Tag: Immigration

Articles

Illegally Brilliant

by Jim Hinch

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A California dreamer at Berkeley.

Linda Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, does not like to be late. But on this spring morning she was late. She bounded downstairs, her hair still wet from the shower, and paced around her kitchen making breakfast. She sliced an apple into a container of Greek yogurt, filled a water bottle, and pried a banana from a blackening bunch on the counter. Beside her, a housemate, moving more slowly, fried a quesadilla on a restaurant-sized stove. It was 9:00 a.m. Linda should have left the house 15 minutes ago.

Outside, students at the University of California, Berkeley, where Linda is a senior majoring in political science, hurried along a sidewalk toward morning classes. Linda had stayed up until 3:00 a.m. the night before studying for an upcoming midterm exam and she’d overslept. “Today is one of my busiest days,” she muttered, stuffing her breakfast into a backpack. “But I always keep it together. I stay focused on everything I do.” She strode through a wood paneled dining hall and opened the front door of her house, a onetime mansion designed in 1914 by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan, now nonprofit housing for thirty-five multiethnic students. She skipped down the front porch steps and hurried toward campus.

Linda Sanchez at the annual RISE—Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education—conference in 2013.

Linda Sanchez is twenty-two years old, a Zapotec Indian raised in a remote hillside village and brought by her family illegally to the United States at age nine. She arrived in America speaking neither English nor Spanish, only Zapotec. She was dazzled by city lights her first night in Orange County, where her parents and four siblings moved into a two-bedroom apartment with another family from Oaxaca in a gang-dominated neighborhood in Anaheim. Her first American meal, a McDonald’s hamburger, she pronounced “disgusting.” She was shunned at school by Mexican children who looked down on her, and she spent afternoons at home shielding her younger brothers and sister from her father’s alcoholic rages. But she caught the eye of teachers, was placed in a college preparatory program at her inner-city high school, and, in accordance with her own self-willed belief that she would one day defy her roots and become a college-educated professional, she was accepted to University of California, Berkeley, and awarded a private scholarship earmarked for immigrant students.

Linda with her grandmother.

Her parents discouraged her from attending, objecting that Berkeley was too far away and that it might be dangerous for Linda to live on her own. Linda went anyway—and immediately found herself thrust into the center of America’s intensifying debate over illegal immigration. Berkeley, home to what is possibly the largest population of undocumented immigrant students at any major American research university, became a lightning rod in that debate in late 2012, when the university announced it was establishing a $1 million privately endowed scholarship fund for undocumented students like Linda, who are barred by law from receiving any form of federal financial aid. At least 220 undocumented students currently attend Berkeley, nearly half the total number of undocumented students in the entire ten-campus University of California system. Berkeley officials boasted that their university is the first in the nation not only to fund undocumented students but also to furnish them with a full-time academic counselor and legal support from students and faculty in the law school. “We can’t afford to waste our talent,” Robert Birgeneau, at the time Berkeley’s chancellor, said in explanation of the university’s support.

Birgeneau said he received hate mail and angry phone calls from Republican lawmakers in response to his stance. For Linda Sanchez and students like her, living on the frontlines of America’s immigration battle has exacted a more ongoing, prosaic toll. Since arriving at Berkeley in 2009, Linda has paid for her education by cleaning apartments, doing maintenance for a landlord near campus, babysitting, applying for more than a hundred private scholarships, starting her own franchise in a direct-marketing company, wearing used clothes, photocopying textbooks instead of buying them, and hawking candy bars outside Cal football games. (“When you have to hustle, you can’t be embarrassed,” she said.) She also has been helped by two controversial state laws. The first, passed in 2001, enables immigrant students raised in California to pay in-state tuition even if they are not citizens. The second, signed in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown after being vetoed three times by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, makes undocumented students eligible for state, but not federal, financial aid. Prior to the 2011 law, life for undocumented students at Berkeley could be harrowing. Barred from receiving federal Pell Grants, work-study jobs or any government-backed loan, many undocumented students faced periods of homelessness, dropped out of school to work, and scrounged for free food at university events. They also lived—and continue to live—in fear that they or their families would be identified and deported.

Linda professes not to fear deportation. “My community here would not allow that to happen,” she said, naming professors and directors of campus programs for disadvantaged students whose mentorship she’s cultivated. Instead, Linda expects to graduate this year and eventually apply to graduate programs in law and public policy, with an emphasis on international environmental issues such as access to clean water. She wants to become an advocate for indigenous people at the United Nations. Her talent, clearly, has not been wasted. And yet, as a single day in Linda’s life shows, her aspirations, like those of America’s eleven million other undocumented immigrants, are fragile, too. On that spring morning she overslept; Linda was late to the first of two jobs she would work that day, one of three she worked that semester. She worked so much, and therefore had to stay up late studying, because her parents are poor and can’t afford the cost of a college education, and because Linda’s legal status blocked her from major sources of funding. One minor detail—breakfast made in a hurry and eaten on the go—stood for everything else in her life as an undocumented educational pioneer. It would be like that for the rest of the day. Maybe it would be like that for the rest of her life.

The job to which Linda arrived uncharacteristically late that Wednesday morning was a paid internship at Berkeley’s Multicultural Community Center, a student-run meeting space adjacent to the women’s gymnasium. Linda slipped inside a nondescript office building and sat down at a desk with a computer. She wore blue jeans, a green T-shirt, a North Face parka, and a pair of flat shoes decorated with Indian beads. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail. “I feel like my brain is not functioning right now,” she said, taking out her breakfast and checking email. Then she got to work coordinating the community center’s calendar of upcoming events. On the phone she spoke in a clipped, lightly accented voice. Face-to-face she wore a faint fixed smile, like she’d decided, as a matter of policy, to appear cheerful and optimistic.

She remained at the community center until 11:00 a.m., occasionally glancing in despair at a study sheet for the upcoming midterm in a class on ethics and justice. (“All the reading!” she groaned.) Then she packed up her things and hurried across campus to the university’s Chicano/Latino student center, where, in an hour, she’d begin job number two, babysitting fifteen-month-old Robert, Jr., the son of Robert Reyes, a graduate student in the English Department specializing in Chicano and African American literature. One of Linda’s campus mentors had recommended her for the job, which paid $18 per hour for four hours twice a week. Linda sat in the cramped office of Lupe Gallegos, coordinator of the university’s outreach to Latino students. The office, which functions as an informal student hangout and study space, overlooked a small redwood grove and was decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, an enlarged copy of a Cesar Chavez commemorative postage stamp, and a poster that read, “Education, Not Deportation.”

Linda pulled out a course reader and turned to an article on the Nuremberg Trials. She read for a few minutes and then looked up. The boisterous presence of several younger students in the office seemed to remind her of the autumn day in 2009 when her parents dropped her off at Berkeley. “My dad and my mom and my grandma and my then-boyfriend and my little brother drove me here in an Astro van,” she recalled. “I had just my clothes in a big green container with shampoo and printing paper and pencils. This was all new to them. They didn’t know college. My mom was like, ‘Okay, I guess this is it.’ She started crying. And I cried after they left, but not in front of them.” Her faint smile appeared. “People ask, ‘Were you homesick?’ I was homesick for like a day.”

Linda was born in the hillside village of San Bartolomé Quialana in central Oaxaca. “Quialana” is a Zapotec term referring to a black rock common in the area, and the region is famed for its indigenous black stone pottery. Linda recalled a childhood spent mostly in the care of her grandmother, Rufina, a village healer who lived in a one-room adobe house with a dirt floor. Linda’s father, Cutberto, was an alcoholic who did not work much. When Linda was four, her parents suddenly left for the United States without her. Linda was not told why they went, and she assumed they had abandoned her. (Later, Linda learned that “my dad was being very violent” and the family decided it would be better for Linda to remain in Oaxaca.) “I remember being raised like a wild little thing,” she said. “My grandmother was always on the move curing people with herbs and ancient indigenous medicine. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. The memories that stayed with me were of me running around the village with the dogs.” Occasionally, her mother, Isabel, would telephone. “But I was very stubborn,” Linda said. “I never wanted to talk to her. I was really resentful.”

Like other rural Zapotec girls, Linda attended school only sporadically. And yet, “I always knew I wanted to go to school,” she said. “I felt like school was a privilege.” She formed an inchoate desire to go to college and become a lawyer. “I wanted to defend people,” she said. “I think it was growing up around violence against women.”

Five years after her parents left, something happened to Linda that she was reluctant to disclose. “My mom was scared for my safety,” was all she would volunteer. “It was sort of along abusive lines. She didn’t want me to be there anymore. She needed me to get out.” An uncle, who had become an American citizen, traveled from Southern California to Oaxaca and fetched Linda. “We crossed the border, which was super easy,” she said. Her uncle told customs officials, “‘She’s my niece, and we just are going to visit and going back to LA.’ They didn’t talk to me. I remember walking and crossing the border, and I was on the other side and there was a taxi waiting for us and that took us to Orange County.”

Linda found herself in a two-bedroom apartment three miles from Disneyland in a densely populated, mostly immigrant neighborhood of Anaheim. Linda, her mother and father, and her four siblings occupied one bedroom in the apartment. Another couple and their daughter from Linda’s village in Oaxaca occupied the other bedroom. Linda’s father, who had a second-grade education, worked sporadically as a gardener when he wasn’t drinking. Linda’s mother catered parties and quinceañeras, preparing Oaxacan delicacies she never made at home. There were shootings in the neighborhood and periodic raids by immigration authorities. “I didn’t go out a lot,” Linda said. “When I saw police I would get scared. I knew I was undocumented.”

