Kelsey Freeman is a writer and educator born in Denver and raised in Carbondale.
Her writing focuses on immigration policy, Indigenous rights, social justice and public policy. After graduating from Bowdoin College, she received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and study migration in central Mexico. She currently lives in Bend, Oregon, and runs a college-readiness program for Native American high school students through Central Oregon Community College.
The following is an interview with Kelsey Freeman.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I was 22-years old, I traveled across southern Mexico by myself, doing research for my undergraduate thesis. The thesis focused on the development of Indigenous social movements across Latin America, but as I interviewed Indigenous leaders, I found myself pulled in another direction.
Throughout my research, I couldn’t ignore that Indigenous rights in Mexico were intimately bound up in migration. During one particular van ride across the Chiapas highlands, I met a Mayan man who had been deported from the U.S. Like so many other Indigenous farmers, he had headed north after NAFTA’s implementation, when cheap American goods infiltrated the market and his local farm could no longer compete.
After he was deported, his family remained in California, separated from him for decades.
“How is it that you can come here and study my people, when I’ve been consistently turned down for a visa to even visit my family in your country?” he asked me.
The question stuck with me. Growing up in Carbondale, Colorado—which has a sizable migrant population—immigration had long felt like a paramount issue. Yet I had never really researched its root causes. At that moment during the van ride, however, I knew I wanted to return to Mexico and dig deeper into migration. I wanted to be able to answer his question, and to show readers in the U.S. the impossible situations our current immigration policies put migrants in.
What writing has influenced you the most?
I connect most to writing that is either deeply vulnerable or deeply political. These days I tend to read a lot of nonfiction and memoir. I especially appreciate works that take huge political or historical issues and put them in context by describing the everyday realities faced by those caught up in these events. Books like Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” and Robert Worth’s “A Rage for Order” do this really well and helped inspire my approach for “No Option but North.”
While I was living in Celaya, Guanajuato, doing research and interviews for “No Option but North,” I read zealously about migration. The most influential books that I read were those that interwove stories with comprehensive research, such as Lauren Markham’s “The Faraway Brothers,” Luis Alberto Urrea’s “The Devil’s Highway,” Jason De León’s “The Land of Open Graves,” and Oscar Martinez’ “The Beast.”
Why did you choose this excerpt to be featured in SunLit?
This excerpt explores the marks left from childhood, especially when enduring something as confusing and traumatic as a journey north through Mexico and across the border. It explores what it feels like to bear the emotional weight of trauma without the tools to understand what is happening.
I chose this passage because, as I’ve shared it, readers of various backgrounds resonate with different aspects of its themes. A Mexican-American student told me, in tears, that it brought up his hurt from crossing the border as a child, which is still buried inside him. A middle-aged mother told me it made her think about the marks we leave on our children. As we witness policies like family separation, which exacerbate the trauma for children caught up in this complex, it causes us to consider the wounds we inflict as a nation.
Tell us about the logistics behind your research for this book. Did it take a lot of planning?
The book certainly took a lot of planning, but I was also so fortunate to make strong connections in Mexico that supported my work. I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English at a university, but I was particularly interested in migration. When I arrived in my host city (Celaya, Guanajuato in central Mexico), my boss at the university connected me with the local shelter, where I spent many evenings for the better part of a year.
For the first couple of months, my conversations with migrants were more informal, and I spent much of my time reading. It was important to me to have this period of settling in before interviewing because, when I asked migrants if they wanted to share their stories, I wanted to already have foundational knowledge. It was my firm belief that the burden of educating me about the world of migration should not fall solely on migrants. Although I was hesitant to begin more structured interviews, I was surprised by just how many wanted to share their stories. They wanted Americans to know about the difficult circumstances they face, about the choices that aren’t really choices at all. I also worked hard to create an atmosphere of trust before interviewing. Usually, this trust would stem from talking about the 2016 U.S. election and policy changes under Trump. There was so much fear and so many rumors coursing through the migrant shelters in 2016 and 2017 that I felt that the least I could do was help separate fact from fiction.
The formal interviews (which I would typically record) became the heart of the book. I would transcribe them, translate selected quotes, and turn them into vignettes. When I returned from Mexico, I spent another year doing more research into U.S. immigration law, as well as policy issues in Mexico, to weave these stories together into what is now “No Option but North.”
Did your thoughts on the refugee situation change as a result of your experience writing this book? If so, how?
It think it’s impossible to live in a city like Celaya—a place that lives and breathes migration—and not have your views change. In terms of the refugee situation, my views shifted in a myriad of ways. For instance, I never comprehended the extent to which Central American migrants are targeted in Mexico. As I describe in “No Option but North,” this population (which now makes up the majority of migrants at the southern border) is easily identifiable and is unlikely to ever report crimes to the police. As a result, cartels and random criminals have made a whole industry out of kidnapping, assaulting, raping and robbing them.
Listening to a staggering number of stories of assault, kidnapping and rape has cemented my view that Central American migrants are not safe in Mexico. So when the Trump administration implements policies like Remain in Mexico—which requires asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases go through the courts—or the Third Country Transit Bar, forcing Central Americans to seek asylum in Mexico before the United States, it ignores this fundamental fact. My experiences through this book have given me unique insight into how recent changes to asylum have put refugees at even further risk of violence.
I also gained tremendous insight into just how difficult it is for Central American and Mexican migrants to gain asylum in the U.S. Only between 12% and 18% of applicants from Central America and Mexico gain refugee status, even though they go through a robust vetting system to prove the direct threats to their lives in their home countries. Asylum is therefore certainly not a rigged process where migrants concoct stories to exploit loopholes, as some have claimed.
How did your finished manuscript compare to what you imagined before you traveled south?
I did not necessarily envision writing a book before I moved to Celaya. Rather, I had planned to conduct interviews and write short vignettes describing migrants’ experiences on the journey north, paired with photos. Upon returning to the States, I envisioned possibly displaying this photo/story exhibit somewhere in my hometown of Carbondale. However, the more I researched and interviewed, the more pieces there were to this migration puzzle. Eventually, I had so many stories and so much research that I began to envision it as a book and approach it as such. The manuscript closely mirrors what I imagined after my year in Celaya, but I hadn’t even conceived of such an outcome before I left.
What project are you working on next?
There is so much to comment on when it comes to immigration, and ultimately I plan to continue writing about structural injustices and the atrocities they generate with the aim of spurring political action. In the short-term, I am hoping to do some reporting from the border about those affected by Remain in Mexico, a Trump administration policy that requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases go through the courts (which is currently facing legal challenges). I am also loosely brainstorming a book about the ways in which migrant shelters—the supposed refuges along the journey through Mexico—get tied up with organized crime, which I encountered as events unfolded in “No Option but North.”
When I’m not writing, I also run a college-readiness program for Native American high school students through Central Oregon Community College. Not unlike my immersive work in Mexico, this position has me out in high schools and on the reservation, building connections with students and tribal leaders. So I am focusing on equity in education while continuing to push for a more just and sensible approach to immigration policy.