I was brought to Georgia 12 years ago by my mother to be reunited with my father. She was quickly taken away from me and deported by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], but I ended up with my father on the outskirts of Atlanta, between Mableton and Adamsville. Seeing him again made me forget about my mom's deportation and about us being apart for almost a year.
I was nerdy, chubby, and about an inch shorter than all the other kids. I was clearly not Chicano-like and the fact that I was brown and short made me look and feel un-American. When the Dream Act [a Congressional bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents] became a household name, I was baptized a DREAMer, removing the shame of being dubbed an alien, or an illegal, or an illegal alien.
But I came to realize that the term DREAMer creates a minority within a minority complex, one that places the vainglory of academia over the purity of human essence. I am the product of a system. I am no DREAMer; the DREAMer is he who chooses to label me as one.
Beyond the labels and names and everything that comes with them, volunteers in numerous states are organizing in favor of a systematic, nonmyopic change, halting along the way hundreds of deportations by means of community empowerment. Students have adopted civil disobedience as a juxtaposing weapon, raising awareness of the human aspect of migration.
It all begins by acknowledging that Uncle Sam cannot have a demographic in the shadows of anonymity. Furthermore, it cannot have a sub-class of people giving labor to a system and buying from a system without being acknowledged by name. That only reinstates America's former oppressive cycle where we had masters and slaves. Continuing to mask this immigration conundrum would only perpetuate what has become the new-age American exploitation, tolerable of utilizing labor based on the blood, tears, and sweat of undocumented immigrants.
Civil disobedience in Georgia is tackling policies that affect the undocumented community, like the Board of Regents' policy that bans undocumented students from the top five universities in the state. This policy holds firm regardless of whether or not undocumented students have the standardized scores and the grades needed to be accepted.
At Armstrong Atlantic State University last spring, I, along with two other friends, interrupted a Board of Regents meeting. I remember walking into the meeting, staring at them while they looked at me, barely able to keep eye contact. Our roles were reversed. I grew the bravery to introduce myself by name, something they weren't used to. Freedom rang for a bit, or at least it did in my head. To me, the Board appeared ashamed, embarrassed, and nervous. There was a beautiful subtleness that day, the same kind that always takes hold of a person when they conduct an act of civil disobedience — there is something sacred about it, you have to experience it in order to feel it. It's almost like having a religious experience.
When the university's chief of police came forward to ask me to leave, the conference room became still. The Board looked uncomfortable, impatient to expel what stood in front of them. My voice shook gently as the facts about the lives of undocumented citizens in the U.S. poured from my lips, unapologetic and unashamed. The Board seemed uneasy, not so much because of our actions, but because of our words; because my voice was so frail yet so strong; because I was a chaplain preaching a gospel they did not wish to hear; because I was 18 years old, full of insecurities though confident; because people like me ought not to be so veritably defiant, so alive and so empowered, civil yet so disobedient.
When I refused to leave, the police proceeded to arrest me. I walked out of that room feeling as I did the morning I was reunited with my dad. Though handcuffed, I kept my head high knowing I had done the right thing, despite the sardonic smirks I was given. I forgot all about myself and about being oppressed. No one could've stopped me.
For a minute, I almost forgot I was undocumented.
Rolando Zenteno was born in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas in southern Mexico, and raised in southwest Atlanta. He currently studies English and Spanish at Armstrong Atlantic State University.