Currently immigrant youth are characterized as either angels or demons: angels who are valedictorians and student body presidents or criminals who are gang members, coyotes, or drug runners.
Left out of this binary characterization of undocumented youth are the majority that are no different from most documented U.S. students: Sure, some are exemplary students, and some get sucked into crime, but the regular kid goes to school each day and tries to make the best of his or her situation. By some estimates, 67% of undocumented youth fit among these “regular kids;” legislation such as the DREAM Act doesn’t speak to their needs.
The 67 Sueños project works with these youth to support one another to tell their stories so that those most impacted by immigration policy become visible and help to shift common understanding of the experiences of these youth. The students create safe spaces for one another to tell their stories, and then find ways to bring the stories out into public view, whether through videotaping the stories or making public art.
In the summer of 2011 the young people worked with artist Pancho Pescador to paint a mural on the wall of the San Francisco Friends Meeting House. The images are based on the students’ stories of struggle and resistance and their dreams. They painted graves of people who have died crossing the border, people feeling the loneliness of deportation, and the youth often left out of the current immigration debate. The tagline for the mural is "No human being is illegal, y cada uno tiene un sueño (and each one has a dream).”
The 67 Sueños program is based on the understanding that culture change and reclamation usually precede political change. If the narrative around an issue is shifted, that makes way for a shift in politics, as well. In addition to shifting the narrative, immigrant youth must be the leaders of their own movement, setting the priorities and strategies and goals for what they do.
The students I met the day I was in San Francisco were unafraid to tell their stories. I accompanied them to a graduate-level international multicultural education class in which they stood poised in front of the adult students, and told their stories, why they do what they do, and what it’s like to work with 67 Sueños and to be undocumented in this culture.
One of the young women said, “I do this work for my whole community. I want to be in a safe community and help to create that for others.” Another said, “The system has divided us and criminalized us. We stand up for what we think is right.”
One of the graduate students responded to their presentation: “It’s a big deal not to be held down by fear, just saying that you are undocumented, you take power over it. That’s something to honor.”
It is. The next day I went and looked at the mural. It’s being covered up, erased by a new building that is going up next to the meeting house.
The stories of these undocumented youth get covered up, made invisible, erased every day. This mural will be hidden, but 67 Sueños will paint another one this coming summer. They will continue to tell their stories, to build the movement that makes way for comprehensive immigration reform. They are undocumented and unafraid, and they will keep standing up for themselves and their families until all of us hear them, see them, recognize and honor them. ~~~
Lucy Duncan is the Friends Liaison of American Friends Service Committee. She has been a professional storyteller for twenty years.
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