It’s graduation season y’all. This is normally a time of relief and drunken debauchery to celebrate freedom from the clutches of the educational system, but for undocumented youth, the celebration tends to be bittersweet at best. But as this movement has grown, we have experienced an evolution of the graduation experience of undocumented youth.
Initially, because undocumented youth were all but invisible at our own graduations, receiving neither recognition of our triumph over adversity or even an acknowledgement of our presence, we created our own symbolic graduations. These were not to simply celebrate our academic achievements, but to have a space within the graduation context in which we could come together, share our individual stories and discover the common threads on our academic paths.
This symbolic space served as an environment in which everyone was understanding of the magnitude of the struggles you faced to be able to walk across that stage and didn’t question your ability if you had not yet gotten to that point. And more importantly, everyone understood the fear you faced the minute you stepped off of the stage. These symbolic graduations marked an acknowledgement of uncertainty, as a movement, that undocumented youth face pending graduation, and created a viable alternative that allowed us to take back the power lost during real graduations.
The Dream graduation in D.C. in 2009 was my first, and not only did it highlight the growing power and awareness of END cases such as those of Walter Lara and Benita Veliz, but it also highlighted the diversity of undocumented youth with Yosub Jung’s testimony and brought together hundreds of youth from across the country, many meeting each other for the first time.
In retrospect, this graduation sent two powerful messages. The first – even if we were not supported or acknowledged by our own schools, we had gained the support of the College Board, SEIU, Microsoft and the NAACP, who all served as a real-life ‘board of trustees’ that recognized and valued the power of our potential. They were willing to at least voice their support for our cause, at a time when many professors, deans, and university presidents were not. The second – to know your personal story and to gain the courage to share it with others is to know true power, a concept formerly foreign in the undocumented experience.
I began telling everyone I knew to flood their Senators and Representatives with letters of support of the DREAM Act. I found the courage within me to step out and stand up for what I know to be right. I know that other Dreamers may not have the freedom to share their personal stories on the level that I do…but you can share your story with close friends, even if it’s just to a handful of people, and encourage those people to tell others…
As seen from Benny’s amazing testimony, your personal story, as told in your own words, can move people to support you and move other youth just like you to the realization that they do not have to fight this battle alone.
Then in June 2010, our very own Flavia de la Fuente used her speech to force every attendee of the UCLA College of Letters and Science commencement to recognize that the undocumented experience of graduation does exist as a reality for more of their peers than they could imagine, graduates they were possibly sitting next to. But she then challenged them to continue to find courageous, creative, and compassionate ways to do something about it, to act, because, “we as a community, as a Bruin family, have responded to this moral crisis.” Our collective story, our identity as we had crafted it, now existed within a real graduation context, and was now acknowledged, if maybe not fully accepted, by the higher education system.
The July 2010 graduation brought together even more youth from over 18 states to the nation’s capital. In the summer of last year, the movement had reached the peak of taking our struggle into our own hands and ensuring that the voices of undocumented youth themselves were not only well-represented, but were now leading the fight. Many scoffed at our “audacity” of demanding that those affected should be at the forefront, but it was the height of Accountability Season in Washington, D.C. The act of escalation immediately following the graduation showed that we were not simply going to “graduate” and then shrink back into invisibility or complacency. The education, immigration, and political systems all sent us the message that we were simply out of options after graduating, and thus we shook them haters off, created our own options and took our fight to the belly of the beast – the Hill.
Moving into the fall and the Congressional battle for the passage of the DREAM Act, our public identity and the rhetoric surrounding it began to slowly change to that of the undocumented graduate – undocumented youth lobbying in caps & gowns, protesting in caps & gowns, marching in caps & gowns, even dancing in caps & gowns. Looking back, we really should have worked on an endorsement from Herff Jones.
In the short span of 13 months, we had gone from the creation of our own pseudo-graduation safe spaces to recognition, though not visibility, at real graduations, to the creation of other alternatives for ourselves after graduation. Ignored by the institution of higher education, we were beginning to craft our own graduation narrative, in our own words.
