This Author Created a Hit Book. She’s Also Living Under Constant Threat of Deportation.
‘Dear Abuelo’ writer Grecia Huesca Dominguez talks about immigration, motherhood, and making art in an era of uncertainty
Poet and children’s book author Grecia Huesca Dominguez never expected Dear Abuelo to find a wide audience. Since preorders launched in October 2019, the book has been placed on back order numerous times. It’s also slated to be included in the curriculum of elementary schools nationwide. In the white dominated world of publishing, Grecia is a first-generation millennial Latina and single mom succeeding in the industry. She’s also undocumented.
The Mexican-born writer and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient has lived in the United States since she was 10. Recently, Grecia and I met for a meal at Cafe Lalo’s on West 83rd between Amsterdam and Broadway to discuss her landmark achievement and what it means to make art in this political climate. For her, creating a story that featured an Afro-Latinx protagonist, Juana, who is also an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was her way of defying Trump’s devastating “zero tolerance” policies and disrupting the deep-seated anti-blackness within the Latinx community. She fought to ensure the illustrations in the book would make black immigrants feel seen while paying homage to her family’s lineage. The book is elegant, bursting with color, and melodic. With it, Grecia takes direct aim at harmful anti-immigrant rhetoric as the ultimate act of resistance.
From the outside you wouldn’t know any different. But while most 30-year-olds would pounce at the chance to brag about their goals, Grecia admits that she can still find it difficult to take in the moment. She’s defied great odds to reach this level in her career, and yet, with the Supreme Court decision over the future of DACA looming, it feels as though it could all just slip through her fingers. “Lalo’s is one of my all-time favorite places here in the Upper West Side,” she told me. She frequented the cafe while attending Lehman College as a Macaulay Honors Fellow. Eventually, we took a stroll around the neighborhood to talk about her childhood, how she nearly quit Lehman, and why she’s always got a plan.
If you ask Grecia where she’s from she’ll say El Paraiso, Veracruz. But she’s quick to tell you she simply calls it La Charca or “the pond.” I asked her why and she said, “It’s because none of the roads were paved, so when it rained everything would get flooded. So we had our own little joke. El Paraiso is what people would call it when they wanted to sound bougie about it, but really we’re from ‘La Charca.’” The pueblo had a population of about 900. Back then, her family lived in a home with a dirt floor and an outhouse. They would heat up water using the kitchen stove and then use it to bathe. The financial incentive to leave was great and Grecia remembers that several men from the community packed up and went to New York. It was the ’90s, and there was less cartel activity at the border, making it easier to cross. It was risky, but not as scary as crossing the border today.
“My parents made the decision to have my dad go to New York and make money to send back to the family,” she said. “He was only going to be gone for a year or two, then come back home. But after the first year, it looked like he was going to stay permanently, which alarmed my mother. Other men had stayed and started new lives with new families over here. She was like ‘if you’re gonna be over there, then you’re bringing us too.’”
It took multiple flights to get from the coastal city of La Charca over to Tijuana. Once in the United States, Grecia’s family headed to Los Angeles in order to catch a direct flight to New York City. A version of this scene is depicted in Dear Abuelo. The character of Juana, who throughout the story writes heartfelt letters to her grandpa from her side of the border, stares wide-eyed at the clouds:
Dear Abuelo, I haven’t reached New York yet and already I have so much to tell you! I’m on a plane. Can you believe it? Mami let me sit in the window seat, where I can see the tops of the clouds. They are so fluffy. I imagine walking on them. Too bad we can’t. Love, Juana.
There are many parallels between Grecia’s life and the book. The power of its messaging lies in the authenticity of the experience it describes. Anyone who has undergone the duress of the migrant journey knows it’s fraught with life-altering decisions. Grecia is convinced it was easier for her to learn English because she was still young when they left, but old enough to understand what was happening, even if she couldn’t yet feel the repercussions. Of the decade she spent in Mexico, Grecia said, “I got to make more memories and I treasure those 10 years.” Like many children of the diaspora, she believed that the move would be temporary.
Once in New York, the family settled in Rockland County and became quickly enmeshed within a tight-knit community. “My mom is one of nine children,” she said. “I think three of her siblings were already living here when we came. We were very fortunate to have an established community when we arrived. I don’t remember how difficult it actually was. My dad was working as a busboy. The restaurant was inside a hotel, and my mom got hired as one of the housekeepers.”
On the weekends, her uncles would bring home beer, and the family would gather for a party. They had fully embraced New York and loved being together dancing bachata and merengue. “I remember Carlos Vives, his song ‘La Gota Fría’ was huge one of the years, and we’d dance to it all night long,” she said. It wasn’t until her great-grandmother passed away that Grecia realized the crushing reality of being separated by the border.
