North.

Crónicas de una Inquilina 

Categories: Cultura, Entrevista, Migrantes