Living in the light

How five young people are using their personal stories to change the conversation on immigration


The day after Oscar Juarez publicly announced his immigration status — undocumented, brought to the U.S. at age 7 by parents desperate to escape their impoverished lives in Mexico and eager to promise their children more and better opportunities — he walked into the student union at Metropolitan State University of Denver to a banner bearing his image and the words, “Wanted. If seen, call Immigration.”

“I didn’t feel scared, the reason being, I knew my community was behind me,” he says. Of his three brothers, all of whom are here by the temporary grace of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he says, “We felt protected, especially, knowing our rights, as undocumented, because even being undocumented, you have, automatically, your rights and we knew them. That’s the thing that we try to do with other people, with the rest of our community, to educate them to know that they have rights. … I think coming out as undocumented, we didn’t feel any fear and that’s the same thing we want everybody to have, to feel that security.”

The Juarez brothers came out publicly in an ongoing effort to educate immigrants about their rights in the U.S., and to educate voters in the U.S. about the current immigrant experience. They’ve gone to town halls and community forums and spoken to the media.

This year, they added a new method of reaching people. The three brothers, Oscar, Juan and Hugo Juarez, alongside Victor Galvan and Ana Christina Temu and Motus Theater’s Director Kirsten Wilson, have undertaken the task of using theater to coax people into a conversation about the state of immigration in the U.S. They’re using their personal stories, their hopes, fears, aspirations and struggles, to add a sense of human lives at stake to the labels, from the ugly “illegals” to the hopeful “Dreamers.”

Or, as Oscar Juarez says, “It’s giving a face to the statistics.”

Those statistics for Colorado are stunning. Estimates for just the portion of the undocumented immigrant population to be affected by the Obama executive order permitting temporary legal status to those related to U.S. citizens in Colorado run as high as 54,000.

Galvan, and Juan, Oscar and Hugo Juarez were all brought to the U.S. as children. Galvan was just 8 months old when he arrived. Temu’s parents are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and she’s the only one of them with U.S. citizenship. The five of them each wrote a monologue about their experiences growing up in the U.S., and Wilson has crafted a script based on what they wrote and Brian Mullins contributed original music. The play, Do You Know Who I Am?, has since been performed around Colorado roughly 30 times.

“All the things that we’ve been through, our families, the struggles we’ve faced on a daily basis, at one point you just get tired of it and one of the biggest things for me was, coming up in this work, I was always trained to tell my story in the third person, so I wouldn’t be telling my story as Victor Galvan, I’d be telling my friend’s story, and I felt like that always took something away from what I was saying. It never felt quite authentic,” says Galvan.

People told him not to go public with his status out of concerns for his safety. He did so anyway.

“The first time I said it, it felt so empowering,” he says. “I was telling people who I really was and what my real experiences were, and people really wanted to hear that because all they’d ever heard was allies defending undocumented people and here I was, undocumented and telling my story.”

Legislators needed the stories, he says. They needed more than numbers and labels to make changes to legislation. He credits those who have come forward publicly as undocumented immigrants with passing the bill that allowed undocumented immigrants instate tuition at colleges and with repealing Colorado’s equivalent of the “Show me your papers” law in Arizona, and even with President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

“That’s exactly what telling our stories as undocumented people did, it moved law,” Galvan says. “Being undocumented and out of the shadows is the biggest and strongest tool we have, and that’s why I think our story, our play, rings so loudly not only with the community in Boulder but all across Colorado. … I think we give that human face to the struggle.”

When Wilson began the workshop that led to Do You Know Who I Am?, 20 undocumented immigrants showed up to write monologues about their story. She warned them about the road ahead, the rigors of writing this sort of confessional content.

“When you have to survive a lot of emotional and personal obstacles as a family and there’s lot of really terrifying things that happen because you could be separated from your families, all the things that happen, in order to perform that story emotionally you have to stop and feel not just your pain but your parents’ pain and your community’s pain and that takes a lot of courage and is really stressful,” Wilson says. “So when I said to this group of 20 people, what it might be like, I was aware that I would lose most of them.”

