Sunday, January 17, 2016

10 Years of Blogging as an Undocumented Immigrant (Long Read)

Circa Dec 2015
Ten years of blogging about my experiences being an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Hard to believe I’ve stuck with this endeavor for so long when the idea for starting it was simple: share my experiences as an undocumented immigrant living in the US. I initially got the idea from the blog ‘stuff white people like,’ which explained stuff white people like. With that simple idea, I figured I could do the same , but with my experiences as undocumented. Over the years, so many things have changed and I’ve changed along with them.

From creating a myspace account in 2004 to now working as a communications person at a non-profit organization. I’ve been able to prosper due to the fact that I have been growing with technology and staying on top of it the best I can, but I’ve also had the support of a lot of folks behind me at various points in my life. From opening up their floors for me to sleep on to treating me to lunch and a beer here and there. I wasn’t always the best house guest and I know I over stayed my welcome a couple of times, but I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for all those folks who helped me out along the way. To them, I say thank you.
When I started writing, I didn’t set out to accomplish anything but tell my own story. I started sharing my experiences as undocumented immigrant before meeting anyone else who was undocumented via the same situation I was in, the burnt out archetype of a DREAMER. Before I became part of the immigrant rights movement or knew anything about social justice movements, I just longed to connect with others that shared my specific experiences. In the absence of not being able to find others in real life or online, especially in those early days when everyone was afraid of being openly undocumented, I found solace in television, comic books, anime, video games, music, and anything else I could attach my insecurities to. It was easy to think I was the only one that was undocumented back then, but I wasn’t. Over the years, I’d come across news articles and stories written about other undocumented youth going to college and being in a similar situation as mine. One of the first undocumented support groups I read about was IDEAS at UCLA.

When I first came across them, it was like finding a message in a bottle. I was no longer alone. There were others like me, going to school despite being undocumented. By this time, I was already going to community college part-time. During my time at the school newspaper, I learned and wrote about the Federal Dream Act and California’s in-state tuition law, AB 540. Turns out there was a support group at my school and after seeing my articles, they reached out to me. I connected with them, but stayed at arms length to avoid conflict of interest when I would write about them for the paper. It was through them that I was plugged in to the statewide dreamer movement that had been growing all this time. In those early days, I met a lot of folks that I would later work with again, but would also go on to do amazing things for the movement itself.

I grew up working class and in many ways, I still am. I hated that life for a lot of complicated reasons, but the biggest of them all was just not being able to understand the why of things. I didn’t have the mental, nor emotional maturity to make sense of it back then and even today, I have to catch myself lest I do something I shouldn’t. A lot of that is tied up to my parents. They didn’t get much of an education because they lived out in rural ranches that demanded that they start working and pulling their own weight the moment they could. They grew up in abuse homes and didn’t really get the kind of support or caring one longs for as a child. That carried over to the way they raised my sisters and I, which is at the root of a lot of familial issues.

When we got to the US, I was given familial responsibilities like any other working class kid. I was the only English speaker in our home, so my parents relied on me to translate. Anything from letters to accompanying my father to court so he could pay his parking ticket. Whenever I wasn’t able to translate something, they just lash out at me. At the same time, I was expected to help out with the family business if I wasn’t doing anything school related. From being a street vendor to keeping my father company when he was an underground taxi cab driver, I’ve had more jobs than I can count and for better or worse, those experiences have served me over the years.

When I stop and think about the last 10 years of my life, all I think about is the growth I’ve made as an individual, my knowledge of self. Going from 20 to 30, all I can do is laugh at myself as I sit in front of my laptop thinking about everything I’ve been through, the things I’ve seen, done, regret etc. Despite everything that has happened in this last decade, I repeat a saying I picked up when I was going to bible study, “I may not be where I want to be, but at least I’m not where I use to be.”

In my early days of being online and blogging, I did most of my writing on journal I kept. My writing transitioned online once I started going to community college and I began taking journalism classes. That’s when everything changed not only for the better, but it put me to the current path I’m following now. I started working on this post in November of 2014 thinking I was going to be able to write something casual like I normally do. However, as I started putting thoughts down, I realized that there are just simply too many things to cover over from the 10 years. I talked to some friends about this post and decided to narrow it down to three specific topics that can give a broader scene of where I’ve. Those topics are access to technology/internet, blogging, and the undocumented youth movement.