Linda’s parents kept her out of school for several months after her arrival in Anaheim so she could babysit her three younger American-born siblings, Rosa, José, and Luis. (Rosa, now 20, lives with Linda in Berkeley and attends Berkeley City College; José, 17, and Luis, 14, are in high school and have talked about enlisting in the military; Maria, 24, has three children and has moved back in with Linda’s mother in Anaheim; Linda’s mother and father have separated and no longer live together.) Linda recalled “crazy fights” between her parents that were so violent the father of the other family who lived in the apartment would try to break them up. After Maria ran away at age 13, it fell to Linda to shield her brothers and sister. “That was my main goal,” she said, “to have my siblings see as little of it as possible.”

At last, the following fall, Linda was enrolled at Robert M. Pyles Elementary School in the neighboring city of Stanton, where three-quarters of the students are English-language learners and 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Linda’s parents spoke Zapotec at home. Linda had picked up a little Spanish from her siblings, but mostly she arrived at Pyles illiterate and unable to communicate with other students. Some Mexicans harbor racist attitudes toward indigenous people, and Linda was shunned in her English learners’ program. “Kids didn’t want to talk to me,” she said. “Kids are cruel; they’re horrible.” And yet, “School was the only place where I felt safe. I knew at school there was no threat to us.” Instead, there were books (“I didn’t really have access to books in Oaxaca”) and space for imagination. “When we had story time, what I remember was painting a different picture of what my family was like,” Linda said. “I would write about my dad as if he was the most loving dad ever.”

By the following summer Linda was bringing textbooks home and “trying to memorize the US Constitution and all the amendments and all this cool stuff. My mom felt like I was weird, and she was questioning why I was doing that.” In eighth grade, at Dale Junior High School in Anaheim, Linda transferred out of the English learners’ program. An English literature teacher, Daniel Laningham, noticed Linda’s work and told her she was college material. “He really praised me a lot,” Linda said. “He put my papers on a wall and said, ‘This is an example of how to do essays.’ This man has been the one who was my guardian angel.”

At Anaheim’s Magnolia High School, where two students were stabbed the year Linda left for Berkeley, Linda was placed in Puente, a UC-affiliated college preparatory program available at thirty-one low-income high schools throughout California. She had a designated counselor, was encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses, and went on tours of California colleges. During a sophomore-year visit to Berkeley, Linda said she knew right away: “This was the place for me. I thought, ‘Berkeley is the most challenging to get into, so that’s the one I’ll try for.'”

All that remained to figure out after she was accepted was how to pay. The annual in-state cost to attend Berkeley is roughly $30,000. Linda’s parents were unable to help. “My mom said, ‘Berkeley? Where’s that?'” Linda recalled. “She wanted me to go to Cypress Community College. She didn’t understand the prestige.” Linda won several scholarships (including a $24,000 privately funded merit scholarship awarded to high-achieving students) and bargained for rent reduction at Casa Joaquin, the multiethnic student house where she still lives. She dropped her high school boyfriend (“he had no aspirations”), took classes on Shakespeare and Chicano culture, and explored sushi and Thai restaurants near campus. She met a recent Berkeley biology graduate named Jesus Miguel Diaz and, after ascertaining that he was conversant enough with “world events so he can discuss them with me,” Linda asked him out. “I don’t have too much time to spend with him,” she said. Mostly they go to lectures together or out to eat. Diaz recently took Linda camping in Yosemite. “I don’t think about my family too much at all,” she said. “I felt like I could come here and build my own community. I’m still very reserved in my personal life. I’m still cold and dismissive with people who aren’t on top of it.”

Linda’s story was cut short by the arrival of fifteen-month-old Robert Jr., wheeled into the Chicano student center in a stroller by his father. Linda’s face brightened. “Are you ready for your day to start?” she cooed into the stroller. “We have lots to do.” She turned to Robert, Sr. “Did you change his diaper already?” Robert shook his head. Linda whisked Robert, Jr. to the bathroom. “Thanks Linda,” Robert, Sr. called as he headed toward a café where he planned to grade papers and meet with students. Linda returned from the bathroom and gave Robert, Jr. a banana. Other students smiled and cooed hellos. “He’s very well beloved here,” Linda said, smiling at little Robert. “Verdad?” Robert clambered out of his stroller and began toddling around the student center. Linda followed, leaving behind her Nuremberg Trials article still open on a table. She and Robert eventually headed outside, onto Sproul Plaza. Linda put a sweatshirt on the boy and applied sunscreen to his face. For the next hour they wandered the plaza, listening to a free concert by a university men’s octet, exploring a creek beneath a nearby bridge, and walking into a student grocery store where Linda bought lunch (Asian noodle salad and a raspberry energy drink). They returned to the student center to fetch the stroller and Linda’s things. “Don’t have children!” she called to some students passing in the hall.

Linda strapped Robert into the stroller and pushed him outside, hoping he might fall asleep. “I work every day,” she said, now beginning to worry seriously about her midterm. “Some days are more school than work. Today is mainly work.” She glanced into the stroller. Robert’s eyes were heavy. She headed across campus toward a spacious lawn in front of the Life Sciences Building. She parked the stroller under a shady tree, covered Robert with a blanket, and spread another blanket for herself on the ground. She ate the rest of her lunch and read about the Nuremberg Trials. Nearby, two students threw a Frisbee. A creek that runs through campus poured over a small waterfall. A soft breeze blew, carrying hints of the afternoon fog beginning to advance across the San Francisco Bay to the west. It was the first quiet moment Linda had enjoyed all day.

She looked up from her reading. The midterm would cover twelve scholarly articles on post-World War II political ethics. Linda had read eight so far. “So it looks like I’ll be drinking coffee tonight,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t sleep at all. If I’m up past 4:30, I can’t sleep. So I just take a shower and start studying again.” She watched the Frisbee throwers, a boyfriend and girlfriend laughing and finding various excuses to stop and touch one another. “I try to have a social life, but it’s difficult,” Linda said. “I’d hoped to catch up on spring break. But I did too much work.”

With Oski, the UC Berkeley mascot, at a scholarship brunch in 2011.

After the Yosemite trip with Diaz, Linda had spent several days in Anaheim. Instead of studying she’d given talks at three inner-city high schools, including Magnolia, about getting into college as an immigrant. She’d worked on her “business connections,” new clients for her fledgling cell phone services franchise. A few months earlier, always in search of new income, Linda had signed on with ACN, a direct marketer of telecommunications services that has been accused by some state authorities of operating a pyramid scheme and involuntarily switching customers to new service providers. Linda spent time in Anaheim recruiting new sales representatives and persuading people to use ACN for cell phone service. “My team is expanding in Orange County,” she said. “I receive a residual percentage from customers’ bills and I train new people. This month’s bonus is $1,000.” ACN sellers are independent contractors, not employees of the company, enabling Linda to work around her undocumented status.

Doing community service in Oakland with the organization 67 Sueños, which works with and for immigrant youth.

Though it had been nearly a year since President Barack Obama announced a change in government policy, granting quasi-legal status to students like Linda, she still hadn’t applied for what is commonly referred to by its initials as DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. A successful application would grant her a two-year renewable work permit and shield her from deportation. “I have to apply ASAP,” she said. But so far she hadn’t had—or made—the time. “I haven’t sat down to look for documents,” she said. “I need proof of enrollment and other verification I was here.” (Linda subsequently applied for DACA status the following summer.)

Part of her procrastination stemmed from ambivalence about the country that had simultaneously educated and discriminated against her. “It’s not my dream in life to become a US citizen,” she confessed. “I understand the importance of it. But if it’s not doable, I’ll find a way to achieve my goals without it. Right now it’s looking not very possible.” Her expression grew bitter. “If anything I resent here, it’s how people view immigrants. They say, ‘These immigrants are here and trying to steal our tax money,’ and all that stuff. They don’t see how so much of it is their own doing. They want cheap stuff whenever they want it. So big corporations go to third-world countries and employ people for no money. So they have no choice but to come here. And the way the US has funded wars in Latin America that drove people out.”

She paused, noticing that the blanket covering Robert, Jr. was stirring. She stood up. “I see myself going back to Mexico temporarily to do work,” she said, pulling back the blanket and smiling at young Robert. “To be governor or sit in politics and make decisions about the direction of the country. Eventually, I want to be at the UN.” She unbuckled Robert and plopped him on her blanket. For a few minutes, she watched him play with her pencil case, a small red, orange, and pink striped bag. Then she gazed around at the quiet afternoon campus. “I feel safe here,” she said, gently prying one particularly sharp pencil from Robert, Jr.’s hand. “Once, in Anaheim, in the morning, I was still in bed and [immigration authorities] came in and said, ‘Don’t get out of bed. Stay in bed.’ I was twelve. They were looking for a guy who lived there before. It was weird. It was scary. It was like, ‘What’s going on?’ I know my dad was scared. When they can’t find who they’re looking for, sometimes they take whoever is there.”

She gave Robert a snack and let him play for a few more minutes before buckling him back into the stroller. She packed up her things and walked across campus to the lecture hall where Robert, Sr. was finishing a class. At 4:00 p.m., the Campanile, Berkeley’s iconic bell tower, began to toll and students streamed out of the hall, many of them smiling and waving at little Robert as he toddled up and down a nearby staircase. Robert, Sr. appeared and gathered his son into his arms. “Thank you so much, Linda,” he said. “Did he nap?” “Two hours,” replied Linda. “I changed his diaper.” “You rock,” said Robert. He buckled Robert, Jr. into the stroller and headed toward home. “See you Monday!” Linda called.

