On Feb. 1, several undocumented students and allies met with Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who helped draft a bipartisan DREAM Act that would give a path to citizenship to “Dreamers” while increasing funding for border control. We held him accountable and protested outside the event because this was not the clean DREAM Act that we wanted.
During the event, I asked him how he could justify a plan that would divide our community and increase deaths at the border, and he claimed his hands were tied because he had to compromise with the demands of the Republicans. He looked at me and said, “We’ve got to turn this over to the next generation who’s willing to fight, and I can’t think of better leaders than those who have been through the struggle.” He was so happy to see how empowered immigrant youth were becoming because we were fighting for our rights.
The first thing I learned as an activist was how to tell my story. The summer after my junior year of high school, I met with leaders from Connecticut Students for a Dream for a storytelling workshop. Those who were comfortable sharing details about their life were encouraged to do so following the format we learned. I had never shared many details of my own story before then, because I had always been told it was something to keep secret.
But I shared that day, in a meeting room at a local community center. It was a very new experience for me, but I was comforted by the feedback given from others in the room. A few months later, I was invited to a youth leadership retreat. We met throughout the weekend in a retreat center where we learned about the immigrant rights movement and did several exercises to learn how to externalize this identity, and see it as something we could tackle together as opposed to something that was a part of us.
Each day, time was given for storytelling. Twelve of us sat in a circle. Tissue boxes were scattered around the room as we all shared. I felt safe in this space, but the tears fell as I went more in depth than I had when I first shared part of my story. I was handed tissues as I put into words what I had kept bottled up inside for so long.
Stories circled throughout the room. More tears were shed as I heard the stories of people my own age talking about their experiences crossing the border or having family members deported. This was a leadership retreat. We were being taught to be leaders by embracing our pain.
I continued sharing as I got more involved with activism in high school and at Harvard. Sometimes I shared longer stories. Sometimes it was just coming out as undocumented to another person. I shared in community gatherings, storytelling trainings, my high school graduation speech, and rallies, as well as news articles, op-eds, and more. Each time, I got better at speaking about something so personal.
Each time, I got better at holding back my tears and not shaking when I spoke. By telling my story, I felt like I could let go of some of that pain. At least, that’s how it began. But it slowly turned into something else. It was a tool for change—the only power I had. It slowly became something I felt I had to do and not something I wanted to do.
As one of many activists who have personal connections to their movements, I face the struggle of having to share my story to gain sympathy in the hopes that it will lead to change. I put my pain out there hoping that it won’t be returned, but rather, taken seriously. I put my story out there to fight the Trump administration only to be met with more and more exhaustion. In the constant attempts to find my strength, I have been left exposed and vulnerable.
The empowerment Durbin tried to romanticize that day is actually draining, as we must give so much of ourselves for basic rights that we deserve. We don’t have the power that he has. Our only power is in our voices. Yet, many politicians who claim to be on our side still expect us to waste our lives fighting for the right to live them.
The black fist on my forearm that I got this past summer as a reminder to never stop fighting now serves as a reminder for how present my status is in my daily life. When I think about the meaning of my tattoo, I realize it represents so much more than just my strength. It represents my pain, as well. Because it was from my pain that I learned to draw my strength.
I learned how to empower myself by making my identity public. I literally carry my status with me everywhere I go. I carry my employment authorization card in my wallet. I carry the conversation in my classes and my extracurricular activities. I carry it in my writing. And the black fist means I carry my activism on my body.
Our pain has been exposed. We don’t have the option of going back, and moving forward seems nearly impossible as we try to tear down the walls put in front of us. We must take care of ourselves and each other as we take on this pain together. But we are also forced to keep fighting because this is about our futures. This is our lives and our families on the line.
There has been pain in the past. There is pain now. We have no choice but to keep fighting until we finally put an end do it. Politicians have failed us time and time again. We should not have to fight alone.
Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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