As with all my other post, I write this first and for most for myself. Being able to reflect through my writing has helped me immensely over the years. Secondly, I share this in the same spirit that got me started, by sharing my experiences as an undocumented immigrant living in the United States. Enjoy.

Access to Technology and Internet
My first experience using a computer and the Internet was in junior high. I can’t remember the name of the class, but that’s where I made my first web page and in essence, blog post. It was hosted on geo cities and it was nothing but me re-telling the story of the anime Dragon Ball Z. As a teenager, I didn’t comprehend what was in front of me because I was more concerned with unleashing natural disasters on Sim-City and hunting Bison on the Oregon Trail. My second experience after that was in the 9th grade. I learned to write computer programs and I dug it. It was easy at first and part of me wishes I would have stayed on top of it, but I was becoming more and more depressed the older I got due to my immigration status. My rationale was that there wasn’t any point in doing well in school because I was undocumented and I had no future to strive for outside of the life I was already living. I did just enough work so I would move on to the next grade and eventually graduate. After graduating, I spent about 3 years bounding around from odd job to odd job while living at home.

Through ill-gotten means, my father was able to acquire my first home computer when I was in high school. It was an old mac, so I knew my way around it. For Internet access, I would just use America Online CDs and floppy disk until they ran out of free access. Back in those days, I was more concerned with learning more about my favorite shows than trying to connect with anyone outside of a yahoo chat room after asking them A/S/L.

When myspace came around in 2004, I became enthralled with it. It was there that I would write my first blog post and set out on the current path I am on now. I’m part of the last generation who grew up in a world without the Internet being common place, which has allowed me to grow along with technology. It was only after joining myspace that internet access went from being something passive to something I needed. I was obsessed with it like a lot of folks were back then, least up to the point when everyone migrated over to facebook. Myspace was also one of my first experiences delving into code, albeit to modify my page and add images of my favorite interest via photobucket.

I started community college in the fall of 2005 as a journalism major. By 2006, I joined the school newspaper as a staff writer. Having access to a computer and Internet at school meant that I didn’t have to rely on the crappy computer I had at home anymore. The times I wasn’t able to access computers at school, I relied on those at the public library and on friends. My time at the school newspaper was a turning point for me in numerous ways. During my time there, I held down every position available, except editor in chief. I loved being a reporter because I was good at it. I head a great teacher who helped me build a foundation that I still look back to this day.

From there, the next big change came when I got my first smart phone, the Iphone. I used money from a scholarship to buy the then first generation Iphone from a friend of a friend who said it fell off a truck. The same friend that hooked me up with that phone also let me join his phone plan if I helped him out with the monthly payments. I had unlimited everything and I took full advantage of that. That phone was a game changer because I started using it the same way reporters use it now, as a tool for gathering information on the fly, taking pictures, taking down notes etc. With that phone in my hand, I felt as if Prometheus himself had come down from the heavens and handed me the gift of fire. At the same time, my friend and I loved playing up the juxtaposition of being two skaters with Iphones at a time when it was a major status symbol.

Time has made technology cheaper, faster, and more accessible now that it is an essential part of every day life. It’s still an essential part of my life because that’s how I make my living, but it’s a double edge sword. There are days in which the last thing I want to do is check social media or look at a screen, which is exacerbated by my being able to read and predict social media trends that do nothing more than make me want to roll my eyes out of my head. A kind of social media rage if you will. Still, I do my best to stay on top of trends and tools to use them for work. I also put those skills to great use by sharing with friends and doing tech workshops with folks in the social justice movement.

I’ve come a long way from the days of relying on my smart phone. Since then, I’ve done pretty well for myself in terms of the tech tools I use for work, from my laptop to my digital camera. Nowadays, I’m more concerned with neutrality and the monopolies Internet service providers and phone companies are creating. It’s easy to rely on free services and programs without really thinking about the massive data mining going on behind closed doors. I gave in one hundred percent and let google manage the majority of my digital life, for better and for worse.

