Certain themes struck a chord for me in “Dreaming Sin Fronteras” (Dreaming Without Borders), a performance last week at the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium. These stories conjured the struggles and complexity of being an undocumented immigrant growing up in the United States, and the search for identity in an adopted country that rejects us because of our status. Some of the individual stories resonated more than others, but I made a rooted connection with the idea of having to assimilate, being uncertain about whether I could attend college and the transformation from powerlessness to empowerment when I went from being a member of a disenfranchised group to becoming an activist on behalf of immigrants.
The character named Gabe, played by local actor Jose Julian, reminded me of my privilege benefiting from policies like AB-540, a law that has helped me pay in-state tuition; Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrival (DACA), which grants me temporary legal status; and the California DREAM Act, a law that is helping me pay for college. Because he is from a different generation, Gabe did not grow up with all these benefits and a college education to him seems like an impossible dream. But these limitations do not define Gabe.
He finds empowerment and becomes an activist, and paves the way for undocumented students like me to benefit from pro-immigrant policies. He is one of the trailblazers who helped open the gate to higher education; a dream that DREAMERs are chasing while fighting for their community. I enjoyed the performance. I only wished I could have been able to hear Gabe tell his own story and for him to experience real justice. I would also to thank him for the opportunities that he and his generation of activists helped provide for undocumented students.
At another point in the performance, a documentary clip from a bold mobilization showed a young man Jonathan, a role performed by Santiago Coronado, confronting DHS, revealing his status to depict the sorrowful conditions of a detention center where 1,200 community members are deported each day. Jonathan’s narrative showed the complexity and hardship of what it was like growing up undocumented and queer. The intersection of these two identities draws attention to the universal qualities of being an undocumented immigrant. Jonathan’s life is not just limited by his status, but also by his identity, by being human. His narrative ended with the strong image of a butterfly flying away from the detention center as his community celebrated his exit from the detention center.
Another of the characters featured in the performance was Alejandra, who is now U-visa carrier. She holds the visa granted to immigrants who have been the victim of a crime and are willing to cooperate with police. This cooperation grants her a path to residency, but only because she got shot in the leg during the infamous Aurora, Colo. shooting in which 12 theatergoers died. As Alejandra was in the hospital the only thing going through her head was how she would pay for the cost of going to the hospital if she is undocumented and uninsured.
This reminded me of very consciously making an effort not to hurt myself playing soccer tournaments because I could not risk the uncovered medical fees that might accompany an injury. Alejandra also took us into the daily apprehension involved in earning your income under the table, your heart beat rising every time your employer calls you in, telling yourself, “Well, I knew that this was going to happen.” And of the ongoing wait to hear that your façade has been exposed and you are going to get deported.
The music during each interlude served to illustrate the empowerment that each DREAMER emanated after transforming his or her pain, hopelessness and challenges into action. The latin beat and the protest music captured the powerful mood of each testimonial. And lyrics like “Fear will not last forever. Freedom will come” captured the resilience of the activists in the immigrant movement. I was happy to see Marisol Hernandez, lead singer of the Grammy award winning East Los Angeles band La Santa Cecilia. Hernandez sang the 1998 Manu Chau hit “Clandestino,” which tells the story of an undocumented man, while a video showed the faces of different people from different culture, which defines the United States as a nation of immigrants.
Most young immigrants living in the United States find it challenging to catch up with the dominant culture in the United States. Kalechi Emetuche’s testimony, presented by Emetuche herself, was my favorite story. She had a poetic take on her experience, reminding me of the time when I too tried to hide my accent, throw away my culture in order to be more American. She went through her experience learning various accents and detaching herself from her Ivory Coast culture; the pain and the embarrassment of forgetting your identity resonated with me. I remembered feeling stupid when I realized that my culture was also cool and I should not erase it but embrace it.
I found the testimonies, music and visual art empowering and revitalizing. Thetestimony touched on various issues—assimilation, LGBTQ identity, and feminism but a dominant theme was finding empowerment while enduring hardship. “Dreaming” depicts the immigrant movement as resilient. I would love to see more undocumented immigrants like Emetuche telling their own stories. These personal accounts bring more passion and emotion to audiences than political speeches that aren’t grounded in specifics. Stories like hers have the power to win over elected officials and change legislation to create pathways to success for immigrants in the U.S.