The next session, only five showed up. 

“The first classes, it was just a roller coaster of emotions, bringing back memories of when we came over here to the States, our childhood, it was just amazing,” Juan Juarez says. “At the time that we were writing, we couldn’t contain the tears or emotions.”

From a group energy level, it wouldn’t have worked if one more of them dropped out after that point. No one did.

“These guys were just relentless,” Wilson says. 

The title comes from Hugo Juarez’s experience with a high school literature teacher, who was also an immigrant but was able to get legal status by marrying a U.S. citizen and made a hate-filled speech to his class about undocumented immigrants. Later, she gave Hugo an award for his achievements as a literature student; she had no idea her star pupil was an undocumented immigrant. She didn’t know who he was.

After a year and 30 performances, all of which have included talk-backs, they’ve heard and have ready answers for the repeated questions.

“There is no line. If there was a line, I would be there,” Juan Juarez says.

“I’m not a criminal,” says his brother Hugo Juarez. 

Using someone else’s Social Security number may not be legal, but it means they’re paying into a system on behalf of someone else and never withdrawing from it. They just don’t have many alternatives — Hugo Juarez, who arrived in the U.S. as a 12-year-old, recalls deciding he wanted to get a job to buy a guitar and help support his family, and then found out he’d have to get a fake Social Security card to do so.

“There’s other ways of getting around it [as an adult], but as a young person, that’s not an option, so you get told, ‘OK, this is your channel and the channel is illegal,’” Wilson says. 

Then there’s the question: Why don’t you just go back home?

In some ways, there is no home. They’re often made to feel unwelcome and unwanted here, but in Mexico, they’d be seen as Americans — rich, privileged bait for the drug cartels.

“When I talk to my cousins, they refer to me as American,” Juan Juarez says.

“The gringo,” Oscar Juarez interjects. 

“But here, I’m referred as undocumented or like I’m not from here, I’m from Mexico, so in reality, who am I?” Juan says. “I would say I would feel lost [in Mexico]. Even though I have family there, I don’t feel it’s my home anymore. I feel like this is my home.”

They’ve heard of deportees killed as soon as they cross the border, and point to recent incidents, like the story of three American-born siblings who crossed into Mexico to visit the village their family was from, and never made it back home to Texas.

Friends with deferred action registrations who participated in a welcome-back trip to Mexico, Galvan says, described seeing where they’d grown up and “feeling so at home, but also a stranger, like almost the same feeling of being undocumented here. It was almost the same thing, like they didn’t feel like they were from there, they didn’t feel like they were accepted, but they felt a sense of belonging and wanting to belong. … 

 “We all want to go back, too. We want to see our family. We want to experience our culture, be able to talk with people in our own language and just feel like you’re not hiding anything, but then you go and it’s like, you are someone else. You’re not someone who belongs here.”

It’s any immigrant’s story, Wilson says, “You really are between cultures and there’s no ‘going back’ so there is only going forward.”

What she sees now is the five of them creating community, creating home, in each other.

Their wants are the same as any young person’s — to go to college, to visit their families, to build careers and lives for themselves. But so often, when they’ve gone to pursue those dreams, they’re faced with one obstacle after another.

Galvan excelled in school, had geared up to go to college by accumulating a stack of awards for his participation in school programs and was given a scholarship for overcoming adversity. Then he lost that scholarship because of his immigration status.

Juan Juarez came to the U.S. as a 14-year-old, initially unable to understand anything his teachers or other (90 percent white) students said to him in high school. He advanced to the point he was taking community college classes before he graduated. One look at the price of college, he says, and he knew it would be impossible for his family to afford. His father wanted him to focus on school, but he insisted on working full time on top of finishing high school.