Community college and my time in the school newspaper helped me focus on my writing and satiate my need for being a loud mouth know-it-all that wants to tell everyone everything. I had a great teacher who grounded me in traditional journalism at a time when the digital transition was barely getting underway. I repeat this because it was that important in my growth. Mind you that while I was doing the school reporter thing, I was still writing my life’s woes on myspace. Back in those days, I made the mistake of over lapping the two, creating problems for myself that I could have been easily avoided had I filter or common sense.

One of the things the newspaper staff did on a regular basis was review that weeks issue after publication. Our advisor would give us cheers or jeers on the stories that were published, putting folks in the hot seat, pointing out errors and critiquing content. Content was always an issue because staff would write reviews about movies, tv shows, music etc. All things that had nothing to do with school, but it would get published because the paper had to go out. If you wrote something that was school related, that always got pushed to the front page, which is what I ended up doing the majority of the time.

As our advisor put, the school newspaper should have news about the school. I took that to heart and I ran wild with it. I was cranking out stories every week about anything and everything happening around school. I hit my stride when I started covering the student union beat and I made that shit relevant son. You’d never know that the student union revising their constitution was such a big deal, but I made it one. Writing those stories, the feeling I got seeing them published on the front page, that’s what made everything else in my life bearable at a time when I was one step away from being homeless. Even now when I think back on those times, I get goose bumps, but that was only the beginning.

The school newspaper provided me with a lot of opportunities, but the biggest of them all was connecting with individuals in social justice and art spaces. East Los Angeles College has a long history in those aspects and while my writing wasn’t anything mind blowing, it gave me a foot in the door to go beyond what was happening at school and what was going on in Boyle Heights, my neighborhood. It’s difficult to recall events in specific details, especially in chronological order, but that’s the gist of it. I would introduce myself; let folks know I was writing a story for the East LA College newspaper and BAM! I had an interview and story.

Those experiences lead me to the world of Chicano/a art after stumbling into the Cheech Marin Collection at a gallery on a random day when I was skating with my friend. I made an instant connection to the art and I started connecting the dots to focus my writing on artist and gallery shows happening around town. The first place I started publishing outside of school or my own stuff was on LA Taco. I still remember being in the school newsroom the day I saw my blog post go up on the site and how excited I was to branch out. My first post was reviewing a sticker art show called ‘Peel Here.’ From there on, I would go to galleries on a weekly basis, taking pictures and doing a write up.

In those early days, it never once occurred to me to ask for money or to pitch my stories anywhere else, I was having too much fun and I was less savvy about working the system as an undocumented immigrant. Besides, looking back on my writing and photography skills, there’s no way anyone with a right mind would pay me for what I was doing. But none of that mattered. I was meeting all sorts of people, checking out random art, and enjoying the time I was spending with friends I would take to these shows.

I was still developing my voice as a writer back then and eventually I ended up connecting with a group of folks blogging with a Latino/a focus. There was even a monthly meet up for everyone to meet in real life and just hang out. It was in those meetings that I ended up connecting with a few of the folks that would, in many ways, mentor me into the next phase of my blogging and reporting on the site, LAEastside.

LAEastside was group blog that focused on life, culture, and happenings in the greater East Los Angeles area. This was the first digital spaces I encountered in which Latinos/as could talk about whatever was on folk’s minds, from where you can find the best huevos rancheros to challenging stereotypical media interpretations of our communities. No body got paid to write and anyone who wanted to contribute could, which is how I got involved. Both LATaco and LAEastside gave me venues to share my musings, but it was the connections I made with other bloggers on LAEastside that put me on a path to being a critical thinker, rather than just telling folks what was happening.

Blogging on LAEastside further grew the reputation I had started building when I was at the school newspaper. While I had more reach through the blogs, I didn’t have the editorial support I had at school, so I’d publish pieces with grammar errors all over the place, but the content was on point. I was ahead of the curve for a cool minute and that opened up more opportunities because I was one of the only folks reporting on issues about the neighborhood. The blog itself garnered its fair share of attention, becoming a go to space for folks to talk about happenings and challenging other digital spaces that over look our communities and/or tried to appropriate hem. It became a go to site for larger institutions, like the Los Angeles Times, to cherry pick stories for their writers. A few of my blog post got cherry picked like that.

