Rio De Janeiro, Dec. 28, 2018. I’m standing in line at the U.S. consulate, several knots in my stomach, as I watch the person in front of me answer the agent’s questions through the glass that separates them. I hold in my hands a transparent folder containing my passport, a printed receipt for the fee I paid for the privilege to be here, and a printed copy of my case, containing evidence of my success as a writer in America. It is all I was allowed to bring; my cellphone is in a locker down the street, in the care of a vendor who I hope doesn’t decide the 20 Brazilian reais I paid him are not enough to convince him not to pawn my phone. Phones are not allowed in the consulate. Nothing to pass the time except a book, which I tried and failed to read earlier because I was too nervous to focus.
I don’t know why I’m here. Other times I have asked for a U.S. visa—first as a tourist, then as a student—I understood the necessity, if not the strictness, of the process. I stood in line, sometimes for hours, praying for a sympathetic agent who wouldn’t think I was trying to immigrate illegally, who would appreciate all the effort and money it takes to even find yourself on the other side of that glass, answering invasive questions about your finances, your ties to your home country, your hopes and dreams quantified in dollar signs and calendar dates. But that’s what it took, and I got it. Following the beckoning light that had shone through Hollywood movies and pop songs since my early childhood in Argentina and my teenage and early adult years in Brazil, I too was chasing the American dream. The sternness of the process took me by surprise, but it still seemed like a fair price to pay.
Setting foot in New York for the first time was a transformative experience, it being a city full of transplants just like me. As someone who became a migrant so early in life (I was 12 when my family moved to Brazil), I have always struggled to relate to those who have strong ties to their birthplaces. I am an immigrant descendent of immigrants, a wanderer from a family of wanderers, people who chased ambitions and brighter futures undeterred by borders. Enduring officials at the consulate who yelled at me for standing in the wrong place or getting too close to the glass seemed worth it if it meant living in the city that I now call my home.
But this time, it doesn’t make sense. I already spent thousands of dollars, begged so many people for recommendation letters and job offers, and pored through every personal accomplishment I could think of to prove to the U.S. government that I am an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” (the name of the O-1 visa I am here under). Those extraordinary abilities, by the way, do not include me convincing the department of the MFA program I came here for to give me a full scholarship (in spite of the fact that tuition can often be twice as a high for international students, and most are not eligible for financial aid or loans). Also not considered an extraordinary ability was me somehow managing to pay for food and rent with an on-campus job, the only kind that my student visa would allow. Nor was the fact that I graduated with a departmental award in excellence while working throughout the entire program, when most of my classmates had the luxury of focusing solely on their writing. None of that was extraordinary in the eyes of the law; what I needed to prove was that, after graduation, in the sole extra year that my student visa allowed me to stay, I achieved sustained national or international recognition in my field.
If you’re laughing, I get it. A recently graduated writer achieving sustained national recognition in just one year, in a crowded industry that so often relies on connections instead of talent to promote and elevate? I, however, did not have time to laugh. All I did was write and submit and apply and hope that at the end of that year, I could prove that, yes, I was extraordinary; that regardless of the uneven playing field, I had surpassed my classmates and demonstrated the extraordinary-ness that was expected of an immigrant in order for me to stay. And I did. I got a green form in the mail that informed me that I had been approved for the maximum stay (three years) to develop my craft.
My lawyer informed me that while my situation in the U.S. was normal, should I choose to travel outside of the country (for example, to see my family in Brazil for the holidays, as I do every year), I would not be allowed back in unless the visa made it out of that green form and onto my passport. This didn’t worry me initially, until she explained that I couldn’t do it here; I needed to leave the U.S. and be subjected to a new interview in an American consulate abroad, where the agent would have the power of denying me a visa, and therefore entry into the U.S. This didn’t make sense to me. I had already proven myself. Why the double take?
So here I am, standing in line, trembling as I hold my folder, looking at the American consular official and hoping she won’t go too hard on me. When it’s finally my turn, I step up to the booth, and address her in English even though she gave me the option to speak Portuguese (which would still not be my mother tongue), in a pathetic effort to show her I belong. I am prepared to answer all her questions; the lawyer put me through a sort of cross-examination where she poked holes in my case and I explained as best as I can that I am, indeed, extraordinary. But the agent’s first question is whether I can show her my visa approval, which I do, slipping the green paper under the glass. She looks at it and then back at me: “This is expired.” What? It can’t be, I just got it! She passes it back to me and I dissociate, almost sure I’m in a nightmare: I brought the wrong approval. They look alike, and somehow I grabbed the one that allowed me to stay a year past graduation. The new one is still in my apartment back in Brooklyn.
