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Media Representation For Undocumented Immigrants Matters

It's Time We Saw Undocumented Immigrants Positively Represented in the Media

When I tell folks anywhere that I have been working in the Immigrant Rights Movement, many automatically call me a Dreamer, but it's not how I define myself. In 2009, many of us around the country mobilized to support the Dream Act, legislation that would have given a path to citizenship for undocumented youth going to college or serving in the military. As Dreamers, we were recognized by the iconic cap and gowns we would wear while protesting or speaking in public spaces.

While advocating for the Dream Act, I had the privilege to organize with many amazing local leaders. I took every opportunity to tell folks about my experience growing up undocumented and to let them know there was a huge movement asking for protection for people like me. I pushed hard to do well in school to show America and its people that I deserved to stay here. It wasn't until years later that I realized how the DREAM Act perpetuated the "good immigrant" myth by equating higher education with worthiness.

It wasn't until years later that I realized how the Dream Act perpetuated the "good immigrant" myth by equating higher education with worthiness.
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My own path to pursuing higher education was a rocky one. My mother, brother, and I migrated from Peru to the US in 2002. From the moment we landed, my mom was very clear with me that my immigration status here was at risk. "No tenemos papeles, y eso es un secreto no le puedes decir a nadie," my mom would always remind me. "We don't have papers, that's a secret and you can't tell anyone."

From the age of 12, I had my first job as a babysitter, and although my mom never required me to work, I knew that she wasn't making enough money to feed us and house us. I often watched her cry in silence about this. I have always loved kids, so I took my babysitting job seriously. It was also a way for me to practice my English, and what better way than with kids? My first boss was amazing. She would let me eat there and take any leftovers to my family and would encourage me to focus on school. Every family I had worked for would always remind me about the importance of education, yet none of them ever asked me how I was getting along in school or whether I needed any help with homework. I worked full-time and was also in school. Slowly, my focus shifted from my homework and school in general to helping my brother with his schoolwork and making sure I was getting enough work hours to help my mom with rent and food. I remember being more proud of receiving my first paycheck than getting good grades. A paycheck meant my family was going to eat. Good grades didn't impress many.

I got involved with community organizing as a young teenager and juggled work, school, and activism. When I organized, I felt seen, I felt heard, and most importantly, I was providing information to those who were undocumented like myself. After high school, I spent 7 years at a community college, which is when the labeling started. People would say things like, "We have a Dreamer in the class — she must be so smart." I had been placed in this category where I was defined by my academic success. Many didn't understand that I had grown up with choosing between school or a roof above my head. I was in college because so many had told me this is what I needed to do to make others happy. I wanted my mom to be proud of who I was becoming, not because of my academic results, but because of the changes I was creating in my community. I started to feel uncomfortable with people calling me a Dreamer because it suddenly felt like my life experience and self-education didn't count.

Why is it so hard to find a good "success" story about the nanny, the housekeeper, or the delivery guy?

This created a gap in my organizing world, a gap I didn't know how to fill. I started to reconnect with my old friends who were also undocumented, housekeepers and babysitters who I worked with. I started to talk to people who were like me, folks who had different types of education, not particularly institutional education. A lot of them voiced the same concern: that the media only cares for the "good immigrant story," or more so, for folks like Dreamers. So many times we speak about seeing onscreen representation in Hollywood, but what about representation for everyday undocumented immigrants in the news? Why is it so hard to find a good "success" story about the nanny, the housekeeper, or the delivery guy?

I would always complain to friends about how I never saw a story like mine on TV, so I decided to do something about it. I made a promise to go beyond organizing and start amplifying stories like mine in the media. I began searching for a way to work in communications. I had no degree, just life experience on how to tell the stories of those who felt unheard. I was lucky enough to find a place that gave me my first job as a communication strategist. I would pitch as many stories as I could, and slowly I began to see stories like mine being portrayed in the media. Although lack of diverse representation of undocumented immigrants in the media remains a challenge, I'm hopeful for change.

I never dreamed to be in the career I'm in today, but it helped me fall in love with who I am and made me realize what I could do for the community. I wanted to see more faces like mine, so le eche ganas. I'm proud to say that I have placed stories in outlets like The New York Times, TIME magazine, The New Yorker, and many more.

Image Source: Lucia Allain
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