“We had so much community when we came,” she continued. “I had so many connections from back home that it wasn’t until my great-grandmother passed away that it struck me that we couldn’t go back to Mexico for the funeral. And I felt as though I was dealing with it alone. My parents had told me what happened, but I didn’t feel like I could explain to them the emotions I was feeling. That’s when I started internalizing the grief of losing people from back home.”
When Grecia enters a bookstore her eyes light up. You can tell she’s in her element. During our walk, we moseyed over to Books of Wonder, a Manhattan chain widely recognized to be New York City’s oldest. As we sifted through the aisles, she’d excitedly point out her favorites. “Look, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo,” she’d say. “Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones!” We even made a pit stop at an old textbook shop from her college days, Westsider Rare & Used Books. She told me that certain shelves on the main floor have a secret row of books behind them. She drifted off for a moment and I caught her reminiscing: “I saved a ton of money by coming here.”
For our final stop, we ended up inside Barnes & Noble off West 82nd and Broadway. The space is colossal when compared to the independent venues nearby. Sitting on an island as part of a well-manicured display was a copy of Anthony Bourdain: Remembered. Upon seeing it, Grecia walked like a moth to a flame. “I loved his show so much,” she said. Grecia holds books the way people touch the faces of babies—delicately and with care. She was beaming. It was clear she has an affinity for Bourdain and I completely understood. Undocumented people don’t get to travel abroad. Very often, the only way to access or experience other places and cultures outside the United States is through books and entertainment. In Bourdain’s memoirs and shows like Parts Unknown, he shared those encounters with a searing level of humanity.
Many within our community appreciated the way Bourdain insisted on crediting Mexican and Central American kitchen staff for their contribution to the industry. Standing there flipping through the pages, Grecia confessed that part of her profound respect for Bourdain was for his candor when speaking about his mental health issues. It was something that profoundly impacted Grecia in the aftermath of his suicide. The tragedy signaled to her the value of a lifelong commitment to an individual’s personal well-being. It compelled her to take action so that she could better prepare for the way her depression behaves.
“DACA gave me a way to take back control of my life. It gave me the courage to leave my relationship because I finally saw a way for me to become financially independent.”
I asked her when she was diagnosed. “I didn’t go to therapy until 2017,” she answered. “I wasn’t officially diagnosed until then.” Did you feel powerless over your mental health journey, I asked.
“I always knew I was undocumented and remained complacent by simply accepting that this was the way things were. I knew other kids were traveling abroad, but even that wasn’t enough for me to get mad. I didn’t really get angry until I found out I was pregnant. It made me want to drop out of school. Why am I gonna care about finishing when I’m just gonna have a kid to take care of? It’s not even gonna matter whether I have a degree or not because I still won’t have papers and then I can’t work. Then, DACA was announced months after my daughter was born.”
“How did it feel to hear the news?” I asked.
“I couldn’t believe it was real. Many of us questioned it. We thought they’d take our info and use it to come find us and take us away. When we finally saw people getting their work permits in the mail, I applied. DACA gave me a way to take back control of my life. It gave me the courage to leave my relationship because I finally saw a way to become financially independent.”
Grecia and Jairo were childhood sweethearts. They first met in Rockland County when they were only 10 years old and became fast friends. Their parents had known each other even before they were born, and although Jairo’s family moved to upstate New York about five years prior to Grecia’s, their experiences were nearly identical. The families began to spend a lot of time together via church and other social settings, so it was no surprise that by the time they turned 15, Grecia and Jairo had fallen deeply in love. “I was convinced he was the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with,” she said.
The two of them were thrust into a circumstance soaked with uncertainty and coming together in the safety of the familiar gave them refuge. The flame of that kind of passion was intense at first, but over time, it turned fickle. Through their late teens, they were often “on again, off again.” As Grecia began to gain confidence in her ambitions, she started to outgrow their childhood romance. Meanwhile, Jairo wanted to anchor down. When Grecia got pregnant at the age of 21, before the start of her senior year at Lehman, it was clear that the divide between them couldn’t have been wider. “We were coming to a moment where I still wanted to pursue more of my career, and he wanted to get married and start a family,” she said. “And we were sort of starting to diverge on that when I found out I was pregnant.”
“So I had a baby, and other people have babies. But this doesn’t mean anything negative about us.”
For commitment-phobic men, love can often be inconvenient. But the infusion of machismo within broad Latinx culture allows men off the hook. Love is also inconvenient for ambitious women, and the main tenets of womanhood within the community hinge on their self-sacrifice. It left Grecia conflicted: “I thought to myself, I’m not having this baby. I just felt like that was the more practical choice to make based on how old we were. I was going into my senior year — it just didn’t make sense to me to decide to have a baby knowing that I had another choice.”
