Redefining American Identity

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Telling stories of crossed borders, unyielding struggles and triumphs along the way, UC Santa Cruz students Stephany Ramos, Abril Lopez and Ricardo Cruz, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas shared their accounts of their lives as undocumented Americans.

Sixty people attended “An Evening of Dreams” at Peace United Church on March 6. The event was sponsored by UCSC’s Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP), UCSC Dreamweavers — a community of support for Dream Act students at UCSC and CSU Monterey Bay — and Define American — a campaign founded by Vargas that aims to critique the conversation around immigration.

“Every farmer, day worker and person who mows your lawn, babysits your kids and serves your drinks make America what it is and make this community what it is,” Vargas said while addressing the crowd. “They have a right to claim America as much as any student, doctor, lawyer or any other American in this country.”

The evening encompassed one question: What does it mean to be American? For Ramos, a UCSC second-year and a Dreamweaver intern, being American isn’t about being documented.

“Being American is just the struggles and hard work that I put in to get this — to get into the university. I’ve lived here most of my life, and all that hard work and all that crying and all the suffering to me is what being American means,” Ramos said. “Just finding a way around the barriers that have always been put right in front of me and jumping over them is what American is to me.”

Coming to the U.S. at the age of four, Ramos has lived most of her life here. She said although she was born in Mexico, her “heart, mind, soul, memories and voice” are all American.

“Even though I know I’m a part of this great nation, it does not know or recognize that I am a part of it,” Ramos said.

After Ramos, UCSC Dreamweaver intern Lopez and EOP intern Cruz spoke, an award ceremony honored them. The ceremony included awards and proclamations from Watsonville City Councilwoman and UCSC alumna Rebecca Garcia, UCSC alumnus and Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane and representatives from the offices of State Sen. Bill Monning and Assembly Member Mark Stone.

Aside from being a journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas is a filmmaker and founder of Define American, “a media and culture campaign” using the power of stories to shift the discourse around citizenship in the U.S.

In 2011, The New York Times published Vargas’s essay, which revealed and detailed his life as an undocumented immigrant. He left the Philippines in 1993 when he was 12, leaving his mother behind to join his grandparents in the U.S. Since the essay’s publication, Vargas has become an advocate for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. He said changing the culture around immigration is important.

“We can not change the very toxic partisan politics of this issue until we change the culture in which people talk about this issue,” Vargas said. “As long as people think we’re illegal, so long as people think about the borders and obsess over the borders in their minds without examining what it means in their hearts, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Vargas is using media to change the conversation with an upcoming series on MTV exploring what it’s like to be white and American.

“Unless I can get young white people to understand that they too come from immigrant backgrounds, unless I can get white America to examine its own history and realize ‘white’ is not a country and they do come from somewhere, like we do, we’re not going to get anywhere,” Vargas said.

The night started as a conversation about what it means to be American while also raising funds for the UCSC Dreamweavers, butit quickly turned into a cathartic experience for Lopez, a Dreamweaver intern.

“I call this whole [speaking] process like a healing process because for so long my parents told me to keep this a secret and to not tell anyone and to not talk about it, so speaking about it is a way of healing, opening up and trying to educate people,” Lopez said.

The aim to educate people resonated during the night as the conversation turned to what it means to be an ally. Ramos, a Dreamweaver intern, said it was important to understand who makes up the U.S.

“Allies can reach out to other communities and bring them in and learn more about who we are — and [then] have them become allies,” Ramos said. “It’s about getting stronger and stronger every day and spreading the word that there are not just Mexican immigrants, the [U.S] is a melting pot.”

  • DonHonda

    Correction: Vargas did not win the Pulitzer for individual work. It was for a team effort.

    Of course, “White” is not a country, duh. But, the US IS a sovereign nation and has a right to defend its borders from invasion within and without its nation.