Citizenship & Identity 

In Print: “Only a Shadow”

By Horacio Castellanos Moya


In the first few pages of Malcolm Lowry’s posthumous novel, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid, the book’s protagonist, Sigbjørn Wilderness, travels by plane to Mexico. Alcoholism and paranoia keep him in a state of acute nervous excitement and dread at the prospect of being detained by Mexican immigration officers on his arrival at the airport. Sigbjørn, of course, has a British passport and should have nothing to fear, were it not for his state of mind and, perhaps, for some of his previous experiences in that country.

I read Lowry’s novel at least 30 years ago, and yet Sigbjørn’s fear at the thought of reaching immigration remains etched in my memory—and far more deeply than the rest of the narrative—for one simple reason: Throughout my adult life, I’ve been victim to a similar fear, the fear of being detained by the immigration authorities of any country I travel to. Unlike Sigbjørn, this fear isn’t the result of an alcohol-induced paranoia, but of other factors, among them the Salvadoran passport I carry with me, which has raised suspicion in the eyes of the many immigration officers I’ve had to pass by.

I’m certainly not the only Salvadoran with countless anecdotes about being treated with suspicion the moment I hand my passport over to the immigration officer, or about being interrogated with distrust, at times asked to leave the line so I can be subjected to a second, more meticulous inquiry. I remember distinctly a Dutch officer at the Schiphol airport who swiftly stamped the documents of the other travelers of other nationalities who stood in line before me but who, when my turn arrived, slowly pored over page after page of my passport, making a point to bend the spine, then taking out a small, charming magnifying glass and fitting it on his eye so he could scrutinize every stamp—as if he were a jeweler bent on discovering the falseness of a particular diamond—then calling a colleague over to discuss the situation and, finally, indicating that I should step aside into a small room where I would await a more in-depth review. All of this despite the fact that I’d showed him my green card and my credentials as a university professor. None of that mattered; the simple fact of holding a Salvadoran passport had made me potentially guilty. But of what?

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Horacio Castellanos Moya is a Salvadoran writer. He has published 12 novels, six of them translated into English. Currently he is an associate professor in the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

[Photo courtesy of Alison McKellar]

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Click to read more from our Spring 2018 “Nationalism and Free Speech” issue

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