She began walking back toward Casa Joaquin, where she was due at a house managers’ meeting at 6:00 p.m. Along the way she stopped at a campus office to drop off an application for yet another scholarship, this one part of a controversial $1 million fund established by the Haas family, longtime Berkeley benefactors. The scholarship was worth up to $5,000 for the 2013–2014 school year, Linda’s last. She had already been accepted to spend the fall at Berkeley’s satellite campus in Washington, D.C., where she would take classes, intern in a political office, and write a thirty-page research paper—”all the cool stuff, which I really enjoy,” she said. She had three more classes to complete in spring, and then she would be done. She passed the Campanile and gazed toward its bronze clock face. “I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be,” she said. “I feel like I’m in place.”

Back home, Linda climbed two flights of stairs to an attic bedroom. Though the afternoon had turned foggy, the room was hot and stuffy. Linda opened a west-facing window and dropped her backpack on an unmade bed piled with clothes and a white duvet. The other side of the room, occupied by a second-year biology student named Michelle Chang, was noticeably neater. On a bulletin board above her desk, Linda had tacked some photographs. One showed Linda a few years younger, surrounded by three teenagers and a man and woman, both slightly heavyset, in jeans and T-shirts. The man, unsmiling, wore a blue baseball cap. “That’s my dad,” said Linda, looking noncommittal. “And my mom. And Maria, me, Rosa, José, and Luis.” Another, older photograph showed an elderly woman in a flower-print shawl standing beside a young girl, maybe seven years old, in a dress and checkered apron. “Me and my grandma,” said Linda, smiling. There was also a photo of Linda in a white dress and corsage at her quinceañera. Scattered around her paper-strewn desk were several figurines of turtles made of wood and ceramic. A large poster of a turtle hung over Linda’s bed.

“I love turtles,” she explained. “Friends always give me turtles.” She held up one made of blue-stained wood. “This one is from Oaxaca.” Another, made of iridescent, hardened mud, was a gift from her boyfriend, who had bought it in Hawaii. “Turtles are very persistent,” Linda said. “They’re strong and patient. That’s similar to my attitude. They always have their house on their back.”

She cradled the two turtle figurines, one from Oaxaca, the other from her Berkeley boyfriend. She looked at the photographs above her desk, the pile of academic papers she would read later that night. “Wherever I go, I take my experiences and learning and wisdom,” she said. “I create a new family wherever I go.”

Note

Photographs courtesy of Linda Sanchez.

Articles

Give Me the Gun

by Andrew Lam

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

The American dream in exile.

I am now seven years older than my father was when he came to California at the end of the Vietnam War. I have been an American writer and journalist for over two decades. I am here to tell you that the war, though it ended so long ago, doesn’t end—and for children from war-torn countries, the Old World, its memories and turmoil, sometimes calls out for our blood.

For years I’ve had this dream: Sometimes I’m a bird, other times I’m fully human. Always it’s a dive into the ocean. Bird, me as a child, as an adult—no matter, in the dream, it’s straight to the bottom I go. With bloody fingers, with a scratched beak, I try to excavate, to retrieve something hard to see.

There it is: a gun. In the dream, it turns into a vague object, or a sorry-looking rock, or it changes its shape continuously and loses texture—or else the gun dissolves into sand, into mud, and sifts through my clutching fingers.

Some dreams are impossible to decipher; but this one is a direct route to my own psyche. Upon news that the South Vietnamese government had surrendered to the communist invasion, my father boarded a naval ship with a few hundred other Vietnamese officials and their families on the Saigon River and headed out to sea. Nearing Subic Bay in the Philippines where they asked US authorities for asylum, he folded away his army uniform, changed into a pair of jeans and a shirt, and, now a stateless man, tossed his gun into the water.

I was not there. I was already in Guam, having left inside a humming C-130 cargo plane full of panicked refugees out of Tan Son Nhat Airport two days before Saigon fell, but I’ve come to regard that moment when he jettisoned his gun into the sea as a turning point in my own story. Rusting at the sandy bottom, it serves as a kind of marker. It spelled the end of my Vietnamese childhood and the beginning of my life in exile in America.

I am telling you this because although I fail to retrieve that gun in my dreams, I am all too aware that some other refugee children in America have managed to grab hold of it in reality, and on a few occasions have even found their way toward tragedy. The rags-to-riches American immigrant narrative often fails to acknowledge its darker stepsister, a chronicle in which some children, failing to fulfill their American dream, revert to fight lost battles from their parents’ homeland.

I am telling you this because I am still trying to understand what happened when two bombs went off and killed three people at the Boston Marathon and seriously wounded dozens of others.

The culprits were not organized terrorists, not foreigners, but two Chechen brothers who, on their way to the American Dream, crashed into a bloodbath of their own making. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, lived for years in Boston. Both were once refugees and, along with their parents and two sisters, found asylum in America; both were known to friends and neighbors as “regular guys,” which makes their bloody sagas all the more baffling and disturbing.

In watching their stories unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a scar does being a child of a war-torn country leave? And why do some old scars turn back into open, festering wounds?

Here is what we know: Tamerlan was an aspiring boxer who dropped out of school and was described by others as “cool” and “arrogant.” He represented New England in the 2009 Golden Gloves national championship but could not compete the following year when rule changes barred non-US citizens. That, coupled with a back injury, killed his Olympic dream, his vision of a better world. It was around this time when his life veered hard toward radical Islam and fundamentalism.

Dzhokhar, the younger brother—who, ironically, became a US citizen on 11 September 2012—was reportedly likeable and outgoing. A wrestler who attended Boston Dartmouth, Dzhokhar was struggling. He received seven failing grades over three semesters, including Fs in chemistry and Introduction to American Politics. He had $20,000 in unpaid bills to the university at the time of his arrest.

Their family, too, had unraveled. Anzor, their father, was a mechanic; Zubeidat, their mother who had turned religious and reportedly had a great deal of influence on Tamerlan, worked as a cosmetologist. Both suffered setbacks in America, went on welfare after a few years of working, and then divorced. Anzor moved back to Dagestan, east of Chechnya, to be followed by Zubeidat a few years later. They had left Tamerlan in charge of his younger brother. Two middle sisters had moved to New York and kept their distance.

Here is what I know: it is inevitable that children born into war inherit trauma, even if they didn’t experience that war first hand. The inheritance is deep rooted, and it seeps in below the surface: the way the adults talk of the past, the way fragments of their history replay on TV, the way sadness hangs in the refugee home like heavy air, like smoke; a lost home, a shattered people, the humiliation, the overwhelming nostalgia; it seeps into dreams. And when they are vulnerable, when their lives in America unravel and their access to America’s grandeur is blocked and denied, the old memories and unshaped desires have a way of reaching out to take hold.

The late UC Berkeley sociologist Franz Schurmann once noted two paths for children of immigrants toward their Americanization process: either through education or the military. But there’s no longer a draft, and the other institution, the American education system, is failing our kids.

One of the Tsarnaevs’ uncles, a successful man in America, when asked for an explanation of their actions, described them as “losers” who harbored a hatred of those who were able to settle into life in America. “These are the only reasons I can imagine. Anything else, anything else to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake,” he said.

The uncle may not be far from the truth. Islam may very well become the old clutch when the brothers’ vision of a beatific America falters. Unable to move forward, they move back, trying to become warriors for a lost cause, or trying to assuage their parents’ humiliation and grief. Or else, they try to find a theater on which they can still play out as the main actors.

Untitled from the Hill of Poisonous Trees series by Dinh Q. Lê. COURTESY OF PPOW GALLERY.

Though I have moved far away from my humble beginning, have found a direction for myself, and have in many ways betrayed my allegiance to the old country, I never underestimate the speed with which a refugee boy can go off track—how the vision of America as the land of milk and honey can quickly shift to that of a bona fide barren landscape with a failing grade. Ambition, too, can shift to rage and hatred, and the “mixing memory and desire,” to quote T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, can like the spring rain stir all “dull roots.”

Indeed, while the Tsarnaevs’ trajectory—from asylum, to attempts at assimilation and finally to terrorism—seem incomprehensible and baffling to many, there have been precedents in my own community. In their story, I hear echoes of another set of brothers from my own country.

On 4 April 1991, three Vietnamese brothers and a friend—all teenagers—took over an electronics store in Sacramento, California. The group held forty-one people hostage, garnering national attention as journalists flocked outside the store. Inside, the boys prowled about with their guns, the hostages tied up.

What did the Nguyen brothers want? Four million dollars, 1,000-year-old ginseng roots (thought to make one invincible in battle), a helicopter, and bulletproof jackets. Their plan: To fly to Thailand and take on the Vietcong. (It was not clear if they knew the Vietcong were in Vietnam and not in Thailand, nor whether were they aware that helicopters couldn’t possibly fly across the Pacific Ocean.)

Negotiators on the scene were baffled, and when talks broke down the four began to wound hostages to show that they were serious. The SWAT team stormed the grounds in response, killing three of the four hostage takers and critically wounding the oldest of the three brothers. Three hostages were killed before the siege ended.

Like the Tsarnaevs, the Nguyen brothers were described by those who knew them as decent, even obedient children. They attended their Catholic church regularly, where their father was a deacon. They were told to follow the Vietnamese traditions by their parents. But their father, once a sergeant in the South Vietnamese army, later admitted that he couldn’t help them with school and homework because he himself was woefully uneducated.

But there was little hint at the barbarism they would later commit. Their parents, too, in the aftermath of the bloodshed were left to wonder: Why? Before the attack, their trajectory toward a successful American future quickly ended: all four had been expelled from school for a dangerous prank that involved lighting some materials on fire after school.

