Alhambra Source, News Feature, Daniela Gerson and Nathan Solis, Posted: Jan 16, 2012
Photo caption: Jonathan Perez, bottom left, is part of a new movement of undocumented youth in the San Gabriel Valley.
Jonathan Perez felt the surprised stares as he ate his Chinese food. The East Los Angeles College student wore a t-shirt with the word “undocumented” emblazoned across his chest in large letters. It’s what he is: Since Perez jumped the border at age three fleeing his native Colombia, he has been an undocumented immigrant.
Perez is part of a wave of young people who are choosing to come out about status as a vehicle to empowerment, similar to the way that the gay movement did a generation before. “If we’re in the shadows, we’re actually more vulnerable,” Perez said. “It’s easier for you to get deported because you don’t have a support network that’s organized.”
Not everyone agrees with his approach. When he began sharing his status, he noticed a clear divide in the area where he grew up on the border of East Los Angeles and the neighboring more Asian and suburban San Gabriel Valley. In East LA, he says, the shirt got a lively reaction. In Alhambra, where the 24-year-old lived for a few months last year, he says, “people just looked and are shocked.” At restaurants, he recalls, customers and employees alike would approach him and ask, “Aren’t you afraid?”
Last spring, Perez joined Pasadena City College students Martha Vasquez and Isaac Barrera and several other activists dedicated to creating a new immigration advocacy movement in the San Gabriel Valley. Crucial to their mission is advocating for immigration reform in an area where status is often kept hushed. They want young people who live here and are rarely heard from, in particularly Asian students, to share their experiences as well. Nearly half of undocumented students paying tuition in the California system are Asian, according to a College Board study, but the stories told about them are by and large Latino. (A recent prominent exception is the Filipino reporter, Jose Antonio Vargas, who came out as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times Magazine essay.)
“I was frustrated, both in Alhambra and other parts [of the San Gabriel Valley], because I didn’t see any immigrant movements happening,” Perez said. “It’s different when you come to East L.A. and see everyone is organizing and I got used to that. Looking at communities in the San Gabriel Valley, it’s not present.”
Since then, the San Gabriel Valley Dream Team members have attented rallies, worked to forge alliances with ethnic organizations, and hosted civil disobedience actions as far away as Alabama. This week they have been the driving force in expanding the movement to an alliance of groups called the Immigrant Youth Coalition. And on January 21 they will run a seminar for high school students at Cal State-LA.
Despite the San Gabriel organization’s growth, engaging their Asian peers has been a challenge.
Nearly a year in their group remains almost entirely Latino. It’s not for lack of trying, organizers say. They have worked with national and campus Asian organizations, such as APALC, but found being undocumented still provokes a greater barrier of shame in those communities. Vasquez, who arrived from Mexico at three and whose first memories are in the United States, said that it has been a struggle with fellow students at PCC.
“I tell them we’re all in this together and we need to come out,” she said, but has been challenged. “It’s very difficult for a lot of Asians to talk about their own stories. Or their families tend not to talk about it.”
Perez said that he has spoken with dozens of Asian undocumented immigrants, but that they “don’t want to talk about it or don’t want to come out.”
Challenges notwithstanding, organizers reported a change is already happening amongst San Gabriel Valley area youth. For Perez, this became clear to him after being arrested in Alabama last fall when he turned himself into Border Patrol in an attempt to prove that the Obama administration is deporting immigrants who are not criminals. He was sent to a detention center in Louisiana. Crucial to his release, he says, was that so many young people at Pasadena City College were out about their status — and advocating for him. “When I was that age, I wouldn’t have done something like that,” Perez said at a press conference after he returned. “That was a big thing for me to see.”
Daniela Gerson is the editor of the Alhambra Source. Nathan Solis is a community contributor to Alhambra Source.