the problem with dreams


I know what this sounds and looks like. I know what the name of this song invokes. It would seem that, since I’m undocumented and a DACA recipient, I can’t be anything other than a DREAM Act DREAMer, right?

Not really. I’m undocumented, but it is possible for me to have dreams that don’t belong to politicians.

This is especially difficult to write because on the one hand, I’m addressing non-immigrants and citizens who may reduce this song to just a push for the DREAM Act (a proposed legislation that would grant legal status to some undocumented immigrants). On the other hand, I’m talking to undocumented people, people who have struggled in the movement, who have consciously been resisting the term DREAMers for some time because of the political implications it carries. (And of course, this essay is not for those who don’t believe undocumented Americans are people who deserve to be here. That’s a different conversation for a different time.) 

For those who aren’t themselves undocumented, let me quickly explain the problems with DREAMers. “DREAMers” are considered the “good” undocumented immigrants. They are the 800,000 people that the country has decided they will accept. These are the 800,000 young people who were granted work permits and deferred action for deportation under Obama’s DACA program, which is due to end shortly. While that seems like a large number, next to the 11 million undocumented immigrants across the country, DREAMers come up to something like 7%.

So first, it pits us (“DREAMers”) against other undocumented immigrants just because we were “good” by an arbitrary set of standards, and therefore deserving of a chance. It forces us to dissociate ourselves from the larger body of undocumented immigrants and live up to its separatist, exclusivist image.

But to me there is a second item that is more toxic: it pits us against our parents who made the choice to bring us here in search of a better life. DREAMers often feel pressured to say things like “I didn’t want to come here” or “I’m here through no fault of my own.” The DREAM Act necessarily relies on the blame-them-it’s-not-my-fault narrative, and I won’t support anything like that. I refuse any rights if it means condemning my parents’ actions. I don’t blame my parents for coming to the US (legally) and remaining (undocumented). It was the best decision they made for me and apart from my faith and salvation, it was the best gift they gave me. A life and a fighting chance in the US. I thank them in every regard because I’m a stronger, smarter, kinder person because of it, and I’ll put up a fist to anyone who criticizes them.

As you can see, the situation is far more complex that you realize. Many of us, myself included, pushed for the DREAM Act while resisting the label “DREAMer.” I believed that we could achieve change without creating hierarchies between immigrant groups. I’m really no better than my friend who is ineligible for DACA because of his previous visa status. We’re the same age. He doesn’t have a work permit and deferred action for deportation, but I do—just because I have DACA and he doesn’t. If you look at our moral and social credentials, there isn’t much of a difference between us. Or take for example another friend who came to the US after age 16 and is therefore ineligible from DACA because of the age requirement for the time of entry. You see, DACA made an arbitrary and imperfect set of rules that cut through entire sections of the undocumented population, rendering one deserving and the other not. The DREAM Act will do the same. It’ll follow in the same divisive footsteps as DACA.

I consider myself a DREAMer only in that I qualify for the DREAM Act, but as it is right now, I don’t support the DREAM Act nor its implied narrative. It’s not right to expect people to pay billions to fund Trump’s dumb wall and to attach that to the futures of undocumented immigrants. (And YES I pay taxes, so I will also be funding that wall.) It’s especially wrong to cut legal immigration into the US in exchange for a select number of DACA recipients. I know what the failure of the DREAM Act means for me. I stand to lose my entire young adulthood. But I can’t get behind legislation that divides and destroys.

For those who are undocumented and those in the movement, let me also explain: Who among us hasn’t been inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders? They fought against bodies, weapons, and institutions, but they still maintained their dreams. Who among doesn’t learn the history, watch the videos, read the literature and think… this is my struggle, too. It was the extraordinary melding of their physical pain with their spiritual and emotional desperation that allowed them to create a movement of unprecedented scale in modern history (the greatest in modern history, if you ask me.) I hold this movement in the highest esteem, and I know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech during the March on Washington (and most of his writing) in the most intimate way. He had a dream, and so do I. I borrow from his.

Or should I talk about Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred” poem from Harlem? Whoever the author, the message is the same: ours dreams are our greatest source of strength—and pain. How at once fortunate and unfortunate it is that I can’t seem to stop dreaming.

I’ve been a dreamer before long both the DREAM Act and its narrative came around. I’ve been a reader all my life, which turned me over to imagination and vision, but perhaps more pertinently, I’ve been lonely for most of my life. This taught me to yearn and desire. It’s so infuriating that we’ve had this word and idea stolen from us. Politics, Washington D.C., Democrats. They’ve stolen it from the rest of us. But I have no problem taking it back and resignifying it.

I wrote this song in 2016, recorded and filmed in 2017, and all along I’ve waited for the right time—a time when this song could possess its own spirit without being tangled into the Dream Act. I’ve really struggled with the decision to release and perform this precisely because I feared the politics knots and thorns  that would inevitably rise up to choke this song. Since its completion last June, I’ve waited through the summer, fall, and winter seasons just looking for an optimal time. That never came. Every single day the topic created a bigger, more chaotic buzz. Talk of DREAMers has only escalated, and today it’s become a daily discussion.

I know that right now may not be the best time to do this, but I can’t wait on this song anymore. I can’t let this situation affect my decision to release this song, because that would be yet another area of my life that I have to concede to the complicated politics surrounding my life. As an independent artist, especially, I can’t afford to sit on any content. I have to move forward. And I have to do so by actively resisting any essentializing, totalizing label that this song and its title attracts.

And now for everyone:
This song does not and should not support any specific legislation or narrative. I don’t intend for the song to be a political statement but an idealistic confession. This song carries my yearning for fresh air, for security and stability, for freedom and peace, for different suns and moons, and for happiness and for love. When I wrote this song, I immediately understood it to be something far greater than the DREAM Act, than 2018 or any year, and far far greater than Trump and his administration. While the spirit of the song involves my undocumented status, it only does so as a single thread in the much grander tapestry of who I am. I’m a strong believer that dreams and desires have life and that they are at the beginning of everything: every movement, every fight, every victory, everything memorable about life.

And yes, I’m undocumented and a DACA recipient, but no this song is not about DREAMers. Yes I’m undocumented, but—nothat’s not all I am. I’m also a person that feels every ounce of disappointment, hurt, frustration, and anxiety, and who awaits a time and place beyond these things.

The problem with dreams is that sometimes they die when you need them, but linger when you’re weary–when all you’d like to do is stop. Still, these I hold on to: I’d like to see the world someday. I’d like to be allowed to see the world. I’d like to be able to make any plan, pursue any career, settle in any which place. In the present moment, I can’t. But with this song, I release into the world my dreams of living as only a free person could. 

Special thanks to Carlos Perea for his help with the revising/editing process!
And special thanks also to Alice An for her beautiful artwork!

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