Though little was known about their private lives, people who knew them said they were big fans of Hong Kong movies—gangster and martial arts films full of blood and vengeance chief among them. The 1,000-year-old ginseng root came directly from old Kung Fu movies where, legend has it, consuming the mythic root would increase one’s martial arts prowess exponentially. One movie quite influential at that time was John Woo’s 1990 Bullet in the Head, where three blood brothers, caught and tortured in Vietnam for doing drugs, ended up attacking the communist stronghold in a helicopter.

Today, the eldest brother, Loi Nguyen, is serving three consecutive life sentences for the crime.

Dzhokhar was indicted with thirty counts for using a weapon of mass destruction, killing four people, and wounding many others. He is facing the death penalty. As he lay wounded in the boat before his capture a few days after the bombing, Dzhokhar penned what he must have thought was his last testimony: “The US Government is killing our innocent civilians,” he wrote. “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished. We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all.”

And most telling, “Fuck America.”

Persistence of Memory #12 by Dinh Q. Lê. COURTESY OF PPOW GALLERY.

What do refugee children in the New World have in common? When we set foot on the American shore, history is already against us; we have become dispossessed, footnotes in history. Our mythology quickly turns into private dreams: there’s no war to fight, no heroic quest, no territory to defend, no clear enemies.

The refugee child’s first self-assessment in America is often helplessness. It is characterized by the new knowledge that his parents are inarticulate and lost. It is often framed by humiliation and waiting: in line for donated clothes, for food stamps, for free clinic exams, for green cards. Unlike immigrants who, through their own will and effort, sold their homes, said goodbyes to their neighbors and relatives, and applied for visas to migrate; refugees flee, often from violence, and their final destinations are usually unknown.

But the refugee child learns quickly that there’s no returning, that in exile his nation is lost, that he is an enemy of history, and that he must venture into the New World alone, as he, learning the new language faster than the adults, is the better navigator.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mr. K, my English teacher in seventh grade asked. I hadn’t thought of the question before. Such an American question. “A movie star,” I replied, laughing.

America’s identity is tied in with what we do. If we do well and gain fame and fortune, we are respected, we gain a foothold, and we can forget the past. It is understood that this rags-to-riches narrative will assuage past grievances, erase our ignominy and shame. America tells the newcomer to think for himself and look out for number one. America spurs rebellion of the individual against the communal grief, encourages amnesia. America seduces, and you betray old loyalties, your old man’s extraterritorial passion, your mother’s nostalgia. It whispers a new desire: Follow your own dream.

For many of us, it works. Think about it this way: What would have happened if Tamerlan had made it to the Olympic team? Or if Dzhokhar hadn’t had such heavy debt and seven failing grades but had been thriving in school on a wrestling scholarship? Would their gaze have been that of vehemence?

Untitled (vintage) by Dinh Q. Lê. COURTESY OF PPOW GALLERY.

Because I experienced rebirth, because English is a bendable language on my tongue, because I long ago drove away from the mythical kingdom where 1,000-year-old ginseng roots grew and blood must be paid by blood, I read Dzhokhar’s scribbling as he lay wounded in that boat before his capture as a naive and bitter rejection from someone who got to the gate to the land of golden promises only to have it slammed shut on him at the last minute.

Often, the successful border crosser will find ways to articulate and redefine himself; his revenge over his wretched past is his successful transition in America, his newfound status—a boxer, a scholarship boy. But when access to America’s grandeur is blocked or denied, especially for children from war-torn lands, old memories have a way of resurfacing, of reaching out. Inherited trauma, ever-present in refugee homes, becomes seductive, something on which to latch one’s identity. In fantasy, in search for a new myth, some even fantasize themselves fighting their father’s lost war or defending a land long lost. Old loyalty demands an old-world, strict ethos: blood debt must be paid by blood.

Alas, the history of the defeated is private and circular. It owns all at some core level like a metal ball and chain around a prisoner’s bleeding ankle. In it, the only moral direction to be had is the one that demands complete loyalty to the past—not to own it, mind you, but to let oneself be ruled by it, and to do so, one would have to accept forever the status of a stranger in a strange land.

Dzhokhar’s romantic notion of unity—that Muslims are one body—is far removed from the reality of the bloody conflicts between various Islamic branches. His attempt to defend a people—the mythical “We” with which he claimed affiliation while he lay bleeding on that boat—is as naive and tragic as the Nguyen brothers’ idea of flying helicopters in peacetime to kill Vietcong.

For those lacking imagination, violence by default often becomes the game. For those who feel powerless to transform themselves, the gun can be seductive. It provides power. It speaks in a language everybody understands. It speaks across color lines. It opens doors for the invisible into the public space. It declares that one exists. Unfortunately, it is the language of annihilation and not creation. It’s not a dialogue at all, but a monologue of the desperately immature.

Like it or not, the Tsarnaevs’ trail of blood captured America’s imagination, and their gun fight in the dark of night harks back to the narrative of Billy the Kid, of Bonnie and Clyde, of those who found instant fame through bloodbath.

Perhaps it is why a dreamy, curly haired Dzhokhar Tsarnaev stared out from the cover of Rolling Stone. His gaze, however, is one of nostalgia and bewilderment. His is the face of someone not clear on the concept that there’s an exorbitant price to pay for old loyalty in the New World, a face that lacks self knowledge.

My wish for Dzhokhar as he sits in his cell for many years to come is that he reads; that his jail cell be flooded with books, and his mind filled with others’ sadness and torments, so that in time hate will be replaced with empathy, regrets, and sorrows. For if he had resented and rejected America, he is now bound to it in profound ways, and what lies before him yet is an undiscovered country, one in which his journey toward self-knowledge and atonement await.

“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” noted the lyrical writer James Baldwin. To own the past, one ought not to be ruled by it but should appropriate it and render it into aesthetic expressions as a way to move forward.

Articles

Frontier Diaries

by Molly McCarthy

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

Transporting the daily habits of home

No matter how they got there—over land, by sea, or by a circuitous combination of both—western migrants in the rush that followed the whiff of gold at Sutter’s Mill often found their baggage lighter at the end of their long journey. Some blamed the elements. For Stephen Chapin Davis on board the steamship Philadelphia in July 1850, the enemy was weather. After enduring four days of a wretched storm, Davis complained in his diary of “not having anything dry on board” and that all his possessions, even his food, had “been soaked in salt water.”1 Weather and other hindrances routinely conspired against ambitious travelers hoping to transport the trappings of home to new outposts out West. Forced into hard and often wrenching decisions, travelers unloaded possessions along the way. The more portable the keepsake, the more likely it was to survive the grueling trek.

This may help explain the ubiquity of a particular kind of diary in collections of western Americana. Known colloquially in the mid-nineteenth-century as a pocket diary, today we’d call it a daily planner. Although it had roots in the colonial almanac, its printed contents appeared more modern, with features such as calendar pages, postal rates, interest tables, and preformatted sections devoted to daily diary entries and cash accounts. The title page of a Kiggins & Kellogg edition from New York read “Daily Pocket Diary for the year 1858: for the Purpose of Registering Events of Past, Present, and Future Occurrence.” It might seem ephemeral from our vantage point, but these unassuming stationery items were not just a matter of convenience or making do with whatever was at hand. They were brought along with commitment and conviction, carrying as much weight as a cherished tea set or family Bible. Published and printed in distant cities such as Boston and New York and containing features keyed to those locales, the daily planner allowed migrants to maintain ties to the places they left behind and to transplant entrenched cultural habits to their new homes.

John Mason, an overland immigrant, purchased his 1858 Pocket Diary published by Kiggins & Kellogg when he had already been living in California nearly four years. Enduring the overland trek from St. Louis and along the California trail, he had arrived in Sacramento in June 1855 and found work on river steamers heading in and out of Sacramento. On an end leaf of the three-by-four-inch volume with a foldover or “tuck” closure, he penciled a simple inscription, a mark of ownership: “John T. Mason, Sacramento.”2 While it’s unclear where Mason bought the diary, the real mystery is why. What was the use of having a diary whose monthly calendar pages contained the times of sunrise and sunset for New York, or advertisements for the wide selection of books and stationery in Kiggins & Kellogg’s new storefront at “123 and 125 William Street, Between John and Fulton Sts.”? Perhaps Mason was a New York native and, like rereading a cherished letter from home, found comfort in having a diary printed in his hometown. But a nostalgic attachment to the symbols of home alone cannot explain how frequently these diaries turn up in the archives.

James and Madilia Scofield, cousins in southern Connecticut before each set out separately for California in 1849, became husband and wife five years later in 1854. By that time, Scofield had abandoned any hope of striking gold and opened a general store in Stockton selling miner’s supplies and household goods. Like Mason, both Scofields preferred a New York-manufactured datebook to anything local. Year after year, until their eventual return to Connecticut (after making their fortune!), the Scofields remained loyal customers of the Daily Pocket Diary . . . for the Use of Private Families and Persons of Business, Published Annually for the Trade. The title continued on, listing the diary’s key features such as a banking table, counting-house calendar, and a “blank space for memorandums for every day in the year.”3

The real mystery is why.

In Auburn Ravine, 1852

Many frontier settlers such as these pictured in Auburn Ravine, circa 1852, transplanted their diaries and the habits that accompanied them from homes back east.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY.

