(Re)visiting memories of (im)migration (essay)

By Manoj Jayagoda
(Re)visiting memories of (im)migration: The Branded, the Punished, the Tolerated:(non-fiction/personal narrative/academic essay)

Manoj and mom in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo courtesy of Manoj Jayagoda



We were The Branded, the Lunatic Fringe, proud of our out- rageousness and our madness, our bizarre-colored inks and quill pens. We learned how to mock the straight set, and how to cul- tivate our group paranoia into an instinct for self-protection that always stopped our shenanigans just short of expulsion. We wrote obscure poetry and cherished our strangeness as the spoils of default, and in the process we learned that pain and rejection hurt, but that they weren’t fatal, and that they could be useful since they couldn’t be avoided. We learned that not feeling at all was worse than hurting. At that time, suffering was clearly what we did best. We became The Branded because we learned how to make a virtue out of it.[1]

I had always been a branded body. While my kindergarten teacher taught me how to write my name in English, I had to teach her how to pronounce it. It was foreign, just as I was. I was, however, both proud and ashamed. “It’s Sanskrit,” I would say later on as I grew older; but would immediately regret my enthusiasm, as endeavoring into this conversational territory meant that I was forced, once again, to reexamine, rediscover, and revisit memories of where my name came from (as well as the body it identified). “Your grandma lived her entire life, so she can share her love of that name with you.” I felt the devastation in my mother’s voice sometimes – her cadence fluttering between short, forced inhalations – as she tried her best to prove that someday I would learn to understand, appreciate, and embrace those five letters. Only after we received a phone call of my grandmother passing away, did I read in a tucked away letter that she named me. Through my name, my mother relived moments of happiness; moments of sorrow; moments in which she could find peace; moments in which she was home. But, I believe above all, she rediscovered her mother, and what it means to be one.

I was little over a year when I arrived here with her in 1986. My father found work on a Greek ship and had felt both the vastness and invisibility of an open sea; so bravely, of course, California was the first on his list to settle, followed by Hollywood. He left, and my mother followed. What people fail to realize is how glamorized and sensationalized Hollywood really is across borders – how pervasive and far-reaching cultural imperialism is– that on a small island in the Indian Ocean, a twenty-four-year-old father-to-be would believe that it is its own state. My parents were young, passionate, and ready to leave behind South Asia’s longest (and arguably most deadly) civil war. They just had each other (along with searing memories of home), and a child still adjusting to the dryness of this new geography. Once someone bluntly told me to, “leave childlike memories behind.” I internalized this, and let my voice be subsumed for ages; until I read a line by Paulo Freire: [2] The more we become able to become a child again, to keep ourselves childlike, the more we can understand that because we love the world and we are open to understanding, to comprehension, that when we kill the child in us, we are no longer. I was branded the moment I was born; I was a citizen somewhere else, but not here. This was the impetus of my very being, why I have been labeled/label myself an immigrant organizer, and why migration is constantly on my mind.

In elementary school I was an American, then soon realized I failed the prerequisites to have such a privilege – once the abstract turned tangible as I entered middle school – when children spoke of driver’s licenses and proudly showcased proof of citizenship. In high school, I was Sri Lankan and reclaimed a forgotten history; until I went back to visit the place of my birth. Today, I am a settler. [3] For this reason, I call to mind the words of Audre Lorde, and wish to accept this branding. We wrote obscure poetry (and cherished our strangeness) to explain the meaning of our names, why we had to take a bus instead of a car, or why our packed lunch looked different from everyone else’s. I found solace and safety in my writing and in my poetry; and I want this revolutionary art form be the inspiration and guidance through these next provocations and memories. “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” [4]

