We asked Lost & Found issue contributor Aline Mello to share what inspired her poem “Studying for the Citizenship Test with My Mother,” and we hope her answer inspires you.
I was sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day with my mother when I wrote “Studying for the Citizenship Test with My Mother.” We sat with a book and notecards and pieces of paper strewn on the table. I drew three buildings on a scrap of paper and labeled each one according to the branches of the government; then I asked her to remember what each one did. Though this was the first time we were studying together, she’d been preparing for a while: reading through the notecards my stepdad had bought her, listening to a CD whenever she drove to clean houses. As she pulled out the cards she was still having trouble memorizing, I looked up the oath she’d have to repeat on the day. She hadn’t seen it yet. I translated it to her and we laughed a bit at how ominous it all sounded. It ended with “so help me God,” which sobered us up. My mother is very religious, and I grew up under that influence. Since I was translating, “so help me God” sounded like she’d actually be asking God for help—like God would help her take the oath, help her keep it.
This poem was one of those that just happened. These rarely come to me, but when they do, I have to write them down right away, so I jotted down a draft on one of the scrap papers we were using. The coffee shop we sat in has a beautiful porch overlooking the Chattahoochee River, and we would have sat outside if the weather had been different. I thought of branches of government, the branches of trees being blown around outside, and wanted to include that somehow. Most importantly, the moment felt so significant to me—the undocumented daughter brought to the USA when I was seven years old, DACA status in peril under the Trump administration—sitting there helping my mother prepare for her citizenship test. Part of it was the role reversal. Here she was with her school supplies and I, her child, sat to help. But the bigger part of it was how I was preparing my mother for security while having none of my own, with nothing in sight. It felt like loneliness, like being left behind. I was and still am happy my mother is protected from the legal repercussions of being an immigrant without status in this country. But the meaning of that night was not lost on me. I am glad a poem came from that specific moment, and that poetry can come from this immigrant experience overall.
ALINE MELLO is a writer and editor living in Atlanta. She’s an immigrant from Brazil and spends much of her time volunteering with immigrant students. Mello is an Undocupoet fellow, and her work has been published or is upcoming in On She Goes, St. Sucia, Saint Katherine Review, and elsewhere.
Her handle for all things social is @thealinemello.