For customers like the Scofields, the decision to purchase a New York planner over a blank book or local almanac may have been for lack of alternatives. It took some time for West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento to rival the variety and sophistication of the publishing output of Eastern firms. Apart from travel manuals, local newspapers, and a variety of regional almanacs, Western cities turned out a limited print fare at mid-century. Most guides were published in St. Louis or Cincinnati, cities that had a much more vibrant publishing scene. The Great Western Almanac for 1846 was published by Joseph McDowell in Philadelphia, of all places. Sloan’s Almanac and Traveler’s Guide for 1851 was published by W.B. Sloan at 40 Lake Street in Chicago. Some western publishers partnered with eastern firms to put out even the most basic print matter. In order to publish The Prairie Almanac for 1857, Thomas Orton, proprietor of the Western Book Emporium in Davenport, Iowa, teamed up with a New York firm and borrowed copy from the United States Almanac for that year. Likewise, The California Almanac for 1849 had San Francisco on its title page but was printed by George Rand in Boston. Nelson Slater, originally of Champlain, New York, now of Sacramento, collaborated with P.L. Platt to write The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, Upon the Overland Route to California.4 Nevertheless, the limited variety in Western bookstores seems inadequate to justify the lengths customers were willing to go to import a daily planner from back East.

 

Diaries bridged the distance

For a long time, I puzzled over the prevalence of these commercial diaries in collections of Western migrants. They certainly delivered on those virtues suitable for the traveler, such as portability and durability, which was a big part of their appeal. But the reference matter was all wrong, having more to do with the world they left behind than the one ahead. They contained monthly calendar pages with tide tables and calculations for Boston and/or New York, railroad tables with New York as its origin. I soon realized that the popularity of this Eastern diary represented more than convenience. The daily planner shrank the distance between coasts, mentally if not physically. It allowed the Scofields to imagine they were closer to Connecticut and helped them replicate what they left behind with a portable, inscribable symbol of home.

Mary Carpenter Diary, 1861

Diaries such as this one published in New York in 1861 are not uncommon in the collections of western immigrants.

IMAGE COURTESY OF UC IRVINE, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.

The daily planner was the material embodiment of a cultural habit of daily record keeping that could be traced to the Protestant pledge to “improve the time.” The serially dated spaces in a prefabricated diary had a way of making one persevere with the daily task of “keeping account,” whereas a blank page in a journal could be more forgiving of the passage of time. Madilia Scofield confessed as much when she noted in April 1856 that she’d neglected to write in her journal for several days “on account of sickness.” However, she did manage to record a few lines in her daily register in hopes “that I may improve [the time] in a proper maner.”5

The kind of diary the Scofields chose was key to the process of making California feel, at least for them, more like Connecticut.

The order and regularity embedded in the diary’s format helped them transplant some of their Yankee values to a new, foreign, and oftentimes dangerous place. James Scofield acknowledged such perils when he recorded on 10 February 1854, that he had attended a murder trial. While he wished “the poor fellow a merciful sentence,” James admitted that “some rigid examples are necessary to break up the wanton use of fire arms.” The habit of keeping a daily diary was just one more convention the Scofields brought with them to their new home. In keeping that daily account, they recorded for posterity all those other customs they refused to forego, such as making calls on New Year’s Day, receiving visitors for tea, or attending Sunday services and lyceum lectures. Even April Fool’s Day was observed, as Madilia noted in 1856: “This is the first day of April. A day devoted by some to fool makeing. I believe the practice is quite prevalent here.”6

Just as the Scofields seemed intent, despite the new terrain, on maintaining their Yankee rituals of New Year’s Day visits and afternoon tea, John Mason peppered his diary entries with mentions of outings to the theater, buying “segars,” and attending “church.” Apart from the inscription that placed him firmly in Sacramento, a reader might not even realize what town or city Mason was writing in. There were but a few clues, such as the anomalous note that he’d given “25” cents to an “indian,” that Mason resided anywhere west of the Mississippi. He even chose to commemorate significant events of the American Revolution at the opening of his 1858 Pocket Diary: “the Battle of Lexington,” “Richmond destroyed,” the “battle of cowpens,” and “peace declared with Gt Brit.” It didn’t make him any less patriotic, or American, that he’d gotten many of the dates wrong.

In similar fashion, James Scofield remembered the day, 8 January, on which the final battle of the War of 1812 was fought in a blank space reserved for that day in his 1855 diary. He wrote: “To-day is the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans. No demonstration of whatever kind in this city.”7 James’s memorial to the final battle of the War of 1812 affirming America’s independence and opening up the settlement of the West reflects his sense of a shared history, though one not nearly as universal as in Connecticut. James seemed shocked that the anniversary passed unnoticed in Stockton. It is just this sense of communal history, tradition, and values that the pocket diary affirmed for customers like Mason and the Scofields. Although far from home, their loyalty to this commercial product signified that they were not willing to abandon their places of origin. Just because they were removed from the urban centers of the East to an outpost experiencing its first turbulent years of statehood did not make them any less American.

It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication.

The Bancroft Company, operating from its Market Street headquarters, published a commercial diary to rival Eastern brands and provide California with a daily planner all its own.

Illustration by Charles John Dickman.

COURTESY OF THE BANCROFT LIBRARY, UC BERKELEY.

Not until after the Civil War did West Coast publishers begin producing a commercial diary similar to those brands emigrants had carried with them. By that time even John Mason had replaced his New York-made diaries with a California “original,” Bancroft’s Diary for 1872 Containing Useful Memoranda, and Tables for Reference. Nearly twenty years after Hubert Howe Bancroft first arrived by steamer in San Francisco with a consignment of books and stationery, his brother A.L. Bancroft, entrusted with the business his brother had built, erected a five-story edifice to the family’s publishing empire at 721 Market Street, and announced that the “business has been remodeled to conform to the new order of things. It is selling goods upon the lowest possible margin of profits. Satisfaction guaranteed. The public are cordially invited to visit the new premises.”8

It may be no coincidence that this announcement appeared as an advertisement on the back page of Bancroft’s Diary for 1872, a California-branded diary viewed as an extension of Bancroft’s vision for “the new order of things.” Bancroft could hardly take credit for the design, a blatant copy of the formula Eastern publishers had found so successful and lucrative. That meant the basics were essentially the same, with calendar and diary sections formatted exactly as the Kiggins & Kellogg’s versions decades earlier. Only now Bancroft’s diaries, which included many different styles denoted as “No. 306,” and such, along the binding, were outfitted with data tailored for the local populace: fire alarm stations and hack fares for San Francisco, locations of the city’s public offices and buildings, monthly tide tables for San Francisco, distance tables from San Francisco to various points in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, and a complete table of US stamp duties including the California Stamp Tax. Although not new or original, California finally got a diary all its own. It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication. In 1875, he applied to Congress for a copyright and renamed Bancroft’s Diary the Pacific Coast Diary.9

Title page of a Bancroft diary modeled after popular East Coast brands.

IMAGE COURTESY OF THE OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA.

By that time, the Scofields had decamped and returned to Connecticut. John Mason, however, converted to the Pacific Coast brand after abandoning river work and becoming a rancher in Colusa County. Others followed suit, such as Boston native John Thomas, who emigrated to California in 1857 and turned to lumbering after failing as a prospector. In addition to two large account books, Thomas kept daily records of deliveries, his health, and the weather in annual editions of the Pacific Coast Diary from 1874 to 1885. A.G. Peyton, a wood-chopper, trapper, and pit worker, used the daily entries in his Pacific Coast Diary for 1875 to detail payment for various odd jobs in mining camps in Humboldt County. Even Nelson Slater, author of the 1852 edition of The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, was using a Pacific Coast Diary by 1876 after settling in Sacramento as a minister and school administrator.10 Once it was adopted by Bancroft’s prolific publishing house, the daily planner became more attuned to the needs of those newcomers to the Pacific Coast, the settlers who turned gold fields and port cities into centers of commercial and cultural exchange.

The popularity of this stationery product, a European-bred symbol of order and regularity, amongst the gold miners and fortune seekers in early California seems paradoxical—until we read them. The accumulation of mundane, daily entries reveal how critical and powerful these commercially-printed products could be in conveying a sense of place, both old and new. For these California transplants, the choice of a daily planner was consequential, not casual, and instrumental to their efforts to settle into the rhythms of a life in the West.

Notes

1. William Benemann, ed., A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849–1850 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), x.
2. John T. Mason diaries, 1849–1888, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
3. James M. Scofield papers, 1823–1923, American Antiquarian Society (AAS).
4. Sloan’s Almanac, Great Western Almanac, and The Prairie Almanac in the Graff Collection, Newberry Library; The California Almanac for . . . 1849, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library; and Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
5. Madilia Scofield 1856 diary, James M. Scofield Papers, AAS. To put these entries into broader, historical context, see Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and the English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). See also Alexis McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).
6. James M. Scofield papers, AAS.
7. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; and James M. Scofield papers, AAS.
8. The business records of A.L. Bancroft & Co., including samples of the “Pacific coast diaries,” are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
9. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
10. John Thomas diaries and account books, 1874–1885; A.G. Peyton diary, 1875; Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Interviews

The Art of Crossing Borders: Migrant Rights and Academic Freedom

by Louis Warren
Photography by Spring Warren

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

An interview with Ricardo Dominguez

Ricardo Dominguez, Professor of New Media, Performance Art, and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2 at the University of California, San Diego, specializes in electronic civil disobedience as an art form. In January, 2010, he was placed under university investigation for misuse of research funds, a charge that could have resulted in his termination. At issue was the work of his research organizations, b.a.n.g. lab (for “bits, atoms, neurons, genes”) and his Electronic Disturbance Theater. Dominguez directed these organizations in creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool, an application that could allow immigrants to use GPS technology in cheap cell phones to find water caches in the desert between Mexico and Southern California and to access poems, which Dominguez calls “survival poetry.” Before the investigation was completed, several congressmen demanded punitive action and anti-immigrant pundits on cable news networks demanded Dominguez be fired. Louis Warren sat down with Ricardo Dominguez to find out what happened.