I still kept up my person blog going through all this and since I was knee deep in the dreamer movement by then, I was making digital connections with other folks who were blogging their experiences. In those early days, no one was public about names or personal details that could be traced back to them, I know I wasn’t, but little by little more and more folks started popping up online and writing. Some of them found me and some I found, but eventually there was enough momentum online and in real life that folks put together a digital network for undocumented bloggers to connect with each other. The symbol on the top right hand corner of my blog is proof of that.

Eventually, the space and many of the folks I followed online started fading away. I held down myspace because I still needed it and while other folks stopped writing, a whole new crop started filling in the gaps in all kinds of ways. The dreamer movement wasn’t know for fostering artist in those days, so it was always refreshing when groups or individuals would get some much deserved attention. It’s hard for me to describe the current status of folks who are undocumented and online because everyone is online now. It’s the norm. There are countless resources available now and even studies on how the dreamer movement used technology and social media to organize, get people out of deportation proceedings, and change the narrative of what it means to be undocumented. Being hyper connected resulted in a lot of growth and movement building, but it has also led to a bunch of drama and calling out, some of which I have started. I like it thought.

It means that no one organization or individual can be put on a pedestal and represent an entire movement or experience anymore. Soon as someone tries to pull that off, they’ll be folks challenging that, but not always in the most constructive of ways. Some of it has gotten pretty down right malicious, which is more of a reflection of those individuals, rather than a movement as a whole. Still, for all the growth that has been made, some things haven’t changed. There will always be opportunist and ass holes in any movement just as there are folks holding it down. Just a matter of figuring out whose who.

Undocumented Youth Movement
I trip out when I look back on who I was before and after being part of the undocumented immigrant/youth movement. There are only a handful of individuals that I still keep in touch with who knew me before I got involved, not including family. Thinking back on those transitions and the work that followed after, I may have changed, but in many ways I was still annoyingly immature when it came to how I handled my interactions with others. Something I still struggle to this day because of politics and nuances. Despite all this, I own who I am without concern or reservations on what others think.

Like I mentioned already, one of the first undocumented groups that I came across was IDEAS at UCLA, through an article in the Los Angeles Times magazine in 2006. Reading that article felt like gasp of much needed air to a drowning man because that how I felt back then. I had just started going to community college the year before, but reading that article led me down the rabbit hole that eventually lead me to connect with a local group at my college and the state wide coalition of student groups organizing. I wrote about these issues in my school newspaper and it culminated in 2007 when I attended my first DREAM Act rally. I covered the event for my school newspaper, but it retrospect, that rally set a coming precedent for the years to follow.

Back then, my mind set was set on being a reporter and continuing to grow as a writer, which I did, but it wasn’t until 2008-9 that I started connecting different dots. I got fed up with being objective in my writing. I wanted more and knew that my personal experiences couldn’t just be brushed aside, so I started focusing my attention on activism. At the same time, the DREAMER spaces here in Southern California also started transitioning due to circumstances. Here in So Cal, there was one non-profit, from my understanding, that lead the way in supporting DREAMERS before that was even a term, CHIRLA.
They were there advocating for in-state tuition and they help build and organize the statewide coalition of undocumented student clubs/support groups at colleges, which eventually came to be called the CA Dream Network. You can’t talk about DREAMER organizing without talking about this network.

2007 and 2008 became a transition period because the youth that helped build this network were now graduating from college. This meant they could no longer be part of the network. I can’t speak to what that transition looked like because I wasn’t a part of it, I’ve only heard what went down from second hand accounts of those who were part of the network in those days. It reads off as a list of whose who because many of those folks continued on to do amazing work in the years to come. This transition of space lead those who were graduating school to form new spaces to continue their organizing without being tied down to a parent non-profit organization or to specific circumstances.

While IDEAS at UCLA was one of the first groups I came across, the Orange County Dream Team (OCDT), as they were previously known, was one of the first groups to hold it down for undocumented youth, with a focus on community organizing that wasn’t tied down to a specific non-profit organization. Looking to OCDT, folks here in LA formed a sister organization, Dream Team Los Angeles (DTLA). The space was opened to anyone that wanted to organize around undocumented youth and per the times, the DREAM Act. I saw this happening online and it wasn’t until I got a call from Lizbeth Mateo, who asked me to be part of the group that I got on board.

