Speaking for the voiceless

December 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Alessandra Potenza

It was a warm, sunny day at the end of November in Manhattan. Camilo Godoy, 22, walked on 42nd Street next to Gerardo Santana, 34. They wandered  through a crowd of tourists and businessmen,  passed by fancy movie theatres, giant black and white portraits of Marilyn Monroe and huge McDonald’s signs with flickering light bulbs.

“Capitalism at its best,” Godoy told Santana, slowing down a New Yorker’s walking pace that would otherwise be frenzied on a normal Sunday afternoon in Times Square.

But this was not a normal Sunday afternoon. Santana was granted asylum a couple of weeks before after spending eight months in prison in New Jersey. Godoy, a volunteer who has been visiting him in detention, wanted Santana to experience the world he had been secluded from for so long. This was the first time Santana saw Manhattan, and he saw it as a free man.

Although swamped by the upcoming deadlines of several school projects and the development of ongoing artwork, Godoy decided to dedicate his spare free time to the sturdy Cuban man who walked next to him in awe. He led the way through the bustling sidewalk, past the unlit New Year’s Eve’s ball, into the square. There, he took out his big camera and started snapping pictures of Santana, arms wide spread in front of the NYPD booth.

“It’s very nice,” Santana said.

While immigration laws all over the country are stalling, Godoy is trying to make a difference by helping one immigrant at a time. Originally from Colombia and now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Godoy is a passionate volunteer, an artist, a social activist, an idealist fighting for immigrant respect and speaking for the voiceless.

“Being an immigrant myself, being an immigrant of privilege, having a piece of paper and nine digits that so many people desire to be recognized as people who have rights in this country, forces me to really be a voice,” he said.

Godoy began his hardcore activism on Oct. 10, 2010. On a sunny Columbus Day, he joined a vigil in front of the detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., held by a non-profit called First Friends. This is an organization that provides visitors and non-legal assistance to detained immigrants and fights for improving their detention conditions.

That day, Godoy, a video camera in his hands, listened to speeches and people sing outside of the detention facility. He stopped a woman who had just visited her detained husband and asked her to share her experience with him in front of the camera. Godoy decided that the train ride from Jersey City to Newark, from Newark to Elizabeth, and then the 15-minute walk to the detention center was absolutely worth it.

Since then, he hasn’t missed many visits to the detention center, where volunteers go talk to the immigrant detainees to help them cope with their situation.

“He’s an ideal volunteer,” Sister Regina Holtz, former coordinator of the Visitors’ Program at First Friends, said of Godoy. “He has opened his heart to the problems of being an immigrant detainee.”

Unlike many other volunteers, Godoy has always been consistent and willing to “reach out further” by visiting at least two detainees per visit instead of just one, Sister Regina Holtz said. “He’s just been deeply involved, personally involved.”

Although now Godoy goes to the detention centers with another group of volunteers, called Sojourners, who provide transportation to the facilities and spare him the long train ride, this personal involvement has never faded. It is rooted in a very personal experience Godoy lived first hand about a year ago.

On February 16, 2010, the day before his 21st birthday, Godoy prepared a welcome sign he hanged in the hall of his apartment and left to the JFK International Airport. His boyfriend Radek, then 31, was arriving from the Czech Republic with a British Airways London-New York flight at 10:40 p.m..

“He was super excited that day,” Godoy’s twin sister Tatiana, 22, said. “It was the best birthday present for him.”

Godoy met Radek’s best friend, Anne McDonald, in Brooklyn, then drove with her to the airport. When they arrived in JFK, Godoy got out of the car and reached the gate where Radek was supposed to arrive. It was already 11.30 p.m. and no one was around. Godoy kept waiting and finally approached a woman with a British Airways outfit coming out of the automatic doors opening up to America.

“Is everyone from London out?” he asked.

“Yeah, everyone should be except that man who’s not been let in,” she answered.

Godoy asked her what he looked like but her description didn’t match Radek in Godoy’s mind.

“I said to myself: ‘That’s not Radek,’” Godoy recalled.

After a few minutes, he received a phone call from McDonald, who had been waiting outside in the car.

“They’re not letting him in,” she said.

Radek, originally from the Czech Republic, had already lived in the United States for 8 years while working as a photographer for several modeling agencies. He was undocumented and arranged a fake marriage with a lesbian to be awarded citizenship. Radek paid her and lived with her for one year in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In 2008, a few weeks before the interview with the immigration officers, she panicked and disappeared. She left Radek with no other choice than skipping the appointment with the immigration authorities.

Radek and Godoy met in June 2009. After having overstayed his visa and having paid a penalty fee, Radek decided to go back to the Czech Republic. It was becoming hard for him to find a job in the United States and his father was not doing very well back home. To overcome the separation, Godoy visited him in Europe toward the end of 2009 and when he came back to New York in January 2010, Radek had decided to move back to the United States to live with his boyfriend.

His flight was booked for Feb. 16, 2010, just in time to celebrate Godoy’s birthday together. But the welcome he received at JFK Customs and Immigration was not the one he expected. His past visa violation surfaced from the past. Instead of being let in the country, he was brought into a room to be questioned.

“You have been found inadmissible under section 212 (a) (7) (A) (i) (I) of the INA in that you are an immigrant not in possession of a valid immigrant visa. Do you understand?”


“Is there anything else you would like to add to your statement?”

“Please don’t deport me,” were Radek’s last words.