Louis Warren: When was it that you realized that the university might actually fire you for your research?

Ricardo Dominguez: Well, that was on January 11, 2010. I received an email from Accounting and Auditing at UC San Diego saying that they were going to initiate an investigation of the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project.

Warren: Was this a surprise?

Dominguez: I had had no indication up to that point that there was institutional concern about the project. Up to that point, I had received funding from UCSD. I had received letters of commendation for my teaching in these areas of electronic civil disobedience and border disturbance technology.

Warren: You had been involved in this kind of work for years, in New York and in Florida, before you got hired at UC San Diego. So, it’s not like the people at UCSD who hired you didn’t know what they were getting, right?

Dominguez: Indeed, it was the track record that initiated the conversation for me getting hired.

Warren: How did you develop the idea of electronic civil disobedience prior to coming to UC San Diego?

Dominguez: The original theory that we had in the 1990s was that electronic civil disobedience could only be really developed by those who had a coherent understanding of digital bodies, and those would be hackers. And that it would have to be a secret cell of hackers who had an intimate knowledge of code to initiate electronic civil disobedience. We felt that activists who were bound to the question of the streets would never initiate electronic civil disobedience because they had a history of Luddite quality, for good reason. But we felt, and we made a very harsh rhetorical statement, the streets are dead capital.

Warren: The streets are … .?

Dominguez: Dead capital. We felt that cybercapitalism was lifting off from the streets—that electronic civil disobedience would be, really, the only way to disturb the conditions of cybercapitalism, because the streets were now no longer bound to the flows of capital. But we also felt that hackers didn’t have a politics. They were only really bound to a question of politics of code qua code. The politics of the street, of the meat space, were something they wouldn’t really care about. So, we found then that activists would not create electronic civil disobedience and really, hackers wouldn’t do it ’cause it wasn’t in their particular frame, right? So it had to be artists.

Warren: So where is the “performance” in this performance art?

Dominguez: I think it is interesting to try to imagine the conditions of data bodies and real bodies interacting within each other as a performance.

Warren: You were uniting activists and hackers to create “hacktivists,” hackers with a political goal? Is that it?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: How is electronic civil disobedience related to the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: Well, as I was saying, one of the problems that we had conceptually with the original idea of electronic civil disobedience was that it was dependent on a cadre of hackers [and] on a certain knowledge of technology. Which is a similar assumption to what the RAND Corporation had done in their definitions of cyberwar, cyberterrorism, cybercrime. You needed infrastructure. You needed instant tactical knowledge of code. You needed a semantic awareness of how to transfer that information between code builders and machines.

Warren: So you’ve got the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the purpose of which is to get real bodies, real bodies to cross the border, cross these desert spaces without dying of thirst, for example. How is this performance art?

Dominguez: Performance art is about the body and transgression. It’s about the relationship of the body to space, right? For instance, with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, we are taking a technology, the GPS system and a cell phone system, which, again, are very attuned, at this moment in time, to attachment to the body. And so the Transborder Immigrant Tool does continue the history of electronic civil disobedience in creating a code that basically performs the belief that there is a higher law that needs to be brought to the foreground: a universal common law of the rights of safe passage. And so the tool calls forth this sense that there is a community of artists who are willing to foreground the higher law. We connect to the histories of higher law within the US, from civil disobedience to the underground railroad. So, the performative matrix that b.a.n.g. lab and Electronic Disturbance Theater has always tried to establish is indeed a deep connection between code and the body—a deep connection between code and those bodies that are outside of the regime of concern in terms of rights, in terms of consideration, in terms of being a community worthy of some sense of universal rights.

Warren: Do you want to abolish the border?

Dominguez: I do feel that whatever rights commodities have, individuals should have those same rights. A Coca-Cola can has more rights of protection in the flow across borders than the people who make the can, who fill the can, and pack the cans. And often they are devastated enough in that process that they feel they have to go elsewhere. And NAFTA seems to indicate that these commodities have [rights] and a right of flow. So, to me, transborders, trans-California, would be about an equation wherein the equality of the commodities would have a direct impact on the equality of the individuals who are the very flows of production there.

Warren: Have immigrants actually used the Transborder Immigrant Tool?

Dominguez: No. The investigation that started really slowed us down because our lawyers felt that to move forward would’ve put us in some jeopardy in terms of the investigation. But what we did do is, we continued to work with the NGOs and communities that leave water caches because they are a very important part of the project. And so we’ve been very lucky in that they’ve been very supportive and see the tool function. So what was supposed to be like a month long investigation turned out to be about ten months. And we accidentally discovered that we had been cleared. They never sent us the final “you’re cleared” statement. It was only by sheer accident that I discovered that we had been cleared of misuse of funds.

Warren: What triggered the investigation?

Dominguez: I did an interview with a magazine called Vice. This was picked up by Boing Boing [the online magazine], which is a major hub for exchange, and then it was picked up by NPR. This was in September/October of 2009; the project started in 2007. Before that, we had been funded, awards, all that sort of stuff, but it was internal. So this Vice interview went viral, and the nativists started getting involved. Every time there was a story on Fox News, we’d get slammed by hate mail. [In] most of it, they wanted to kill us in one way or another. We were accused of creating a cadre rebel army within the UC system. And that’s what started the university investigation.

Warren: How did Congress get involved?

Dominguez: It was midway through that investigation that three Republican Congressmen sent this letter requesting that the university investigate us about misuse of funds. Now, the irony is that Congressman Hunter [one of the three who sent the letter] is the nephew of John Hunter, and he is the person who started Water Station, Inc. about ten years ago. And he’s a hardcore Republican guy.

Warren: Water Station, Inc.—they cache water in the desert for immigrants?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: But they come from the political right?

Dominguez: Yes.

Warren: Why do they do this?

Dominguez: Well, I guess some of them might actually believe the New Testament. And they don’t want people to die unnecessarily. They want to help their brothers and sisters.

Warren: What’s the disposition of the university investigation of your lab?

Dominguez: Nothing was discovered in the investigation. No misuse of funds.

Warren: When some people think of art, they’re looking for a painting that will match their sofa. You seem to operate from the premise that art should make us uncomfortable with our assumptions—that there is something profoundly discomforting and political about true art. Is that right?

Dominguez: An artwork should create a sense that there is something that is occurring, something is happening. It should disturb the normal ontology of things. It seems to be unframing rather than framing. And it initiates a deeper currency of conversation beyond the museum or gallery. It forces art onto the front pages as opposed to the leisure page or the technology page or the art page, or somewhere in the back of the newspaper. It initiates a dialogue about art with congressmen. The truth of painting I would say is around the question of the frame. And for us, artwork is about unbinding that frame and letting it spill out into the conditions of the social space.

Warren: How do you see yourself in relation to artists in times past, say the Impressionists or anyone else? Were they disturbing the political world in parallel or analogous ways to what you’re doing?

Dominguez: Our work is more in the minor key. We are outside of the landscape of the major important work. But for us, the minor condition is much more important.

Warren: You mean minor as in dissonant, not minor as in less important?

Dominguez: No, no. I mean, for people who support the most conservative definition of art, Kafka is minor literature. Because that’s what Kafka called it. And certainly we saw during the cultural wars that performance art by women—Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, art that deals with questions of women’s bodies or lesbianism—were not part of what is considered the frame of art. The National Endowment for the Arts was attacked for funding it. Tim Miller’s performances of being a gay man were not considered something that should be funded, either. Mapplethorpe’s imagery—not to be funded, right? And so we fall much more along the minor literature, the minor art of the Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, perhaps to some kinship with Mapplethorpe and others along that particular line. We are concerned more about the qualities not of the exterior presentation, but with the internal mechanism of what is being produced and its intent.

Warren: In a sense, museums are ways of containing art. The art that you do is radically uncontained. It bursts not just the boundaries of the building but of the nation—thus, the Transborder Immigrant Tool … .

Dominguez: Right, but at the same time, we insist we are artists. We do want to have a conversation with art. So, we have no anxiety about [speaking] in a loud way. Everybody in this research team are all out-of-the-closet artists: Brett Stalbaum, Micha Cardenas, Amy Sara Carroll, and Elle Mehrmand. We’re not activists, we are artists. Our interest is not GPS global positioning systems but global poetic systems.

Warren: Is the Transborder Immigrant Tool being used or are similar things being devised for other borders around the world?

Dominguez: Well, we hope. The code can be used by other communities of artists to deal with their own poetics and aesthetics around their borders, to create transborders.

Warren: Are transborders places of crossing? Are they spaces between nations? What are they?

Dominguez: If you count all the folks who are crossing borders across the arcs of the world, it’s a pretty large population—larger than some countries. So the concept of the “transborder” as undocumented bodies moving between states is a way of imagining them as a flowing nation state that perhaps should have their own transborder rights, transborder rights to health, education, labor rights—in the not too distant future we may all be stateless undocumented bodies whose only rights will be transborder rights.

