By: Alberto Ledesma
It is really nice to be here, spending this gorgeous Sunday morning with all of you. I want to thank Lupe Gallegos-Diáz and the Chicano/Latino Alumni Association for inviting me to this wonderful brunch. I am particularly humbled because I know of so many colleagues at Berkeley who could have just as easily been here, talking with you about the amazing work they are doing with AB540 students. I am absolutely honored to be sharing these words with you.
To tell you the truth, speaking in front of a group like this one is something that I thought would never happen. Though I do have to admit that I have dreamt about it since I was in high school (and that is a really long time), I never thought I would actually be able to share my undocumented experience in public, even after my family and I were granted Amnesty.
Though a part of me thought that it would never happen, I often dreamt of standing at a podium like this one, addressing a roomful of brilliant students who have experienced the same things I had—the trials and tribulations of being an undocumented student at a major American university. It wasn’t until about a decade ago, that I thought this speech might even be possible. Before that, I knew of few other students who had gone through the same things I had.
All of us have dreams that we hope will someday come true. This is what defines the best parts of human ambition and optimism, the reason we work hard and endure sacrifices. The scary thing is that sometimes we subvert the few chances we have at achieving our dreams because we become too accustomed to the stress of the pursuit and too fearful of what succeeding would actually mean for our lives. Today, I want to talk to you about how this almost happened to me, and what it was that I learned from the experience.
I entered UC Berkeley in 1984 as an undocumented student. The truth is that there was nothing radical about what I did; it was the logical next step. As a smarter than average student at Oakland’s Fremont High School, I had been encouraged to pursue a college education by all my teachers. It was my high school counselor, however, who took the tear-soaked application I had left on his desk that Friday afternoon when I had confessed my undocumented situation, and he submitted it, without me knowing it, to Berkeley. Suddenly, I found myself at Cal in 1984, unsure about how I would negotiate this new world, and almost as terrified about it as my parents.
As I’m sure some of you know, in order to survive Berkeley’s competitive academic environment, particularly when one enters from an under-resourced high school, one must often pretend to be better prepared than one is. This is the way I came in; I was an affirmative action kid, a poor kid from a poorly-performing district. Add being undocumented to that and what you got was a student who became a master at feigning being smart, who quickly learned how to deliver well-placed and assertive “howevers” and “therefores” in order to hide the fact that I had hardly understood the material I had read. Inside, of course, I was always terrified and worried that I would be caught. In class after class I learned to adapt, paid attention to the phrases the smartest kids used when they participated in class, and I pretended I was one of them. In a way, I felt like Cantinflas trying to fool the world; but, unlike Cantinflas, I did not feel that mischievous joy about my linguistic or rhetorical cleverness.
Being an undocumented student at this prestigious university often provoked bouts of extreme insecurity and perfectionism in me. It wasn’t just that I was always fearful of being caught and causing my entire family to be deported. I was also convinced that if I had advanced, it was only because I had tricked the system and figured out a way to move forward without really being tested. This is the way I felt when I received my bachelors in the late 1980s, my masters in the early 1990s, and my PhD in 1996. No matter how many awards and accolades I collected, I never felt that I was good enough.
Even in those early years when my academic work was being published and I was presenting invited work at international conferences, I still felt as if I did not belong. I would step up to podiums like this one to read my work, always afraid that someone in the audience would raise their hand to say that I had gotten it wrong, always nervous even when I was the only one who had done research in that subject. Confidence is the result of a process that must be nurtured from a young age. My process always involved filtering my experience through an undocumented epistemology. How could I feel good about who I was in public when no one really knew the critical essence of who I really was in private? The fact is that being undocumented often inoculates us from acknowledging our resourcefulness and perseverance as talents; rather, we learn to see these skills as the necessary tools required for survival.