Then last month, President Obama gave the commencement speech at the Miami Dade College graduation. Many of his words were ironic to an undocumented graduate:
“It’s fitting that your motto is Opportunity Changes Everything. As someone who’s only here because of the chances my education gave me, I couldn’t agree more – opportunity changes everything. America will only be as strong in this new century as the opportunities that we provide you, the opportunities that we provide all our young people. I know that for many of you, reaching this day wasn’t easy. For so many of you, this day represents the fulfillment of your family’s dream – this is their day too. …It’s the result of an investment made by generations before you, an investment in that radical yet simple idea that America is a place, the place, where you can make it if you try. I know that for many of you it’s an intimidating time to be marching out into the world. The future may seem unclear.”
Yes, opportunity does change everything, and yet hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth are still being denied an opportunity to pursue higher education, to join the military, to work without fear of deportation by this very administration. The POTUS did throw us a dog bone: “And I will keep fighting alongside of you to make the DREAM Act the law of the land. I know some of you wish I could just bypass Congress and change the law myself. But that’s not how Democracy works.” But we know that this is also untrue, and that he does indeed have the executive authority to grant deferred action to DREAM-eligible youth; he’s just choosing to hold this opportunity hostage, letting the future continue to seem unclear for many more undocumented graduates.
Once again, our silent presence was acknowledged at a graduation, but it was done by watering down our struggle into a political sound bite. Our presence was acknowledged because it was politically useful, a politically relevant football to be punted. Was it great that we got a POTUS mention during a graduation? Yes. But did he do it because he recognized the need for our own space and visibility at graduations? No.
Earlier this month at Emory University in Georgia, land of HB 87 , Napolitano gave the commencement speech to a crowd of hopeful graduates and their parents, but made no mention of the youth across the country who will be attending their graduation ceremonies alone, because their parents have been deported. Or even worse, will not be attending their graduation ceremonies at all, because they had to leave with their parents or because they live in such a climate of hate in a state that would ban them from certain universities. She completely refused to acknowledge the elephant in the proverbial room that is Georgia. Where is their keynote speaker? Who is advising them with wise but untrue words on how this country is fair and just and has their best interests in heart?
Finally, with the University of San Francisco’s acknowledgment of Isabel’s work and struggle, of the value of her experience, finally undocumented youth were visible, had a space, and were able to use their unique voices at a real graduation.
One would expect the commencement speaker to be able to share their experience about what that first job is like and what things one should look for as a young graduate, and how best to be a productive part of the environment, all while staying true to yourself. But I don’t have that to share with you today. I don’t know what it’s like to be able to use my degree in a field or in a vocation that is true to who I am.
I have yet to experience that… and so I don’t have any stories to share from the office because of my documentation status and that’s my goal, that’s what’s shaped the heart that I have, that’s what shaped the vision that I have, and that’s why I’m proud to be here at a University like yours where in your mission statement you highlight the importance of “educating leaders who will fashion a more humane and just world and have a culture of service that respects and promotes the dignity of every person”. To me, every person means exactly that… every person: documented and undocumented.
So why the need for a space & visibility & voice for undocumented youth in the graduation context? So people do not continue to buy into the myth that if you study hard and get good grades, you will succeed in America. It is simply an untrue reality for many undocumented students across the country, and as we work to change that reality, we must, we MUST, ensure that the true impact of that reality is acknowledged. For we cannot seek to eradicate problems that have been made to be invisible.
Isabel (and her honorary doctorate) are a giant step in ensuring visibility, for it is not enough for us to exist, but we must have a voice and the visibility to ensure that that voice continues to remain authentically ours. As each of you cross graduation stages across the country in the coming weeks, do so with your head held high, for your very presence is a testament to our existence, to our visibility and to our struggle.
P.S. To watch Isabel’s entire speech at the University of San Francisco’s College of Arts and Sciences, follow this link and click on the Friday graduation at 12 p.m.