Articles

El Grito and the Tea Party

by Alexander I. Olson
with art by Guillermo Nericcio García

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Recalling Diversity

Less than a month after California’s hotly contested midterm election in November 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that local Tea Party activists had begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070—the law requiring state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspected “illegals.” It is no surprise that the craze for border enforcement has again swept California. Although the Pew Research Center has found that the flow of undocumented workers into the United States has actually decreased in recent years, and despite the estimated $253 million in lost economic output that Arizona has endured since the passage of SB 1070, polling has suggested that a majority of California voters support the Arizona measure.1 As Michael Erickson, the Tea Party activist behind the California measure, explained in the Bee, “it’s going to be we the people who are going to make it happen.”2

Whatever the fate of Erickson’s signature drive, his populist rhetoric mirrors that of the national Tea Party, with its emphasis on “taking back” the country and “restoring” American democracy. Despite imagery that would suggest a preoccupation with contesting the meaning of the American Revolution (witness the Minutemen at the United States-Mexico border and the revival of the Gadsden flag), the Tea Party has proven itself to be a potent force in contemporary US politics, drawing together diverse conservative ideologies.3 The movement’s fusion of past and present can be seen in the writings of former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose revision of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense spent four months atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2009.4 Readers can enroll in “Beck University” to take lessons in topics that include “Divine Providence vs. Manifest Destiny” and “Presidents You Need to Hate.”5 Such lessons portray the United States’ claim to Alta California—a northern territory of Mexico ceded to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War—as justified by divine sanction. Particularly in the US Southwest, the Tea Party’s emphasis on border enforcement is as much about defending an embattled white American heritage as more widely cited reasons such as preventing unemployment and terrorism.6 In the dystopian vision of Beck and his compatriots, Mexican immigrants and their “anchor babies” will shove aside the rituals of the Fourth of July in favor of el Grito—the cry of September 16th, or Mexican Independence Day.7

As California voters contemplate the wisdom of racial profiling and mass deportation, it is worth looking back to another aspect of California’s heritage: the multicultural towns of Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century. These isolated communities in the eastern Sierra Nevada were remnants of the complicated demographics of the Gold Rush and, indeed, the forty-niners were late arrivals in a region with a long history of migration—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

Some of the first Anglo visitors to Alta California were convicts dumped on the beach in Carmel in 1796. According to Doyce Nunis, Jr., they proved to be “hard-working and docile” laborers under the Spanish colonial regime before being sent to Spain the following year. After Mexican independence in 1821, the naturalization process was made “fast and easy” for migrants from the United States and around the world, many of whom intermarried with locals. An exciting body of literature in recent years—including Louise Pubols’s masterful study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Barbara, The Father of All (2009)—has deepened our understanding of the complex social and economic world of the Californios.8

“Bear on the Lam” by Guillermo Nericcio García (2011, digital mixed media)

All this was threatened when Mexico lost Alta California to the United States in 1848. Although wealthier Californios remained active and savvy players in the new political system, the American Invasion ushered in an era of state-sponsored racial violence, as Anglos sought to drive Mexican, Chilean, and other “foreign” families from mining country through such measures as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850. By sanctioning white supremacy, such laws eroded the land claims and citizenship rights of racialized “others” who were recast as “illegal aliens” in the twentieth century.9 Nevertheless, Anglo dominance was “difficult to enforce, and groups of people united by shared interests could create for themselves spheres of autonomy and strategies for interdependence.”10 The Owens Valley became such a sphere. For Anglos no less than Mexican, Basque, and Cuban families in the late nineteenth century, the towns of the Owens Valley were motley communities of exiles hoping to make a living in their adopted home.

By 1903, when Mary Hunter Austin published The Land of Little Rain, many of these towns were dwindling, if not vanished, and Los Angeles had already begun to eye the Owens Valley’s water resources.11 Rather than emphasizing decline, however, Austin painted a portrait of a vibrant, transnational, and deeply Californian culture where borders meant little, languages blended, and the chance to celebrate el Grito sparked joy, not fear. Every year on September 16, in her telling, shouts of ¡Viva la Libertad! and ¡Viva Mexico! resounded through the “Little Town of the Grape Vines.”12 From the grito itself to the hoisting of “the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,” the entire town joined in the festivities. At midnight, according to Austin, as the singing and dancing drew to a close, the flag was taken down. But this was not the end of the celebration. As “shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming hills,” the music began “softly and aside,” playing “airs of old longing and exile.” Next, and suddenly, the music struck “a barbaric swelling tune,” and the Star Spangled Banner was raised above the camp. The same people who had shouted the grito joined in singing the US national anthem. As Austin put it, “They sing everything, America, the Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the hymn of Cuba, and the Chilean national air to comfort two families of that land.“13

To be sure, Austin’s vision of harmony passes all too easily over the darker sides of life in the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century—-the misogyny, the poverty, the endemic violence. Austin herself escaped this world for the literary communities of San Francisco and Santa Fe, and her portrait of the “Little Town of the Grape Vines” might be understood as an example of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” an ethnographic stance and mode of cultural production in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”14 Austin never mentions efforts to erode multiculturalism through public health policy and anti-immigration measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.15 Yet unlike other examples of such nostalgia—including the ongoing fascination with the Gold Rush legend of the Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta, a figure who turned the tables on white colonial violence in attacks aimed at Anglo invaders—Austin’s story does not position the Owens Valley as a culture of the past, but as a vision for the future that inspired her later work on regionalism.16 Romanticized as her version of the Grito celebration might be, it offers a powerful corrective to the Tea Party’s campaign for harsh new immigration restrictions, reminding Californians of all stripes that our multicultural present has roots in many decades of migration—east, west, north, and south.

Notes

1. Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, 1 September 2010. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of California voters showed a split of 50%–43% in favor of the Arizona measure. Seema Mehta, “Voters Split on Arizona Law,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010. A Field Poll in June 2010 found a similar split of 49%–45% in favor of the measure. Shelby Grad, “Arizona Immigration Crackdown Divides California Voters, New Poll Shows,” Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2010. The lost economic output figure is based on an estimate of conference cancellations. Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley, “Stop the Conference: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Conference Cancellations Due to Arizona’s S.B. 1070,” Center for American Progress Report, November 2010.

2. Susan Ferriss, “Tea Party Activist Launches Arizona-style Immigration Initiative for California,” Sacramento Bee, 24 November 2010.

3. For the Tea Party’s role in a longer cultural struggle over the meaning of the American Revolution, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). The Tea Party’s ideological composition is surveyed in “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Research Center Report, 23 February 2011.

4. Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions, 1999). For number of weeks on the bestseller list, see New York Times, 18 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/books/bestseller/bestpapernonfiction.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. For Beck’s connection to the Tea Party, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, 18 October 2010. Wilentz identifies Beck’s role in the movement as “both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide.”

5. Beck University. http://www.glennbeck.com/becku/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

6. On TeaParty.org, a group with offices in California and Texas, the first item in a list of “Non-negotiable core beliefs” is “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally.” http://www.teaparty.org/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

7. Jorge Rivas, “Fox News: ‘Penélope Cruz Is Having an Anchor Baby,'” Color Lines: News for Action, 13 December 2010. http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/12/fox_news_penelope_cruz_is_having_an_anchor_baby.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. See also “Beck Embraces ‘Anchor Babies’ Slur,” Media Matters, 6 May 2010. http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201005060042 [accessed 1 March 2011]. Michael Erickson, sponsor of the SB 1070-style measure in California, has styled himself as a voice of reason by opposing state legislative attacks on “anchor babies”—even while arguing for judicial solutions and warning against the “ravages of crime and welfare dependency” supposedly encouraged by birthright citizenship. See Michael Erickson, “Birthright Citizenship: The Latest Gimmick of Immigration Enforcement Advocates,” 7 February 2011 (quotation by Erickson is located in comments section). http://www.rniamerica.org/node/589213 [accessed 1 March 2011].

8. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi, eds., Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 302–305. For intermarriage of Anglos and Californios before the Gold Rush, see Louise Pubols, “Open Ports and Intermarriage,” in The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (Berkeley: University of California Press and Huntington Library, 2009), 105–148, and María Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820–1880 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007). For conflict with Native Americans, see Michael González, This Small City Will Be a Mexican Paradise: Exploring the Origins of Mexican Culture in Los Angeles, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

9. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10. Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 51. For racial conflict in the Santa Clara Valley, see Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

11. Construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct—which devastated the remaining farms in the Owens Valley by diverting their water—began in 1908, and led to decades of conflict. See William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), and John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. The modern celebration of el Grito de la Independencia begins the night of September 15, with the shouting of el grito (“the cry”) resounding near midnight. The festivities continue on through September 16.

13. Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Modern Library, 2003 ed.), 106–107.

14. Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 108.

15. For efforts to curb or contain racial diversity in California through public health policy, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and Nayah Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Austin’s portrait echoed the efforts of boosters to celebrate a sanitized version of the region’s racial history, a marketing strategy that “allowed easterners to luxuriate in the Southern California so brilliantly advertised: exotic, semi-tropic, romantic.” William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28.

16. John Rollin Ridge, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (San Francisco, 1854). Susan Lee Johnson links the Murrieta legend to the concept of “imperialist nostalgia” in Roaring Camp, 49. Murrieta’s ongoing cultural resonance can be seen in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) and the Hollywood blockbuster The Mask of Zorro (1998).

Articles

Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix

Kent Wong
Matias Ramos

The failure of the DREAM Act in the last Congress—by a narrow margin—followed on the untimely deaths of Cinthya Felix and Tam Tran, renowned leaders in the immigrant-rights movement. Two activists and colleagues remember them.

On May 15, 2010, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, leaders in the movement to pass the DREAM Act, were killed in a car accident. Their tragic passing has galvanized the movement they left behind.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act proposes to grant United States citizenship to undocumented students or those who entered the country while still children.1 It was first introduced in Congress in 2001 under another name and has been reintroduced several times, most recently in 2010. The effort to get the bill enacted into law has been growing for a decade, and the national campaign for its passage has emerged as one of the most important social-justice movements of this generation. Students who stand to benefit from the law have conducted civil disobedience in the halls of Congress, organized hunger strikes, marched on foot for hundreds of miles from Florida to Washington, DC, as part of the “Trail of DREAMs,” organized a “DREAM Freedom Ride” from Los Angeles to Washington, and held countless press conferences, mock graduation ceremonies, and rallies to advance the cause.

