Assisting the Reluctant Dreamer

By: Alberto Ledesma
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“Good news Alberto!” Carlos waved his right arm aloft when he crossed Bancroft Avenue, his smile glowing as he ran towards me.

“We finally met him and I actually told him all about my situation!” He beamed when he spoke, clearly giddy from what had seemingly been a life-transforming event.

“Met who?” I asked and smiled, not expecting the specific detail of what he was about to say in his response.

“The Chancellor, man.” He pushed his slipping glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his index finger and swung his overstuffed backpack from one shoulder to the other.

“I’ll stop by your office to tell you all about it later. Right now I’m late for class.”

I could not finish the half Caesar salad I was having for lunch on that late September day of 2007. “What had happened?” I wondered. Who had been there? What exactly had been discussed? Questions multiplied in my mind as I hunted for bits of crispy grilled chicken in a sea of overdressed romaine. I finished eating and hurried to catch the green light so I could cross Telegraph Avenue and get back to campus. All the while I tried to grasp the enormity of what Carlos had just shared with me: How was it that he had managed to confess his undocumented status to the Chancellor without experiencing any immediate repercussion? How was it that he was walking around Berkeley as if everything were still okay? I came back to my office earlier than usual. And yet, though I waited for him to come by, that blustery day seemed to last forever. It took Carlos almost a week before he finally stopped by my door and told me exactly what had transpired. I could hardly believe it.

Although Carlos and the other student that Katherine Gin had arranged to meet with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau had taken a personal risk in confessing their undocumented status, what they had done also affected me deeply. I was shocked by their boldness, stunned by the matter-of-factness with which they had interacted with our campus’s highest-ranked administrative officer. I had never thought to be that direct, always assumed that if any progress were to be made at Berkeley on supporting our increasing number of undocumented students, it would have to me made incrementally, trough a gradual shift in the overall narrative about immigration. Now I was presented with the power of direct action, of raw honesty, of an unembellished story standing on its own, unadorned by rhetorical flourishes or appeals to syrupy emotion.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that what Carlos, Katherine, and the other student who accompanied them did, stands as a watershed moment in immigrant student activism and advocacy at the Berkeley campus. That specific act, according to various interviews Chancellor Birgeneau has granted since on the issue, went farther in informing his own ethical and political stance on undocumented immigration, than any of the treatises and briefs he had read on the subject. In many ways, that act also brought attention to the years of advocacy work that many of us had already spent doing on behalf of undocumented students on campus. Following the Chancellor’s lead, other top administrators at Berkeley suddenly opened up to hearing more about our insights into the plight of undocumented students. All at once, the Immigrant Students Issues Coalition (ISIC), an ad-hoc staff organization to which I belonged, commanded the increased attention of other campus stakeholders. However, as support for undocumented students became a cause célèbre at Berkeley, the eagerness of well-meaning neophyte allies to do something also presented a dilemma for that segment of the undocumented student population that was not ready to come out publicly.

For many of us in ISIC, it became clear that with the emergence of support for undocumented immigrant students on campus came a subtle, but unrelenting, pressure for these students to confess who they were via ever-increasingly gut-wrenching stories. As financial resources and access to other support services became available, a validation of these resources was increasingly accompanied by testimonials of appreciation by students who had already survived and transcended what seemed like a ubiquitous pattern of hellish experiences. These students, “Dreamers,” as they came to be known, suddenly became a new kind of model minority. It was not enough for students to publicly declare that they were, in fact, undocumented; now they needed to accompany that confession with what seemed like a pre-packaged ode to their own talents for survival.

To be sure, whether or not to encourage undocumented students to come out and share their stories as a way to appeal for empathy and support was a hotly debated subject within ISIC long before Carlos and his friends stepped into the Chancellor’s Conference Room. Though our organization had had several undocumented students sharing their experiences in the context of larger staff presentations we had facilitated soon after California’s Assembly Bill 540 had passed, we had initially encouraged our students to use pseudonyms because we were convinced that Berkeley was not that “safe” a campus yet.

“This is not the kind of genie that you can put back in the bottle if you change your mind.” I had argued from the first moments when one of our other members had suggested that it would be a good idea for our students just come out and declare themselves as undocumented.

“These students are heroes,” my colleague would often assert. “We need to recognize and reward their persistence!”

Though I never disagreed with his call for action, I also thought that achieving it was a complicated task.

“Sometimes it feels as if the only ‘guaranteed’ right undocumented students seem to have is ‘the right to remain silent.’ Why give that up so easily when we are not sure what people will do with it?” I was adamant in my conviction, convinced as I was that not everyone would see undocumented student experiences as heroic. After all, there was the Bradford Decision, a ruling issued by the California high court in 1995 that had undone all of the benefits of the 1985 undocumented-friendly Leticia A decision. What was significant about that judicial act was that a staff member at UCLA, Bradford, had initiated it. When he had refused to implement the Leticia A policy, Bradford had been fired, and so he had chosen to sue the university as a result of it. “How can we assume that we have no Bradfords at Berkeley?” I often asked.