I attended the first meeting as a no body while everyone else in that room was part of a school group or a non-profit that worked with undocumented youth. The formation of DTLA was my version of the X-Men and Avengers. It was the first and only group/organization that I was ever part of and held down. Because it was my first time being part of something like this, I was all in. From meetings in which there was only one other person and myself present, to rallies that drew national attention, I was there for it all. I didn’t notice it then, but when I look back on things now, there were a lot of growing pains for the group and everyone that was a part of it at one time or another, but a lot of work was done thanks to the support of countless individuals and their resources.

My time in DTLA proved to be the catalyst that put me on the current path I’m on in so may ways, it trips me out thinking about it. I put to use the skills I had from being an amateur reporter/blogger and picked up a lot more along the way. This amalgamation of skill sets have allowed me to flourish and prosper in ways I never knew I could. Of everything I took part in and accomplished with others while in DTLA, doing workshops on how undocumented immigrants could qualify for in-state tuition to attend college in CA was my favorite.

I did this because when I was in high school, no one reached out to me. Granted that I graduated the same year the in-state tuition law went into affect, I held on to the thought that things would have been different had I known from the get go. Instead, I fell hard on being depressed for a few years before finding my way again. My contribution to the movement was doing these workshops and sharing the knowledge that could be a literal life changer to someone who is in the same situation as I was.

Sharing our experiences openly and putting our faces behind the immigrant rights movement, albeit a nuanced rhetoric, was instrumental in changing things for the better. I never said no to doing these kinds of workshops, even if it mean having to take time off from work. I’m a total ham; so being in front of a crowd was always fun for me. It allowed me to share the numerous resources that were now available to the next generation of undocumented youth. Whether it was in a classroom with a handful of individuals or a large hall with hundreds in attendance, the message was always the same: you are not alone. There are others who are undocumented and doing the impossible. You don’t have to do this alone anymore and here’s how you can do it.

Being part of DTLA was a big part of my life and I have no qualms about any of those experiences, nor of the people I met in those years I was part of the group. All the drama over the years with non-profits, individuals, and the numerous shifts in an ever-changing identity have lead to a lot of complicated work that benefits and hinders at the same time. For every celebrity like figure in the undocumented youth movement you see on tv, press, documentaries etc., there are 10 more working behind the scenes doing amazing work that is literally changing lives, but will never recognized beyond the circles. I’ve come to terms with those kinds of realizations and as such, have moved on for my own personal well being.

I was an undocumented youth by circumstances out of my control and when those circumstances changed slightly thanks to Deferred Action (DACA), the next generation filled in that gap. I welcomed that transition and was ready to finally move on to something different, but it’s just more of the same really. DACA helped expedite this for a lot folks after the DREAM Act failed to pass in 2010. No one liked the idea of being a 30-year-old dreamer, so folks moved on and others took their place. Such is the nature of things. I can’t speak on the current state of the undocumented youth or immigrant movement because I stop being a part of it, but it’s still there. From national organizations like United We Dream holding down tropes to local groups pulling away from that Dreamer identity and carving one out for themselves, there will always be a movement. There will always be drama.

What’s Next?
I will continue writing and blogging into the foreseeable future. Aside from it being my bread and butter, I’ve always been able to articulate myself through writing better than any other medium. My present life isn’t an exciting one. I wake up, go to work, and come home. In that I have found the kind of stability that has afforded me new opportunities. I’m still active in other capacities, like organizing around bicycles and talking trash online, but for the better part, I keep to myself. For me, DACA wasn’t a life changing moment. It just made getting by easier.

After spending seven years at a community college, I have no inclination to finish school and transfer to a university. My time in the trenches out weights whatever value a college degree in communications would hold, least for now. Which isn’t to say that I’ve stopped growing or picking up new skills, on the contrary, I’m always on the look out for the next trend and needed skillset. Ultimately though, I wanna put out a comic book autobiography about myself. I already know which artist I would want to work with, it’s just a matter of me getting my ducks in order and leaving the rest up to fates. Till then, I’ll just keep writing here and being passive aggressive everywhere else.