Within logics of colonialism and nation building, a migrant constantly and perpetually struggles to acquire his/her identity. In most cases, one’s identity constitutes survival; thus the (un)conscious act of dehumanizing migrants rids those individuals of their selfhood. The colonized body is stripped of an identity, while the migrant is hardly awarded one. Then again, one may argue that this traumatic conceptualization itself is entrenched without one’s identity.[5] I felt this to be true throughout my schooling in California; because, I genuinely felt a disconnection and a disingenuous tone throughout my education before (and sometimes while at) U.C. Riverside. Being an undocumented youth was not easy among children who were socialized to immediately “other” anyone which fell outside of the normalized, unbranded body. This, though, inspired and invigorated me to question, to be paranoid, to feel sensations others took for granted. I began to question all forms of authority; I questioned my parents; I questioned my elders; I questioned positions of power. There are some creatures that live in symbiosis with the darkness, and instead of fighting to de-center apparatuses of oppression through institutionalized means, I learned early on that radical change happens at the street and grassroots level. [6] While reliving memories of my childhood I once confided in a friend, within a classroom setting, about feeling butterflies in my stomach every time I drove through downtown Los Angeles and saw the old I.N.S. building. He thought for a while and said, “speaking of butterflies, they migrate naturally, and it’s beautiful.” I must have tried to yell, yet nothing was amplified; there was no sound to describe the devastation, heartbreak, and violence of migration – the sadness of being a refugee and finding acceptance while trying not to assimilate. One can literally feel the inconsistencies of self-identifying as an anti-colonial student from a formerly colonized home, [7] while navigating white supremacist, racist, and sexist alleyways of the University of California. Consciously, it is vital as an organizer to continuously remember the genocidal roots, continual marginalization, and racist history of some of the spaces we find most comfort in. As a migrant, I have both found it to be a safe-haven and a place of extreme violence.

Placed in the context of the United States, we can see that (1) genocidal methodologies and logics have always constituted the academically facilitated inception of a hemispheric “America,” and (2) genocidal technologies are the lifeblood of national reproduction across its distended temporalities and geographies. The recent flourishing of scholarship that rehistoricizes regimes of incarceration, war, sexuality, settler-colonialist power, and gendered racist state violence…constitutes a radical reproach of institutional multiculturalism and liberal pluralism. The point to be amplified is that multiculturalism and pluralism are essential to both the contemporary formation of neoliberalism and the historical distensions of racial/colonial genocide. [8]

The institutionalized and systematic barriers that have been placed on our perpetually colonized homelands, communities, and certain raced and gendered bodies are incubated, theorized, and legitimized within the very spaces we attend to liberate our minds. This privilege of scholarship is then different for a migrant, as he/she peels away the layers of intersectional violence and shares the burden of weight of/with his/her loved ones.

Rejection hurts, but it is because we feel the pain of our families and community as well. Rejection can lead to liberation. I am, once again, compelled to evoke Audre Lorde in these last sentences. “It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage ex- cellence. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies. [9] Writing (alongside other art forms) is resistance; this is the resistance needed against hegemony. It is how we feel. We learned that not feeling at all was worse than hurting.


[1] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, p. 82.

[2] Paulo Freire. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change.

[3] I started to identify as a settler after having taking classes with the indigenous activist and scholar, Andy Smith and Kehaulani Vaughn, where I explored settler colonialism in the United States and indigeneity of Hawaii in juxtaposition with transnational migration and the privileging of certain classes of migrants over indigenous populations.

[4] Audre Lorde, Poetry Is Not a Luxury, p. 36.

[5] I am reminded of La conciencia de la mestiza; specifically where Gloria Anzaldúa writes, “In perceiving conflicting information and points of view, she [la mestiza] is subjected to a swamping of her psychological borders. She has discovered that she can’t hold concepts or ideas in rigid boundaries.”

However, is this romanticizing one space, while devaluing another? One will also face the contradiction of intense and immense brutality of the streets and intrapersonal violence of small communities. The Revolution Starts at Home has helped me answer some, but not all such questions related to interpersonal violence between peers and partners at an organizing level.

[7] Anne McClintock’s essay, The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism,” tremendously helped me gain a framework on my own use of the word, and the context I use it in as a migrant from Sri Lanka.

[8] Dylan Rodríguez, Racial/Colonial Genocide and the “Neoliberal Academy”: Excess of a Problematic.

[9] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, p. 54.


One Response to “(Re)visiting memories of (im)migration (essay)”
  1. Lendy De Jesus says:

    This is very touching.. And done to perfection!! Way to Manoj