“Looking back at it, I’m like, did I really start working when I was 14? Did I really do that?” echoes Oscar Juarez. The Juarez family relocated from Arizona to Colorado because of Arizona’s law allowing officers to ask anyone for proof of immigration status. “Having to look back through what our family went through, it’s like, I don’t even know how we all did it, to be honest. … Just living in Arizona where you know that if you get pulled over, you’re pretty much going to get deported. That’s the daily fear that we went through, and it’s like, how did we get away from that? We see family after family getting separated.”

Temu would like to go back to Guatemala to learn from her grandmother, who lives in the mountains and makes pots she takes down into the city to sell for a bag of corn to make tortillas. Her mother says no, it’s too dangerous. As if to prove her point, this time last year, Temu’s cousin was kidnapped when he went along with their grandmother last year to help sell the pots. He escaped only because, having grown up in the mountains, he knew how to disappear and survive finding his way home, Temu says, and if he hadn’t escaped, he’d either be killed or forced to work in drug trafficking.

“That’s what he was running away from and that’s what we’re running away from,” she says. “We’re escaping war zones and we’re escaping real genocide and people in this country are just so blind to it.”

They still worry for their families here.

“What I’m doing right now, it’s for them, because it’s time for me to give them a little bit of relief of what they had to do in order for us to be here with a better future,” says Juan Juarez. He watched the news of the president’s new program for immigrants with his father, and saw the tears in his father’s eyes as he realized this program would make no difference for him.

“My parents did not qualify for administrative relief, but that’s also the motivation that the fight is not over,” he says.

“We like doing the performance because it’s a big change that the community gets every time they see it. Either they’re crying or they’re just completely changed on their aspect of seeing the whole immigration system, how it really works,” Oscar Juarez says. “Something that we see every performance is the change that we’re needing and the performance is what helps us recover as well. And I think for me, every performance that we do, there’s not a single one where I don’t feel or there’s sometimes where, even 30 performances later, I still sometimes cry, or sometimes I hold my tears, because it hits me every time, but I know that that impact is what the people are feeling as well.”

“It’s through stories and through language that we get new dimensions of ourselves. It is the way in which we pass on ideas and possibilities. It is the way in which we grow. It is the way we forge forward into the future,” says Lorenzo Gonzales, chair of the BFA in performance at Naropa Univeristy. He saw Do You Know Who I Am? when it was still just a series of monologues, and suggested that, while those were powerful, weaving in interactions from the other performers could create a sense of community on stage. It would let the audience meet the mothers, the teachers, the people who hurl the word “criminal” and the families proudly watching their children graduate from high school.

“It doesn’t become just an individual story, but it becomes the story of a group of people, which it is,” says Gonzales, who is also an immigrant, and says when he became a naturalized citizen, the process involved far fewer hurdles than what he sees these young people facing.

“So I wove them together into a unified script and you can really see how each of their voices amplifies the other and emphasize the story,” Wilson says. People who talk about terms like “the Dream Act kids” or “unaccompanied migrant minors” often don’t get the whole story behind those terms, Gonzales says, but through theatre, they’re invited to live those stories for a few hours.

“The cliché is that there’s a willing suspension of disbelief, but the more I do it, it’s not so much that there’s a willing suspension of disbelief, but there is the exercise of letting yourself live what’s actually happening on stage,” he says. “It’s not that you suspend your disbelief. It’s that you give yourself to believing and to living that this is occurring before your eyes, that this is actually happening, and you open your senses and you open your heart in a different way that affects you. That’s what theater does, it just confronts us with our own humanity by seeing the humanity of others.”

In the 30 years he’s been involved in theater, he says, he’s never seen such a high rate of audience participation in talk-backs — not for Shakespeare, not for new plays. Almost all of Do You Know Who I Am? audiences stay “and they’re glued to their seats and they want to know more and they want to talk more,” Gonzales says. “The start of a conversation is enough to start looking for a solution rather than reducing it or just condensing it to, ‘Oh, they should be thrown out.’” 

