• From Dystopia to Absurdity: On Being a Chicano Writer in the Age of Trump

    Estragon: [giving up again] Nothing to be done.

    ― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot


    In the summer of 2018, I argued in a New York Times opinion piece that the dystopia is here. More than a year later, I might amend that characterization to say: We live in absurd times.

    In that op-ed, I spoke about my fictional response to the election of Donald Trump in the form of my dystopian short story “The Great Wall” where the President has finally constructed his long-promised southern border wall. I describe it as a gaudy, golden monstrosity decorated with bas-relief scenes from the president’s life. I noted that the real monstrosity of the story was the detention center in San Diego, California, just inside the wall where the children are housed until they are allowed to wave good-bye to their parents through cloudy Plexiglas, before their parents are summarily deported in large, black buses.

    I observed that a dystopia is an imagined, horrific place where people’s humanity is replaced by fear. But because Mr. Trump has implemented his cruel zero-tolerance immigration policies — where families are torn apart and children are sent to detention centers or even locked in cages — my dystopian tale had essentially become a reality. In other words, for many, the dystopia is here.

    But Mr. Trump continues his downward spiral into racist, erratic, and vindictive anti-immigrant rhetoric and action, apparently playing to his base in the hopes of recreating his 2016 narrow Electoral College victory. Perhaps he is panicking as the economy’s health looks uncertain — exacerbated by the President’s trade war with China — and virtually all polling shows him losing re-election to several of the top Democratic candidates.

    Mr. Trump has flailed and sputtered — often on Twitter — at his political opponents and journalists in an attempt to lay blame elsewhere for his failure to fulfill his promise to build the wall. And when tragedy strikes in the form of migrant children dying in custody, the President is quick to blame others for the logical consequences of his policies.

    Desperately searching for a “win,” Mr. Trump has decided to go around Congress to find money to build his wall. For example, we recently learned that military families at Fort Campbell, the Army base along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, will not be getting the new middle school that they had been expecting. Why? The school is one of 127 projects that will be suspended to shift $3.6 billion so that Mr. Trump may build his wall. In other words, Mr. Trump is willing to hurt military families to construct a wall that the GAO has called an ineffective — and expensive — way to prevent unauthorized immigration.

    Mr. Trump’s wildly unreasonable, illogical, and inappropriate words and actions are the very definition of absurdity. And as a writer, I imagine the President as the star of the Theater of the Absurd, doing and saying things that would fit naturally in a Samuel Beckett play.

    And then in August, we witnessed the horror of the El Paso massacre at Walmart, and learned that the shooter’s manifesto echoed Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant language. All of this pushed me to complete my first play “Waiting for Godínez” inspired both by Mr. Beckett’s iconic Godot play and Mr. Trump’s absurd, anti-immigrant policies. The playwright’s Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, and Lucky are now embodied in my characters Jesús, Isabel, Piso, and Afortunada.

    Absurdist theatre is a perfect fit for today’s irrational hatred aimed at immigrants, especially those who are Latinx. In Mr. Beckett’s play, Estragon is kidnapped each night, beaten, and thrown into a ditch. Each morning, he reunites with his longtime friend, Vladimir, and they both wait for a man named Godot who, of course, never arrives. Is Godot the symbol of hope for an absurd existence? Perhaps, but of course, Mr. Beckett famously avoided interpreting his work.

    In my play, Jesús is kidnapped each night by ICE and put into a cage. But the immigration agents forget to lock the cage, so Jesús escapes and makes his way back to Isabel as they wait for Godínez in a city park. It is a wholly different play, of course, but Mr. Beckett’s absurdist spirit runs through my work. Poor Jesús is targeted despite the fact that, as his friend Isabel notes, he is a United States citizen who was born in El Paso. My play is being read by three theaters — two in Los Angeles and one in Seattle — and I have queried others. Now I wait.

    Regardless of whether my play gets produced, I am compelled to speak truth to power, even if that power is farcical, risible, preposterous or — to put it in Beckettian terms — absurd. But I will not give up. Elections have consequences. There is certainly something to be done.


    Daniel Olivas is the author, most recently, of The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories and Crossing the Border: Collected Poems. Follow him on Twitter @olivasdan.