The movement to pass the DREAM Act arose in the hearts and minds of thousands of young immigrants who claim America as their home; it has created powerful bonds among these young activists, who are assuming leadership roles and shaping the nation’s future.

Tam and Cinthya had both grown up in undocumented immigrant families; against the odds, both had graduated from UCLA and entered prestigious graduate schools. Indeed, they were among the very few undocumented immigrant graduate students in the country. Tam was in a PhD program in American civilization at Brown University; Cinthya was in a Master’s program in public health at Columbia University and planned to enter medical school. Both Tam and Cinthya were leading advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, with a national reputation as activists. DREAM students are carrying on their work in their honor and memory.

Of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, more than 2 million are minors. These young people had no say in the decision to come to this country, but were brought by parents or relatives seeking a better life. The aim of the act is to give them an opportunity to earn legal status by completing two years of higher education or through service in the US military.

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Cinthya Felix, Prema Lal, and Tam Tran demonstrate on behalf of the DREAM Act, Washington, DC, March 4, 2010. (photograph courtesy of DreamActivist)

DREAM activists like Tam and Cinthya became advocates for their own legal status as part of the broader fight for immigration reform. The rise in visibility of such activists challenged the pejorative labels of “illegal” and “law-breaking” frequently used in congressional and media debates on immigration. Tam and Cinthya, and others like them, showed America a different, more accurate image of undocumented youth that exemplified all that we value and hope for in our children: leadership, courage, articulateness, civic-minded commitment, and professional skills. They epitomized the motto of the DREAM Act movement: “undocumented and unafraid.” By breaking the habit of fear and anonymity to share their stories, they advanced a powerful movement for social justice.

Tam Tran was born to Vietnamese parents in Germany on October 30, 1982. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, her family was forced to flee Vietnam by boat, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. While many “boat people” were rescued at sea by Americans and relocated to the US, Tam’s parents were rescued by the German navy. They came to live in Germany, where Tam and her brother, Thien, were born.

The Tran family came to the United States when Tam was six years old to join other family members who had settled in California. Tam’s parents applied for political asylum, but their request was denied (after many years waiting) because they had emigrated from Germany, not directly from Vietnam. The family received a “withholding of deportation” exemption, but their status does not lead to legal residency or US citizenship. Tam was Vietnamese, but she had never been to Vietnam and was not a Vietnamese citizen. She was born in Germany, but Germany does not grant citizenship based on birthright. And although Tam subsequently spent more than twenty years in the US, the American government refused to give her legal status. So she was not only undocumented but stateless, trapped in a disgraceful immigration morass.

Tam grew up in Garden Grove, California. She graduated from Santiago High School, attended Santa Ana College, and then transferred to UCLA. She worked multiple jobs while carrying a full course load, and was also a prominent student leader and activist. At UCLA, she found a home with IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Educational Access, and Success), the support organization for undocumented immigrant students. She was a gifted filmmaker who produced acclaimed documentaries that have been screened nationally. The two best-known are Lost and Found and Seattle Underground Railroad (both 2007). Both capture the stories of undocumented UCLA students and celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of young immigrants. These moving, humorous, and insightful films provide a sharp analysis of oppressive immigration laws and their impact on youth.

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In memoriam: a Day of the Dead altar honoring Cinthya and Tam made by fellow activists Gabriela Monico and Uriel Rivera, 2010. (photograph © Elizabeth Leonardo)

Tam graduated from UCLA in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature and culture and with Latin, departmental, and college honors. After graduation, she worked at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and as a teaching assistant for the first university course ever offered in the United States on undocumented immigrant students. Her story was featured in Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, a book published by the Center in 2007.2

Tam gave public talks on the DREAM Act, screened her films, and promoted Underground Undergrads throughout the country. She made presentations before the national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Nevada, the first Asian Pacific Worker Rights Hearing in Washington, DC, the 2009 American Sociological Association conference in San Francisco, the 2009 Asian American Studies conference in Hawaii, and the Ford Foundation in New York in 2010. Each time, she spoke with eloquence, grace, and power. And each time, she recruited more allies to support the movement of immigrant youth and students.

As a leading national advocate for the DREAM Act, Tam testified before the US Congressional Immigration Subcommittee on May 18, 2007. Given her own undocumented status, this was an act of considerable personal courage. And sure enough, three days later, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents staged a predawn raid on her family’s home in Orange County and took her parents and brother into custody. Tam reached out to members of Congress and immigration attorneys and was able to have her family released and to stop their deportation. Throughout this ordeal she kept her focus, remarking, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys, and just disappear.”

Tam applied to top PhD programs nationwide and was accepted to UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Yale University, and Brown University. Although public institutions are legally barred from granting financial assistance to undocumented immigrants, both Yale and Brown, private universities, offered her generous scholarships. Tam entered the PhD program in American civilization at Brown. She joked, “Maybe if I get a PhD in American civilization they will finally let me become an American.”

At Brown, as in California, she swiftly became a leader. She continued to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act, founded the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, and helped launch the first statewide network of undocumented immigrant youths and students. She mobilized student contingents for marches in Washington, DC and lobbying visits to the Rhode Island congressional delegation and statehouse. A few weeks after her death, Brown University awarded her a Master’s degree in recognition of her extraordinary achievements.

Cinthya Felix was born in Sinaloa, Mexico on January 23, 1984. At fifteen, she went with her family to Los Angeles for what she thought was a vacation to Disneyland. In reality, it was an economic-survival move by her parents. The Felix family settled in the historic Mexican community of East Los Angeles. In high school Cinthya was a brilliant student as well as an accomplished basketball player. She then matriculated at UCLA, a two-hour commute each way by bus. There, she worked hard, saved money, and bought a car, audaciously giving it the vanity license plate YLLEGAL.

Like other undocumented immigrants, Cinthya was unable to get a driver’s license in California. She understood the contradiction: “The state wants our money, so they let us buy the car, get insurance, and pay for registration. But when it comes to giving us a license, they don’t want to give you one.”3

She could not get a license in California, but she had a plan. She organized a group of students to drive to Washington State, where it is easier for immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Tam Tran was one of the few students in IDEAS who had a driver’s license, so she joined the trip and brought her camera to document the experience, producing the film Seattle Underground Railroad.

At UCLA, Cinthya was one of the founders of IDEAS, the organization for undocumented immigrant students. IDEAS began as a clandestine support group: undocumented students would gather to share survival tips and assist one another to navigate the frequently unfriendly waters of the big university. As its numbers grew, the group developed into a bold public-advocacy organization that held mock graduation ceremonies on campus, immigrant-youth empowerment conferences that drew hundreds of students to UCLA, and an annual banquet that raised funds for members to complete their education. Cinthya and Tam became leading activists and fast friends. After their death, IDEAS was recognized by the University of California’s president and regents as an outstanding student organization within the university.

Cinthya graduated from college with a degree in English literature and minors in Spanish and Mexican Studies, but her ambition was to have a career in medicine. Fearing that no medical school would accept an applicant without legal status, she instead applied to Master’s programs in public health, eventually choosing that of Columbia University. In graduate school, she conducted research on health-care access within immigrant communities, waiting tables at night to support herself.

Tam and Cinthya were pioneers, undocumented immigrant students who had made it into graduate programs at exclusive private universities. This achievement was not without its share of alienation and isolation. As they had done in California, they relied on one another, and their experience on the East Coast only deepened their friendship. To celebrate the end of the school year, Cinthya and Tam decided to take a road trip to Maine to visit lighthouses, eat lobster, and prepare for summer. As they were returning from their trip, they were killed by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane of traffic.

Two days later, more than five hundred students gathered at UCLA for a memorial in their honor. Vigils were held in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Washington, Rhode Island, and Florida. Students in Arizona made buttons with their image in their memory. Most importantly, students in many areas of the country commemorated their spirit by carrying on their work, staging sit-ins, street closures, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, a national DREAM Freedom Ride, and other activities. Tam and Cinthya’s untimely death has been mourned and memorialized by members of Congress, the California state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles City Council. In their memory, DREAM activists reaffirmed their commitment to fight for the DREAM Act.4

Although we mourn the passing of Cinthya and Tam, we celebrate their lives. They were sisters; they were kindred spirits, always in sync: planning their next meal, their next act of defiant and optimistic activism, searching for a new adventure, pursuing their next dream. They accomplished more in their short lives than ever could have been imagined. Their spirit lives on in the hundreds of IDEAS alumni, in the thousands of young immigrants who embraced them as role models, and in the millions of immigrants who will one day be empowered to emerge from the shadows. B

 

Notes

1. The Senate version of the bill in its most recent form (S. 729) is published by the US Government Printing Office and may be found at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s729is/pdf/BILLS-111s729is.pdf, accessed January 6, 2011.

2. See http://www.labor.ucla.edu/publications/books/underground.html, accessed January 6, 2011.

3. Film, Seattle Underground Railroad, 2007.

4. In the 111th Congress the bill passed in the House of Representatives but the Senate majority was not large enough to overcome a Republican filibuster, and it died with the end of the legislative session. Activists plan to lobby for it to be revived in the next session of Congress.

 

Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and taught the class that produced Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out. Tam and Cinthya were his students and Tam also worked as his teaching assistant and intern.

Matias Ramos is a writer, blogger, and founding member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant student activists. He is a graduate of UCLA and was a friend of Tam and Cinthya as well as a fellow IDEAS member. He lives in Washington, DC.