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Grecia had earned her spot in the Macaulay Honors Program at Lehman. The merit-based scholarship provided her with an incredible opportunity. She began classes just as the financial crisis of 2008 was about to shred the economy, and there was no way at the time that her family could afford the tuition. Over the course of the next three years, Grecia went on to become a beacon of inspiration within her community and was considered a model student inside her church youth group. But to carve a path forward that was entirely her own, she would have to confront her worst fears:
I sat and was honest with myself. I realized that the reason I didn’t want to have a baby at that time was that I was just really afraid to be a mom. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a mom; it was that I was afraid. And, for me, personally, that wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it. I think everyone has this choice to make. For me, that seemed to be the right decision. And I think once I changed my mind, I felt more at peace. I was still very scared about everything that was gonna come because I knew nothing was gonna be easy, but I felt more at peace. Even with that decision, I still wanted to quit school.
The fact that she considered not having their child weighed heavily on her relationship with Jairo, and in turn, she felt boxed in. With their families so interconnected, it exacerbated the pressure she felt to defer to the man in the relationship — they often took his side. She was constantly reminded of the limitations that would now hover over her aspirations because having a child would “get in the way.” Women in her predicament don’t travel or pursue their dreams. Despite the turmoil, Grecia managed to finish the program after her daughter, Iliana, was born. Even then, she had to fight through some harsh stigmas.
“I think I felt like I had let my community down,” she said. “Because I was supposed to be this example of ‘we shouldn’t do this; we could do that,’ and I ended up getting pregnant before finishing school. So I ended up feeling like in that moment, I became the stereotypical pregnant Latina girl.”
“I felt like I had worked so hard to create this other life that was supposed to be so different and then I ended up falling into that life,” she continued. “I think it took me a few years to reconcile how I was thinking about my own community. And how I was also projecting very negative stereotypes on them. I eventually came around to think like, yeah, so I had a baby, and other people have babies. But this doesn’t mean anything negative about us.”
DACA was signed into law by executive order under President Obama in the summer of 2012. It was the culmination of a long-standing effort by immigrant rights activists to pressure the former administration to address the complicated issue of undocumented people brought to the country as minors. It was a renewable deferred action from deportation that included a work permit. For Grecia, this gave her the assurance that her degree would not go to waste. After splitting up with Jairo, she went to court for child support and to retain custody of Iliana. No woman in her family had ever challenged a man. It was clear that her journey toward self-actualization would begin anew.
The aftershocks from the 2016 presidential election have continued to rattle the immigrant community. ICE raids, hate crimes, detention, deportations, and border deaths have remained a primary focus. It’s been seven years since the introduction of DACA, and this last November, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments to determine whether President Trump had the legal authority to cancel the program. Their decision will impact nearly 700,000 people and their families.
No matter what the outcome, Grecia will keep marching forward, undeterred. She now knows that she’s not alone in the struggle. She’s found solace in groups like Immigrants Rising and her community of friends, and she has even decided to launch her own small business—something she could take with her in the event she’d be forced to leave the country. All of this uncertainty has made Grecia adept at making plans, often preparing for the worst.
“What helps me get through it,” she said, “ is to focus by working on my exit strategy.” Grecia has a few of those plans, just in case. She’s considered returning to Mexico or applying for residency in Canada. A few of her friends have even suggested moving to Spain. “Spain feels really far, but that would also be a place I’d consider,” she said. “I mean, also, a part of me is exhausted of being an immigrant and having to apply for residency for any other country seems daunting.”
“But I think I want to have options. My whole goal is to set myself up to become self-employed, so I can be financially independent no matter where I go because I know it’s not going to be easy.”
Through it all, Grecia has evolved to see herself as the ultimate decision maker in her own life while crafting the version of motherhood she believes is best. She’s also beginning to embrace the success from the fruits of her labor while keeping an eye on the horizon. Her resilience is undoubtedly earned through the crucible of her experience.
In the final moments of Dear Abuelo, Juana tells her grandpa how the school librarian helped her find the section for books in Spanish. The illustration shows Juana bursting through the door of her school brimming with joy, “Maybe someday I’ll write a book in English and Spanish!”
The declaration is an inspirational self-fulfilling prophecy and validates the emotions immigrant kids tend to bottle up inside. When I gifted Dear Abuelo to my three-year-old niece, she held it dearly. Since reading it together, it’s become one of her favorites. It serves as proof that Grecia, much like Toni Morrison, understands that her words have power and that telling her own story is her contribution to the movement. Looking back, she has no regrets.