With both humor and pathos, Alberto Ledesma’s graphic novel/memoir provides an inside look at the life of an undocumented immigrant.
As has been noted time and again, history -- and the lessons it affords -- is cyclical. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and other paraphrased readings of the phrase more often than not attributed to George Satanyana. Yet what we as a society seem to take from this is it being little more than yet another quaint, idealistic aphorism.
In a widely circulated Boston Globe article published earlier this year, Neil Swidey looked into the story of a group American elites bemoaning the rising tide of immigration and the perceived toll their presence would take on the country they claimed to love so dearly. Seeking to eliminate the undesirables and "make America great again", they led an anti-immigrant crusade that touched a nerve with Americans on both sides of the issue.
Of course, the point of the article was not to address the obvious platform of hatred and xenophobia on which America's current president ran and was subsequently elected, but rather that this exact same issue had transpired more than 100 years ago in Boston. Trump’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric is nothing new, Swidey points out, and is in fact just a 21st century rebrand of the same “bans, borders and walls” argument put forth by the Immigration Restriction League, an organization founded and championed by a group of Boston intellectuals in 1894.
By February of 1917, nearly 100 years to the day before Trump would take office having rallied his base of intolerants with a revised take on the basic ideas behind the Immigration Restriction League, the group had managed to push through the passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1917. Despite having been vetoed by President Wilson the year before, it was overridden by both the Senate and Congress and became law on 5 February 1917. Also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, it sought to restrict the immigration of “undesirables” from other countries. Specifically, the act looked to ban “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those with any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States…, polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault or killing or any officer” from entering the country.
Despite being a nation founded by immigrants, the United States has since become increasingly intolerant of foreigners looking to better themselves in the so-called “land of opportunity”. Not only does this very idea seem to be conveniently forgotten, but its omission from the cultural dialogue has been the grounds on which multiple anti-immigration crusades have been conducted, the most recent being under the guidance of Trump. For all the great technological innovation and claims of social change of the past hundred years or so, ideologically American's have yet to evolve.
While this mindset sadly does not show any signs of changing anytime soon -- if anything it’s going to get worse before it gets better, especially following the presidential opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA -- there has been a much-needed influx of stories concerning those on the other side of the fence, those simply looking to better themselves within a country once renowned for its seemingly unlimited opportunities. Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, by Alberto Ledesma, offers an invaluable perspective on the immigrant experience in modern America. Beginning life as an undocumented immigrant, Ledesma tells his story and the struggles he and his family faced in graphic novel form, putting not only a name but a face to the issue at hand. Now the Graduate Diversity Director in Arts & Humanities at Berkeley, Ledesma’s is a unique perspective on life as an undocumented immigrant as well as what he now calls a life that is “hyper documented”.
Throughout, Ledesma reflects on his life before and after becoming an American citizen and the treatment he and others like him have experienced. Mixing his own history with that of activists and proponents for immigration reform, Ledesma paints a multifaceted picture of the immigrant experience, from the mundane day-to-day to the more high-profile struggles that fuel today’s headlines. Yet it’s these smaller moments and insights that prove the most affecting. In a sketch entitled “Anatomy of a Dream Act Kid”, Ledesma offers up a heart-breaking anatomical lesson: “Heart -- This is the organ that gives you the courage to persist in school. It is also your source of hope that the full DREAM Act [the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act] will pass; Brain -- This is probably your most important organ. Not only do you need to use it to stay out of trouble, it is also the only resource you have to figure out how you are going to eat from one day to the next.”
With both humor and pathos, Ledesma provides an inside look at the life of an undocumented immigrant, the hopes, fears and daily realities that make up the very real lives behind the headlines. On one of the final pages there rests a caricature of Trump, his oversized coif a tangled mass of graffiti that reads, “Each day I hear of Donald Trump’s increasing popularity as a presidential candidate I am again reminded of how thorough the commodification of xenophobia has become as a Republican election strategy. For Trump, manipulating racial hatred is not something to be avoided. Rather, it is part of his business model, a tactic employed to maximize influence.” It’s a statement that could just as easily have been applied to the Immigration Restriction League of more than 100 years ago.
That Ledesma’s greatest fears have been realized and we have a president elected on a platform of pure hatred makes Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer and the sentiments it expresses all the more tragic. In Chapter 7, Ledesma outlines what he calls "The Undocumented Alphabet", assigning a letter to a word or term applicable to the life of undocumented immigrants. For L, he uses “Liminality”, defining it as: “[Living] between and betwixt two worlds -- one world seeing you as existing only as a machine [a reference to “M” is for Machine, which Ledesma sees as the ultimate outcome for the migrant worker; “I came north to give them my arms and they took my soul.”] …and the other seeing you as a human being who is struggling to find a sense of dignity for yourself and your family.”
This latter sentiment is all the more sobering as, just a page away, sits N for “Nativism”, that toxic rhetoric being spewed by the leader of America and being readily accepted by a vocal minority that's hell-bent on “Making America Great Again”. It’s a sickening passage in any context, but it’s all the more so surrounded by the humanizing portrait Ledesma lays forth with his words and images.
Works like Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer are essential documents in this age in which civil discourse is virtually non-existent and hatred and intolerance for anything “foreign” is the rule of the land. By humanizing those more often than not marginalized or overly generalized by even the most liberal of institutions, we are able to see that the only thing separating us from one another is the pure circumstance of where and to whom we were born. A full realization of this is certainly more idealistic than realistic, but the conversation has to start somewhere and it might as well be with the personal stories of those who have and are living in a constant state of uncertainty and fear in the “home of the free and the land of the brave”.