He coached the cast — none of whom had professional theater experience prior to this production — in some of the basics of performing like articulation and gestures, and in that regard, they’ve grown a lot, he says. But they have another quality on their side that other actors might be missing.

“I think what makes great performers is their commitment, and that’s what these guys have. They’re committed. They’re committed to getting their stories across,” Gonzales says. “Some of the other performers were very much caught in the ego in terms of, ‘Oh am I going to be good? Are they going to like me?’ They’re not concerned with whether people are going to like them or not. They’re just concerned about whether they’re getting through.”

It’s not about spectacle or embellishment. It’s just about starting a conversation.

“As an artist myself I learned a lot from them. It has made me really look at, what are the types of work that I lend my voice to,” he adds.

Because people know Galvan and know his story, both through Do You Know Who I Am? and his ongoing work throughout the community, when Wilson posted a photo of him being arrested during a protest about Sen. Michael Bennet’s complacence regarding the Obama administration’s decision to delay administrative relief until after the elections — which allowed another estimated 60,000 deportations to take place over the months that followed — there was an emotional response.

“It’s not just some theoretical moment of, ‘Oh yeah, that’s too bad,’” Wilson says of the community outpouring. “It’s someone I’ve seen, I’ve seen their hearts desire, I know what they think about their mothers, I relate to these people and their striving for college. That person being undocumented, that’s unfair, that’s unjust.”

Galvan risked deportation and loss of his DACA status to join in civil disobedience that blocked traffic on Broadway near the Capitol in Denver. But risk is nothing new.

“Our lives had been full of risk, so we always have seen the light at the end of the tunnel and we’re reaching towards it,” says Juan Juarez, who was old enough to remember life in Mexico, and the ongoing worry about whether there would be food on the table and shoes on the kids’ feet. Life in America has definitely provided better opportunities, and they make the risks worth taking.

“Looking at my parents and looking at the life that we have, which was not as much as what my parents thought it would be, but it’s definitely better, and my fear is to lose it. My fear is to lose it by losing my parents,” Oscar Juarez says. “Deferred action has opened a lot of doors and it definitely has helped out our family and yeah, just losing that, it’s one of the fears that many of us live.”

To be clear, they’re looking for opportunities, not freebies.

“It’s a better place to be to have those opportunities, to have something and not starve to death or scrape a wall for food every single day,” Oscar Juarez says. “We’re not asking for giveaways. We’re asking for the opportunity to develop those things to have a better life. We’re not here to take advantage of anything.”

So many of those opportunities we take for granted, like a K-12 education, are far from readily available in Mexico.

“People have been waiting for a really long time to be able to get work authorization because what they want more than anything is to be able to support their families,” says Laurel Herndon, founder, executive director and managing attorney of The Immigrant Legal Center of Boulder County. “I have talked to many, many people since the new program was announced, and they feel that they take a risk every day, and if they can step forward and prove to the government that they are good people, that they don’t have criminal records, it’s something they’re anxious to do.”

Wilson connected with this group of young immigrants through Herndon, who saw Wilson’s previous piece, Rocks Karma Arrows, and attended a follow-up conversation about that production where Wilson expressed interest in doing something about immigration. Having studied history, Wilson had seen the pattern that when the economy tanks, attacks on immigrants increase.

“I was watching the economy go down and watching the anti-immigrant vitriol in the country go up, and I was like, ‘Oh… Uh oh,’” says Wilson, who has made her living as a master teacher of autobiographical monologue work.

With deferred action, there might be willing to share their connected her with what was then Longmont Youth for Equality and is now the Northern Colorado Dreamers United, where met the Juarez brothers, Temu and Galvan.

“I think we have about 3,500 clients right now, some of whom have been eager to step forward and others that are quite hesitant for one reason or another,” Herndon says. “There’s a lack of trust. I believe there’s a lack of confidence in the American public because of the fact that we, as people who are raised in the United States, who have gone to school in the United States, we don’t understand what our system is doing to other people and a lot of immigrants very appropriately recognize this and are afraid to step forward because they don’t know who will have their back.”

