“There is no greater agony than carrying an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou
I spent a day with Pablo Paredes and a few of the courageous immigrant youth with whom he works when I was in San Francisco in December. Pablo is AFSC program director for 67 Sueños, a youth-led program that works to make visible the stories and dreams of undocumented youth who are often left out of the immigration debate.
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.
Pablo 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.
67 Sueños begins the process of working with youth by hosting “encuentros,” encounters or meetings. Through networking, Pablo connects with undocumented youth in Oakland, then brings new contacts together for an afternoon led by more experienced immigrant youth. The leaders tell their own stories and lead activities that make it safe for the other students to tell theirs. They start with less risky stories, then invite the students to tell stories of their migration to the U.S. or stories of members of their family who have been deported. Some have experienced the trauma of deportation multiple times – losing a parent or sibling and in many cases not being able to contact them or find out what happened to them. Telling these stories helps them to begin to heal.
These first sessions create community; the students now know that others have stories similar to theirs and don’t feel so alone. They often continue to work together and tell their stories anonymously on video or audio, and some of them are brave enough to tell their stories in public, unafraid.
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).”
Pablo developed the program based on his 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. His thinking has been influenced by journalist Jeff Chang, who says, “Movements must change hearts and minds in an enduring way. They must change the culture.”
Inspired in part by James Lawson, who trained youth and supported them in building their capacity and skills during the Civil Rights movement, Pablo is also clear that 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.