By Contributor on May 24, 2013

By Michelle Chen

Last Monday evening, in a small dark theater space on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a group of young people gathered and started talking. They shared stories about growing up, trying to fit in or stand out among peers, school troubles and college dreams, boring jobs and squabbles with parents. They were just being themselves. But it was the bravest thing they had ever done.

Before an intimate audience, the members of RAISE: Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast, proclaimed that they were undocumented. Fifteen members of this self-described “pan-Asian group of undocumented young adults on the East Coast” spoke about their experiences growing up: Americans, yet excluded from citizenship, their families fractured by fears of deportation, labor exploitation and an anxious search for identity.

In their storytelling performance, #UndocuAsians, each youth described a different path to the United States. Some were too young to remember much other than their bewilderment upon being dropped into an alien society. Some thought they were just on a vacation until they eventually realized those tourist visas had expired. All missed home. Each clung tightly to memories of far-away grandparents, aunts and cousins--sometimes with only a photograph to remind them of a family member who died before they could reunite.

Razeen Zaman, 23, journeyed from Bangladesh to New York as a toddler, but only discovered her undocumented status as a teen when she started working and was denied a paycheck because she didn’t have the right papers. Years later, when she graduated college, her ambitions sank into legal limbo, her future suspended indefinitely as she lacked the papers she needed to start a career. Neriel David Ponce, 18, remembered his enthusiasm when he came from the Philipinnes at five and settled in a modest Staten Island neighborhood. “I thought I was rich” he said. But toward the end of high school, he realized that his college dreams were falling apart, because his undocumented status foreclosed opportunities for financial aid most citizens take for granted. For Maritza Lam, 23, being undocumented meant dialing back on the “American dream.” The Peruvian-Chinese-Queens transplant lives a reality worlds apart from the Asian American archetype of the model student. In her narrative, she explains, “I had to choose between using that money for school or for my family, and after almost two years of college, I decided my family needed it more. I had to leave school, and I started working in restaurants.” Tony Choi, 24, spoke of the anxiety that haunted him during what should have been his bright college years. He moved across the country to attend college in Kentucky on a scholarship, but was followed by nightmares of getting snatched up by immigration agents. Meanwhile, cancer loomed over his mother, hundreds of miles away in New Jersey. “I was alone, I was isolated, and my mom was sick,” he recalled. The consuming fears drove him to create an “escape kit,” filled with first-aid materials and maps, just in case. In the end, Choi didn’t run; he marched, joining other undocumented youth last year in a cross-country walk for immigration reform. Last June, a rush of grassroots campaigning helped push through a limited initiative to provide undocumented youth temporary legal status, but the future remains in limbo. He’s still campaigning for legislation to enable students like him to permanently legalize, along with broader reform to let people like his mother work and raise their families here, free of fear. Coordinated with support from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the project behind #UndocuAsians, Raise Our Story, is part of a movement to raise the visibility of undocumented Asian American immigrants in the immigration debate. While the massive population of migrants from Latin America occupies much of the political space in Washington, immigrants from Asia--many of whom came through visas rather than crossing the southwest border--are one of the fastest growing immigrant communities and make up more than one million of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The political invisibility of Asian Americans goes beyond immigration policy. Historically, policymakers have ignored them as a voting bloc, the media has painted them as a two-dimensional “model minority” of assimilated middle-class newcomers, and their communities have been culturally distant from the world of lobbying and protests. But Asian American youth today are building activist networks and outgrowing the silence of past generations. In addition to shedding light on the economic and social hardships facing Asian American communities, the youth of RAISE understand their experience in a way their parents perhaps never could, having grown up at the pivot of many societies and generations, in a shrinking world of globalized media culture. Many of their generation represent a wave of refugees of the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s, which devastated the region's "emerging" economies. Raise our Story reflects this fractious diasporic panorama, rendering the turmoil of globalization in a bold new language. Speaking in English inflected with notes of Tagalog, Chinese and other mother tongues, the storytellers’ words posed a challenge both to the law and to the cultural grammar of “documented” America. At the same time, their polyglot voices affirmed a sense of justice that defies borders. "I think young people like us--we have a particular role,” said Emily Seonhye Park, who came with her grandmother from South Korea at 15 but ended up living on her own at 17, following the abrupt separation of her family. As the audience shuffled out, she said that since young people often have more resources to defend themselves from deportation, “we can afford to be more courageous than our parents or our grandparents. So we should take advantage of that, and try to move forward, because, if we don't advocate for ourselves, who's gonna do it?”

Why We Rise from Brian Redondo on Vimeo.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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