And yet, about ten years ago something magical happened that gave me a new perspective. An immigrant rights movement erupted across the nation at about the same time that I joined the Immigrant Students Issues Coalition. Suddenly, there was a space on campus where I could productively share my experience and where I could discuss, along with my colleagues in ISIC, the experiences of the hundreds of undocumented students who were now enrolling at Berkeley.
In ISIC I witnessed how my colleagues, Lupe Gallegos-Diáz, Allan Creighton, Jere Takahashi, Luisa Giulianetti, Nora Sandoval, Fabrizio Mejia, and Margi Wald, among many others, grappled with the challenge of supporting students who, like me, would often keep their needs hidden. We moved from merely proposing tweaks to current immigrant student services and policies, to asserting that, if the university was going to consciously continue admitting undocumented immigrant students to this campus, it bore a responsibility to create the structural changes needed to address the unique circumstances these students presented. It was ISIC’s proposal for an Undocumented Student Resource Center that the University eventually adopted a few years ago.
For me, working in ISIC allowed me to understand myself better. Suddenly, all those years of academic preparation, all the research I had conducted on immigrant narratives, had a clear purpose. But, if I actually wanted to make a concrete difference, there was still another step I needed to take. Buoyed by the support I had received in ISIC, and many months before the “Undocumented and Unafraid” student movement took off, I decided to publish an essay which I titled, “Embracing My Undocumented Immigrant Identity,” (You can still find it in Colorlines). In it, I argued for undocumented immigrant assertiveness and self-compassion, a recognition that being undocumented was not a cultural choice, but a material reality that profoundly shaped who we are and how we see the world.
I had decided to publish my essay in spite of the terrible things I felt that doing so would trigger. But not publishing it meant something worse—it meant keeping inside a story that could be immediately helpful to the emerging undocumented student movement, something I could not accept. So I did it, and I braced for the worst.
In those days that followed the publication of my essay, I learned an important lesson about trusting people’s better natures; instead of vehemence, what I received as result of my writing was support from hundreds of people across the US who, like me, had been keeping their undocumented immigrant experience locked up inside. College administrators, doctors, lawyers, and many many students contacted me via facebook to say, “Hey, I also went through that. Thank you for writing your piece. I thought I was the only one.” A year later I wrote another essay that focused on being an “Ex-undocumented Immigrant Parent,” and I received just as many positive responses. Finally, all those years of working in solitude were beginning to pay off.
More recently, instead of essays, I have been drawing visual vignettes that focus on what growing up as an undocumented kid meant for me. Because these vignettes, cartoons really, are able to communicate complex moments much more efficiently and effectively, compared to long essays, I have been able to explore a wider spectrum of my undocumented experience, everything from romantic relationships to the terror of seeking financial aid. As Lupe Gallegos-Diáz once said to me, “I like your drawings because in trying to grapple with your own experience, you actually help others heal. Besides, sometimes they are funny.” Similar to the essays, the dozens and dozens of cartoons I have shared on facebook have elicited a positive response, and, like the essays, they have now become the raw material for a book I hope to publish in the very near future.
All of this, I guess, has taught me the essential lesson I want to share with you today. That is, I have learned that entering a university like Berkeley as an undocumented student is not a radical act. It is where smart, resourceful kids belong, where we are training ourselves for a brighter and more inclusive future. What is radical is not being ashamed or vindictive about our experience, but generous in sharing the higher consciousness about human perseverance that the experience has taught us.
It is this generosity that has begun to change the politics of immigration in this country. As more and more stories come out about what being undocumented entails, more and more allies are joining our effort to better define what being undocumented is about. Allies are generous in the way they offer their energy and resources so that we may find our own voices. And we are generous when we offer our experience without needing to castigate those who, in their apathy, have accepted oppressive laws as the natural order of things.
But the greatest generosity is that which we practice with ourselves. I believe that only by communicating the triumphs and stresses of our experience without self-judgment, only by initiating a public dialogue about what being undocumented means that is free from self-accusation, will our society finally accept that having been undocumented is just another kind of American experience.
I am so proud that you selected me as your speaker.
Thank you very much!