I grappled consistently with a mix of emotions as undocumented students began to be presented with a modest, but increasing array of sources of support. I learned from colleagues working in the financial aid office that a handful of private donors were now interested in helping undocumented students specifically. Suddenly, scholarships that had previously required proof of citizenship did not. Internships in local non-profit organizations opened up. Even those students who had had the most difficult time in finding ways to pay for their education seemed to have new options. Given my own frustrations with finding support when I was an undocumented student in the mid 1980s, and given all the individual crises of the dozens of undocumented students who visited my office regularly, I should have been ecstatic, but something about the way that students spoke about their undocumented experience felt jarring.

It was soon after my chance meeting with Carlos that another student came to visit me at my office to talk about how much difficulty she was having with writing an essay. Because many students on campus had found out that I was active in ISIC and that I had once been undocumented, they often visited me to solicit advice. This is what she wanted.

“They have this new scholarship application at the business school that is designed for immigrant students and it does not require proof of citizenship. I just don’t know what to say. Nobody at Berkeley knows I’m undocumented and my parents have always discouraged me from even talking about it.”

The agony in her face as she sat in front of me, her arms holding her red notebook tightly as she tried to tell me what she was trying to write, was a familiar one to me. Talking about being undocumented is not something that was encouraged in my own family. In fact, the only time “our situation” was mentioned was when my father wanted to warn me about letting any one know about our status.

“Do you think that being undocumented matters to the kind of work you want to do at the business school?” I asked, hoping that she would have reflected more on the uniqueness of her situation than I had at her age.

“Yes, absolutely! I want to be a success in business so that I can help my family and my community. I have noticed that most of the business in my home town seem to ignore undocumented consumers.”

“Say that!” I smiled. “Say it with confidence. Let them know that you are bringing a resourcefulness and perspective to the school that they don’t already have.” Her face brightened as she seemed to realize that sacrificing her secret was a fair cost for the opportunity she would be given. She then thanked me and left.

Then again, there was also that rally on Sproul Plaza that I had attended in the Spring of 2009. It had been on a crystal clear day in late March that several of us in ISIC had gone to support a rally attended by a few of our students. Though we had only expected a handful of people to show up, the crowd that had gathered as we made our way towards the steps in front of the administration building had already numbered in the hundreds. It was clear that many of the protesters had arrived from off of campus, including dozens of high school students who were huddling around large cardboard signs calling for the passage of the Dream Act. I noticed a cameraman from Univision who was setting up his equipment a few steps from where we were standing. Then I saw Professor Carlos Muñoz, Jr. approaching two women who were standing by the main microphone. One was holding a clipboard, while the other was pointing to various people in the crowd below. Carlos waved at me. He was wearing the same Panama fedora that he had worn when he had arrived to my doctoral oral exam in 1992. A boy of sixteen or seventeen stepped up to the microphone and grabbed it. He was dressed in a navy blue graduation gown and matching mortar board cap, a placard with the word “Dreamer” hanging around his neck.

“No matter how hard I’ve worked to become an A student. No matter how many thousands of lawns my father has cut or thousands of houses my mother has cleaned, we are all regarded as nothing more than criminals!”

I don’t know why I stepped back from where I was standing with my ISIC colleagues. All I remember at that moment was the ring of the boy’s voice echoing across the quad, the raw power of his indignation and anger thumping in my chest. It was an anger that resonated with me, an indignation that I absorbed like the nectar of that rarest of fruits. I felt inspired, my heart racing as he spoke about his experience. But it was also too much. It was all too sudden. I felt a surge of terror every time the boy looked towards where we were standing in the front row, afraid that he would ask me to step up to the mike and offer up my own testimony. And I wanted to. But I was afraid at the same time. Suddenly I felt the urge to flee, to curl up like one of those roly poly bugs I used to hunt as kid. I stepped away slowly, a feeling of yearning overflowing my heart as speaker after speaker called for action, as the crowd continued to grow, and as fists sprouted in the air like flowers in a field.

Allan, one of my colleagues in ISIC, quietly walked to where I had moved.

“Are you okay,” he asked, his hand resting lightly on my shoulder.

“I don’t know,” I felt a bead of sweat running down my cheek. And I left.

Grappling with the emotions of being undocumented, even for someone who has now spent decades enjoying the benefits of naturalized citizenship, is no easy matter. It requires coming to terms with an identity that is too often shunned by the same families one is trying to help. It is an exercise in exorcising contradictions, in sharing the most vulnerable of secrets. But grappling with these emotions is what we precisely ask every undocumented student who enters the university to do. Their solicitation of help is based on how well (read dramatically) they can convey their experience. Indeed, surveys, and individual meetings with the many dozens of students we had worked with over several years convinced many of us in ISIC that there has always been a large number of undocumented students who have been generally reluctant to publicly declare their undocumented identities in public. While for some of these students, being undocumented has not always been a source of pride, for almost all of these students being undocumented has represented a new lens by which they have come to know the world, as their families have too often chosen to ignore reflecting on their experience from that epistemological vantage point.

University support of undocumented students is important, as is the advocacy necessary to making sure such support remains consistent. Still, as we celebrate the inclusion of undocumented immigrants within our university, it is important to recognize that many of these students are still processing the psychological repercussions of their identity. Requiring them to tell their story, in writing or in an oral presentation, as a condition for receiving support does not mean they have achieved a mature understanding of their experience. Maybe, such a requirement should be optional? Maybe, we should first ask them to embrace their undocumentedness slowly, with self-compassion and a good amount of oxygen?

Alberto Ledesma is a regular contributor to Comunidad At Cal, he is also the author of the “Diary of a Dreamer”

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