Besides working as a Diversity Director at University of California (UC), Berkeley — from where he graduated three times over — Alberto Ledesma has also published academic articles and poetry, and four previous short stories. He has been a faculty member at California State University Northridge, Monterey Bay, and UC Berkeley. His essays have appeared in ColorLines and New America Media. He has also participated in Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Workshop and in the VONA Writers Workshop. His latest book, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, is a series of visual vignettes — drawings and prose — that focus on his experience as an undocumented immigrant student during the early 1980s. He was interviewed by writer Andrew Lam.
Why do you feel compelled to create this book? And why in a hybrid form?
I did not create Diary of A Reluctant Dreamer as a hybrid genre on purpose. I had been doing illustrations focusing on what it meant to live as an undocumented immigrant and sharing them on Facebook. Separately, I had also been writing personal essays on that same theme. It was not until Frederick Aldama created Latinographix, a series of books supported by The Ohio State University Press, that my work found a home. It was in conversations with him and the editor of the series that my book took its form. The illustrations I had been doing were popular enough being shared on Facebook. When we added the personal essays, a new kind of memoir was born.
You interacted with so many DACA students over the years at CAL, how do feel about your situation vs. theirs?
It is true that given my work as an administrator at UC Berkeley I have been able to interact with hundreds of undocumented immigrant students over the years. Even before California passed its landmark legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to attend state schools while paying in-state tuition, I had already been part of a group interested in addressing the needs of all immigrant students, The Immigrant Students Issues Coalition (ISIC). It was under the auspices of that group that Berkeley did so much work and ended up creating the nation’s first Undocumented Students Program (USP). My situation, as I relate in the book, was very different. I did not have the benefit of an ISIC, USP, or DACA. If it were not for Ronald Reagan’s Amnesty Program of 1986, I am not sure I would have graduated, much less earned my PhD. Over the years, I have been trying to chronicle what that fear that I felt before my status changed was like. More than three million undocumented men, women, and children participated in Reagan’s Amnesty Program. Of those, forty percent became citizens. Since then, my research and writing has focused on what happened to the stories of these new Americans. Why is it that undocumented ‘immigrantness’ has not been accepted as a kind of pre-American experience? While I believe in helping current DACA students as much as I can, I also want to let them know that their experience is not unique in a historical sense. I feel that it is my ethical responsibility to be an ally and help ease their anxiety.
The situation in DC is so fluid and volatile, and DACA students are living undoubtedly in fear. Can you talk about the psychological toll of being an undocumented student?
This is probably the number one topic that I address in the book. It is important to remember that DACA would have never happened without dozens of undocumented immigrant students risking deportation in order to protest. Those protests are what compelled the Obama Administration to develop DACA. While the fear of deportation is paralyzing, it is important to feel that fear but to remain civically active. Only by sharing our stories, by illustrating the organic connection that undocumented youth have within American society, can we cultivate enough allyship to change mean spirited policies. While this is not a time to remain silent, many undocumented students feel that the only right they still have is the right to remain silent. Elsewhere, I have written about the ways that undocumented immigrant experience is socially codified via a grammar of silence—strategic pauses that seek to protect undocumented kids from being found out. Still, as the DACA students showed us, sometimes we have to fight that instinct to remain quiet and figure out a way to relate our concrete experiences. That is what I am trying to do with my little book.
What do you hope will happen in the long run for Dreamers?
I do hope that the Trump Administration will find a way to create comprehensive immigration reform and a path towards citizenship but not just for dreamers. All 11 million undocumented people in the US deserve this policy. We should not cleave a segment of that population as being worthy while criminalizing the rest. After all, it was the parents of the students who had the original dream of improving their children’s lives.
Will Hispanic votes be galvanized at last given the anti-immigrant sentiment of our current administration, and especially anti-Latino American feelings over all?
Historical precedent suggests that this is exactly what will happen. Take as an example Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187, the highly anti-immigrant Save Our State ivation for immigrants to normalize their statuses and eventually become citizens. Much of the currentascendancy of the Latino Caucus in Sacramento is due to the increased voting that came from this community. The current political climate nationally is encouraging all immigrants who are close to becoming citizens to do just that. It is for this reason that I believe that the Trump Administration is seeking tools to achieve voter suppression. Still, I believe that even with those attempts to suppress the vote, a wave of new Latino and Asian voters will come soon and that they will have their say, just as they did in California.
What do you hope will be the result of “Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer?”
More than anything else I hope that readers might come to appreciate that ‘undocumentedness’ is not a disease that happens to people because they have been bad. Rather, this is a condition that has been deliberately created by mean spirited state policies that exploit the willingness of foreign workers to suffer indignities in an effort to provide for their families. Here are low paying jobs that we will reserve for only you, our message to them seems to be. However, in exchange for these jobs, we need for you and your children to forfeit equal membership in our society. It does not matter how hard you work or how loyal you are to our institutions. My book looks to provide even a partial glimpse as to what it means to live under these conditions.
Andrew Lam is the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” New America Media