I can’t believe it. I pull at my hair, a cartoon character conveying his desperation. The agent softens a bit and tells me it’s not a problem; once I grab the right one, pay a new fee, and schedule a new appointment, I can try again. She slips me a letter of denial and I’m out, dumbfounded. I can’t go back to the U.S. without a visa. But the piece of paper that will allow me to get a visa is in the U.S.
As I walk back to retrieve my phone, which is thankfully still there, I struggle to believe it. I did everything right, I put in all the work, I begged teachers and agents and artistic directors and producers, and it’s all undone by a stupid mistake. If I had paid more attention, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s over, and there’s no one to blame but me.
Then I remember I have a scan of the approval on my phone, because it seemed too important a letter—it had too much power over my life to exist solely on paper. I find it and email it to the consulate. I go back to the line even though I no longer have an appointment and beg (I’m used to it by now) the guard to let me in, telling him I have the document that I didn’t have before. By now the place is empty, everyone’s gone to lunch (eating at one’s desk is considered a travesty in Brazil, a distaste with which I agree). But I beg the receptionist to find someone still on duty and ask them to check their email. An agent tells me they got my message, but it needs analysis. I beg again, and she tells me that if I pay another fee and leave my passport with them, they’ll consider it. They’ll mail me back my passport, with or without a visa, in a couple of days. They’ll keep the fee regardless of the outcome.
It’s now 2020. That visa did find its way to my passport, but it’s a year away from expiring. In a couple of months, I’ll start the whole thing again—spending thousands of dollars on lawyers and fees, begging for letters of recommendations and job offers, taking another trip to the consulate if I want to visit my family (that is, if and when the travel ban that currently prevents me from reentering the country if I go to Brazil is lifted). That this is happening during a pandemic that has canceled or delayed most of my accomplishments this year—planned residencies, readings, even potential productions— makes me very nervous. Can I still be considered extraordinary? I certainly don’t have the option to be ordinary; should I lose my current job, my visa does not allow me to work outside my field, and applying for unemployment benefits could jeopardize my status and my chances of renewing it.
As I write this, theatre is undergoing all sorts of changes. Changes in programming, changes in leadership, changes in work culture. Good changes, adapting to new realities and correcting long-standing inequities. But I still see development opportunities declaring that eligibility is restricted to U.S. citizens and permanent residents (green card holders), regardless of the fact that, though I am neither, I’m allowed to receive them under the terms of my visa. I still see major awards shutting out those not born in the U.S., without considering their contribution to the field. I still see commissions and fellowships, the kind that could help me prove I’m extraordinary, going to the same chosen few. I don’t resent the artists; God knows the labor they had to put in to even get to a place where their work would be considered. But I cannot help but feel bitter about an industry that trades so heavily in known quantities and fears outsiders. The same industry that has no qualms about exporting its stories to those same outsiders if they stay in their home countries, selling them an irresistible vision of this place.
Yearn, but don’t come. Come, but don’t stay. Stay, but don’t take up space.
It had long been a dream of mine to correct this paradox, to create a radically welcoming space for immigrants at the company that currently employs me, the Playwrights Realm, in the vein of what we did for parents and caretakers. Earlier this year, my boss, Roberta Pereira, an immigrant herself, called me excitedly: “I think I figured out how to make it work.” She was talking about the International Theatermakers Award, a new Realm program that will cover legal fees (again, thousands of dollars) for three artists applying for an O-1 “Extraordinary Ability” visa. I am, due to conflict of interest, not eligible, but I’m incredibly proud to work at a place that’s running this kind of initiative. It gives me hope. Like when I found out the See Lighting Foundation is fundraising for out-of-work international artists. Or the Movement Theater Company is handing out commissions for international designers and directors, who, even more than writers, find themselves with no outlet for their work right now. My bitterness subsides, and I remember why I came, and I dare to dream of something new.
We might no longer be in the news like we were in the last election. We might have seen several avenues of entering and remaining in the U.S. be curtailed or eliminated altogether. But immigrants are still here. And we need your help.
Please, don’t forget about us. We don’t have the option of forgetting about you.
Francisco Mendoza (he/him) is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn after spending several years in Brazil. His work has been developed and presented at the Lark, the New Group, Northern Stage, and San Diego Rep, among others. He’s a MacDowell Fellow and his play Patriarch is slated for next year’s Great Plains Theatre Conference. He has taught at the New School, ART/New York, the New Group, and the 24 Hour Plays. notrealmendoza.com
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!