It has been four days since I spent 15 minutes in Alejandro Inarritu’s immigration experience immersion project Carne Y Arena in NE Washington DC. In these four days I have attempted to write about it for at least as many times and walked away from it finding myself choosing to, instead, spend time on errands, do a lot of other work, hugging my friends and family, reading a 500+ page book about emotional displacement, even watching the latest Star Wars movie (something typically not very high on my priority list). In short, I’ve done anything BUT write about Carne Y Arena.
This morning, as I sat down with a “YOU HAVE TO WRITE THIS” attitude, I found myself instead thinking about why has it been so hard to put pen to paper about this. It’s not that it isn’t a well done project (it truly is), it’s not that I don’t think our readers should know about it (they definitely should), it’s not that it isn’t dealing with issues that are important (they, without a doubt, are). It is, that I, as an immigrant myself, found it all, well, a little too close to everything I try not to talk about as part of this shiny, positive-energy-ship-of-a-life I have tried (and mostly succeeded) to build here in the U.S. (this website/company being a prime example of it).
What follows feels like a very personal thing to write, almost too personal for my comfort, but then every immigration story is.
I arrived to America seventeen years a go, with a suitcase, a scholarship, and a vague idea that things are definitely going to be better for me here than where I was coming from. Where I was coming from changed its name from Yugoslavia to Federal Republic of Serbia & Montenegro to Serbia in the span of the two decades I had been alive. For those who remember the news from the 90s, where I came from was not a super cool, stress-free place. By the time I landed in the US, I was 20, I was in architecture school, I had loving and educated and capable parents who were willing to sacrifice anything for me and my brother to get a chance to live a better life than that of constant physical, emotional and fiscal insecurity and, I figured, I could handle most anything. After all, the previous decade of my life involved closed national borders, air drills, bombs, insane monetary inflation and being globally ostracized as a nation. It also involved being a kid, then a teenager and all sorts of regular, semi-frustrating things that go with that general territory.
If there was one thing I knew, it was how to be normal in decidedly not normal situations.
In the past seventeen years I finished my education, got good jobs, left those good jobs because they were not the RIGHT jobs for me, started a business that I felt actually brought JOY to people’s lives (and my life in extension), fought like crazy for that business and the city I now called home, employed some smart, funny, weird people for that business, saw D.C. change, texted Ira Glass, hugged Weird Al, fell in love (yes, with both Ira and Al, but also for really real), got married, inherited some really cool teenagers through said marriage, bought a home, went on some good vacations and built an amazing, once-in-a-100-lifetimes network of friends and collaborators. I have a life that is completely and entirely built by me. It is not perfect, but I love it and it mine. No one else has this life. Nowhere would this life be possible but here in United States of America. In many ways, it has been an American Dream. My brother is here too. He lives in NY and is wildly successful in his chosen field. My parents are freshly retired from great careers and get to visit us often.
Things are good.
So good that going in, I felt pretty confident I was totally going to be able to handle Carne Y Arena.
What I didn’t expect (and I have no one to blame for this, but myself) is that Inarritu’s virtual reality experience would stir up in me all these feelings that I have worked very hard to not deal with over this (my) American journey.
You see, over the last seventeen years, while trying to live and build this life, I also have spent seemingly endless amounts of time and money (neither of which I had spares of) on being able to stay here (and NOT only NOT take away American jobs but create them, and pay American taxes, and contribute to society, and yes, text Ira Glass which I feel is the very pinnacle of ANY American life).
Over those last seventeen years, I have been denied work visas, found myself not fitting neatly into any box because I employed myself and had deportation hang over my head. I have been denied the right to travel, had to make drastic decisions on virtually no notice, sat in rooms awaiting interviews which handled the most personal moments of my life with clinical detachment, waited for months at a time to discover my fate, and, in general, tried to act normal in decidedly not normal circumstances.
It was alienating, it was disheartening, it was frustrating, it was complicated, it took forever. It is, in fact, still not over. I stuck with it (and am sticking with it), because my life is here and I don’t want a different life. I worked and earned this life. And yet this country (which was built by immigrants, as we keep reminding ourselves), and its archaic systems made me feel often very unwanted. Which was a hard thing to reconcile with the whole “my life is here” element.
This has been MY experience. And I KNOW, logically and emotionally, that I had the education and resources and the support network that, comparatively, made this a cake walk in terms of the bigger picture American immigrant experience. It was, for one, legal.
What Inarritu’s Carne Y Arena does is, very effectively, take you out of your (perceived) comfort zone, put you in a very vulnerable position for a very short amount of time (the whole experience is mere minutes long), and then release you back into “the normal” world. Nothing bad will actually happen to you during it. There are professionals around you at all times. The situation is very controlled. The virtual reality element is certainly very cool. The fact that an Academy Award winning director spent time and rallied resources and used his platform to share this with the world is both very cool and very important.
But the part that gets you (GETS YOU) the most is knowing that the people around you, in this virtual reality world, are not actors, but people who lived these stories and somehow (and I don’t know how, are they mental and emotional superheros?) put themselves back into the situations they survived (because that’s all it was: survival), and re-enacted them for this project.
Because it was important to them, more important than how painful it must have been, that this story is seen and shared. By me. By you.
That is the part that truly broke my heart. That is the part that made this article so hard to write. What possibly could I have to add?
Because, if I am being honest here, the truth is – I had planned to do this experience twice in order to be able to write about it and after the first time, I opted out of the second go around. I had some dust on my knees and I had lost an earring in the process. That was all. But I didn’t want to go again. It cut too close to my bone. And they did go again. So that America (the country they chose, which made it SO HARD for them to be a part of it) could FEEL a fraction of what they felt.
Carne Y Arena is an art project and a revolutionary storytelling experience, but more than anything, it is an exercise in empathy. Because FEELING things is what makes people act on things. Go experience Carne Y Arena. FEEL just how broken the immigration system is. FEEL how human these humans are. Talk to your friends and your family members who came from somewhere else and made a life here. Hug them. Then… Act.