A few walls away, Godoy was waiting for him at the JFK arrivals gate. He didn’t know Radek was on his way to the Elizabeth detention center, before being sent to the Czech Republic. Once Godoy received the phone call and was informed that Radek had been stopped, he and Radek’s friend McDonald couldn’t do anything else but switch on the car’s engine and leave.

“That will be a drive that I will never forget because I was leaving Radek,” Godoy said. “And that’s when I felt very helpless. I had never faced what we call the wall. La frontera. The border.”

McDonald dropped Godoy off in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where he could easily take the train to the World Trade Center and, from there, the PATH train back to New Jersey. But instead of jumping on a train, in the middle of the night, Godoy started walking around Dumbo, where he had spent a lot of time with Radek the previous summer.

“It was both peaceful and comforting. It was extremely sad, because Radek was here, in the country, and yet he was not being allowed in,” Godoy said.

The day after, on his 21st birthday, Godoy went back to Dumbo and started taking pictures of the same places where he had shot portraits of his boyfriend the summer before. Finally, he received a phone call from Radek.

“I was in prison. And I haven’t slept and I’m going back,” he said.

Radek was just one of the 304,750 immigrants who were deported in 2010, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His experience clicked something in Godoy’s life. This is when his interest in immigration detention and deportation began, Godoy said.

“It was through seeing a loved one being turned into a prisoner, in this so-called nation of immigrants,” he said.

Eight months after being separated from Radek, Godoy joined his first vigil in front of the detention center where his boyfriend had been detained. Then, on Nov. 4, 2010, he began his visitations, which he has continued every since. Today, he visits immigrant detainees in Delaney Hall, another immigration detention center in Newark, NJ, where people have been transferred to from Elizabeth.

It is in Delaney Hall that Godoy met Santana, a Cuban asylum seeker who was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement in March 2011. Godoy visited him in Delaney Hall every week. “Camilo is a great human being who didn’t only worry about me, but also about the other detainees,” Santana wrote in a text message in Spanish. “I have always wondered how he could dedicate his free time to others. Weeks seemed shorter when we were waiting for him. I love him as if he were the brother I have never had.”

But Radek’s detention and deportation also inspired his artwork and social activism. He is enrolled in his fourth year at a dual degree program in photography and education studies at Parsons and Eugene Lang, the Liberal Arts College of the New School. Godoy uses art as a tool for social change, according to his former photography professor Carlos Motta, 33, an artist and adjunct professor of photography at Parsons.

“Camilo is an artist and a social practitioner with a great deal of integrity,” Motta said.

As one of his recent assignments, Godoy approached 15 immigrants in New Bergen, N.J., and gave them a piece of paper on which he asked them to write their name, occupation, age and the reason why they came to the United States. He then shot a portrait of them, using a lower and transversal angle that is usually applied to photograph leaders, politicians and athletes.

“I was very interested in portraying immigrants as heroes,” Godoy said.

He then glued each photo and each piece of paper into separate beige paper folders. It resembled “the way the government documents people and archive stories,” Godoy explained. “I am interested in how people are categorized.”

Another piece of artwork dealt with immigration issues. But this time it was related to when Godoy lived when he himself migrated to the United States from Colombia, at the age of 10. He and his twin sister joined their mother, Marlene Betancourt, in North Bergen, N.J., where she had been living for two years and where she had married a naturalized U.S. citizen. In New Jersey, Godoy attended the Horace Mann Elementary School, where he had bilingual classes. Learning the new language was extremely difficult for Godoy. When doing the math homework, he always had to have an English-Spanish dictionary on the table to make sure he understood the instructions. His mother and sister didn’t do any better than him with the language and he often got frustrated.

In the school, the monolingual classes were commonly referred to as the “regular classes.” Godoy, then, grew up believing that the only way he could be accepted was to completely remove his native language and become a perfect English-speaker. No accent allowed. “I was always forcing myself to learn English and be the more American I could be,” he recalled.

“He always wanted to speak English to people,” his twin sister Tatiana Godoy said.

Today, Godoy sees that process of assimilation he went through as a form of violence put upon immigrants arriving in the United States. This is why he organized a live performance where members of the audience were asked to write the same word or letter over and over on a ruled piece of paper. When the exercise was over, they were asked to tape the pieces of paper on a blackboard, following the order Godoy had arranged.

Once aligned, all the words and letters formed a sentence that read: “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” Godoy chose this quote by Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana writer and activist, to express “both the way language is taught and the way language is forced upon people.”

Ultimately, “assimilation is violence,” he said.

Godoy works hard to live up to all the projects he is into and all the fights he has committed himself to. He also interns at Immigration Movement International, an immigrant-based organization started by artist Tania Bruguera.

“I’m very proud of him,” his twin sister said, adding that because of all the thing he is doing, Godoy is often stressed out and taking little care of himself. She worries about his health and nutrition. One day they were discussing it and “he said his well being was helping others,” she recalled.

Everything he does, everything he says and creates is directed towards collecting the unknown stories of the least privileged members of the American society, in order for the rest of society to know and never forget.

“I am interested in archiving this kind of reality and giving voice essentially to those who are silent in the immigration debate,” he said.

In every immigrant he sees in the street, Godoy sees himself struggling with English at the age of 10. In every immigrant detainee, he sees his boyfriend Radek, handcuffed, deprived of his belongings and detained in a jumpsuit before being deported from the United States.

“All the people that are in these detention facilities are no different than your neighbor, no different than your own family,” Godoy said. “All they want is the same thing we all want, which is be happy, and be able to move and live and work.”


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