Do You Know Who I Am?, she says, has done a wonderful job of grabbing attention and speaking to audiences.

“It brings a gentle understanding of the situation. It’s not preachy and it helps people identify some of the misconceptions that they’ve had over the years,” Herndon says. “I think it’s moved many people to action in different ways.”

For some, that could mean calling a member of Congress or volunteering with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. Some in the audience have gone all-in.

Jose Beteta, who is president of the Boulder County Latino Chamber of Commerce Board and was appointed to the Boulder City Human Relations Commission as the first undocumented immigrant to be appointed to a volunteer board or commission, credits Do You Know Who I Am? with motivating him to openly disclose his status as an undocumented immigrant. The first time he saw Do You Know Who I Am?, he stood up during the talk-back and said — as the four undocumented cast members do at the end of the play — his name, and that he’s undocumented.

“I just saw the courage these kids had to come out and be vocal about this very important issue that we’re living right now, and I just wanted to be part of it,” he says. He’s now seen the play at least three times. “The play was a catalyst for me to come out and try to do something. Even though I’ve been undocumented for over 20 years, it was the right moment for me to do something, so that’s why I go back and see it and be a part of it, because I want to see who else it impacts and see if there’s something there that I can do.”

But undocumented immigrants coming forward publicly about their status has to happen hand-in-hand with cities supporting those efforts as well, and making it clear what people’s rights are — that they shouldn’t be afraid to call the police, and, as a recent trend, a Social Security number isn’t required to rent an apartment. At the Latino Chamber, he’s helping undocumented immigrants who might want to start their own businesses — it’s legal to create an LLC or become sole proprietor of a business regardless of immigration status.

As the programs resulting from Obama’s executive order go into effect in 2015, Herndon says, it’s particularly a concern for the estimated 54,000 undocumented immigrants in Colorado to be able to get good advice and good information on what the program is, when it starts and how to avoid the scams that will inevitably appear.

The deferred action program has helped to build trust in that program, but neither should be seen as a resting place.

“The bigger program really is what happens when this program ends, and that’s where community support can come in as far as putting pressure on Congress to pass a real reform and not just leave us with these administrative temporary fixes,” Herndon says.

Galvan, Temu and Juan Juarez were recently in Washington, D.C., for a national convention on immigration, and the conversation there is shifting to include how to overcome the obstacles that prevent immigrants’ rights activists from uniting with other movements for black or LGBT Americans.

Even the conversation of what it means to be an American is shifting.

“I think this movement is showing people how to be a citizen, because we fight for it every day,” Juan Juarez says.

While Boulder County often provides a welcoming audience for Do You Know Who I Am? — and the cast at times deliberately pursues performance opportunities in communities like Greeley or Colorado Springs, where the reception may be less warm, but where there’s still a lot of room for growth. Wilson points to how rarely a group of people of color have the stage in front of a majority white audience as a problem, and says that the achievement gap between white and Latino youth in Boulder County is among the biggest in the state.

But Boulder County is positioned well to lead the dialogue for immigration reform. Motus Theater is leading the way for the new One Action Project for 2016: The Creative Community Conversation on Immigration, a year-long, county-wide program to involve 20 arts, cultural and immigration-focused organizations in crafting artworks that will increase awareness and engagement in immigration issues.

While the theater performance has been great at stimulating conversation, the momentum can’t stop here, Wilson says. Do You Know Who I Am? should have a national tour. There should be a Will & Grace that’s Victor & Ana — two undocumented immigrants. People have to stop seeing these people as something other than people.

For the Juarez brothers, Galvan and Temu, they’re sure of one thing. It’s safer out of the shadows and standing in the light.

For all that they have done and risked this past year, Boulder Weekly is proud to name Juan, Hugo and Oscar Juarez, Victor Galvan, Ana Christina Temu and Kirsten Wilson as 2014’s people of the year. Congratulations and thank you.


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