Immigration Reform: In Life and on the Page
LAW alum works and writes for change
Iris Gomez was five years old when her family immigrated to the United States from Colombia. Today she is a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, where she is committed to helping immigrants.
Gomez (LAW’80) also finds time to write, and her first novel, Try to Remember, has just been published. She has written two poetry collections: Housicwhissick Blue: Poetry of the Blue Hills Reservation (2003), and When Comets Rained (2004), largely autobiographical and focusing on the immigrant experience. This theme also pervades Try to Remember, the story of Gabriela, the daughter in a Colombian family struggling to make it in Miami.
Listen to Gomez read a selection from her novel above.
Because Gabriela has the language skills and cultural know-how her parents lack, she is forced to handle the family’s problems. When her father loses his job and begins to act erratically, Gabriela knows that if she can’t find a way to help him before he slips into madness, her family could face deportation.
Gomez was a lecturer at the School of Law for more than 15 years. She lives in Milton with her husband, Phil Kassel (LAW’80), and their two children. BU Today spoke with her recently about her new novel and how she integrates her law and literary careers.
BU Today: What made you start writing?
Gomez: As far back as I can remember, I kept a journal. I had a grandfather in Colombia who wrote poems and sent them periodically to my mother and me, so I think I had an acceptance of poetry that not every family had. I thought it was normal to write poems. In junior high, I wrote rhyming poems that weren’t very good, but I just liked the process of writing them. I continued to take writing classes in college. I was always writing. Even in law school I took courses in the graduate writing program.
How does your personal background affect your work?
I learned in my family that giving is important. One of my heroine’s struggles is loving and remaining loyal to her family while sticking up for herself. I feel very grateful to my family that they taught me the ethic of giving and contributing, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve become a person who’s dedicated to helping others through my law work.
Many of your poems are autobiographical.
I think as my extended family members were aging, I became aware of the duty to remember. Particularly for the poem “The Two Tias.” I had so much heartfelt connection to my memory of those two aunts, and I really wanted to perpetuate their history in some way. My personal longing for hanging on to the people who were dying around me was a large part of the motivation.
What imade you decide to write a novel?
I eventually just thought it was time, but it was a big step for me because of the time commitment. You can write a poem or a short story in one sitting and then revise it. And when you’re putting together books of poetry, it’s just kind of organizing and reorganizing. But writing a novel, where you’re telling the lives of all these people, you have to stay with it over a sustained period of time. I found it challenging to maintain my full-time work, my teaching, and raising my kids, so writing this novel was tough. It took more than three years.
Are there similarities between you and Gabriela, your main character?
I like to think of her as a composite of who I was as a girl and her namesake, my own daughter, Gabriela. The devoted daughter aspect, the loyalty, the quality of being persistent and a problem solver, that’s certainly reflective of the girl I was. But the part that’s kind of savvy, shrewd, and internally aware that things are not always what people tell you — I attribute that to my daughter. I was more innocent, and it took me longer to evolve the toughness that I think the younger generation has. You have to be more sophisticated as a teenager now, so I give a lot of credit to my daughter for showing me ways to make Gabriella resonate with another generation.
What does your daughter think of the novel?
Oh, she loves it. She was my first reader. And of course I couldn’t leave my son out, so I named one of my characters Victor, after him.
What do you hope people will take away from Try to Remember?
One is the untold story of Miami and the character of Miami. People go there now and see this huge, cosmopolitan, multicultural empire. It’s like going to another country. But Miami’s roots are much more humble and people don’t realize that, so I wanted to give credit to Miami’s growing up and how it came of age. On the bigger picture, I hope people take away the lesson of the will to survive, even in extremely adverse circumstances.
How did you decide on a career in law?
When I went to college, I really wanted to do something socially meaningful. At first I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and I went to Michigan State University on a journalism scholarship. But then as I thought about it more, I realized I wanted to help low-income people and immigrants, like my family. I thought I could have more impact if I did something in the nonprofit sector. I interned with the state legislature and got interested in the idea of law as a tool. I applied to BU, basically because someone in the office recommended it.
Why did you start teaching?
I came to this point where I was handling a lot of asylum cases — immigrants being persecuted for various reasons. I wanted to step back and look at why the immigration laws were this way and why certain policies remain in effect that have all these harsh effects on immigrants. I thought teaching would be a good way to look at that at a more macro level. Also, I had the experience of working with students in my office, and I noticed the types of things they didn’t necessarily learn in law school. I always felt like if I had the opportunity, I could better prepare them for going into the workforce. So when I got the chance, I didn’t just use textbook learning. I brought people in for mock hearings, took the students to immigration court, and had Barney Frank come speak to them about what really goes on.
Are there any similarities between law and writing?
The kind of law I do is about improving society and creating meaningful change and I believe that literary fiction has the same aspirations — to try to transform society — but uses different tools.
Caroline Hailey can be reached at email@example.com Comments