Reviewed by Lila Quintero Weaver
In this hybrid memoir, Alberto Ledesma wonders, At what point does a long-time undocumented immigrant become an American in the making? From undocumented little boy to “hyper documented” university professor, Ledesma recounts how even now, he sometimes finds himself reverting to the child he was, recalling his father’s words: “Mijo, it doesn’t matter how good you think your English is, la migra will still get you.”
Exploring Ledesma’s experiences from immigrant to student to academic, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer presents a humorous, gritty, and multilayered portrait of undocumented immigrant life in urban America. Ledesma’s vignettes about life in the midst of ongoing social trauma give voice to a generation that has long been silent about its struggles. Delving into the key moments of cultural transition throughout his childhood and adulthood—police at the back door waiting to deport his family, the ex-girlfriend who threatens to call INS and report him, and the interactions with law enforcement even after he is no longer undocumented—Ledesma, through his art and his words, provides a glimpse into the psychological and philosophical concerns of undocumented immigrant youth who struggle to pinpoint their identity and community.
My Two Cents
Powerful and timely, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is the stunning, hand-illustrated chronicle of Alberto Ledesma’s twelve years in undocumented limbo and the psychological toll those years exacted. Drawing—or doodling, as he often calls it— became of one Ledesma’s most reliable coping mechanisms for the stresses of living in the U.S. without documentation. He began the doodling practice as a quiet act of defiance, since even privately acknowledging one‘s lack of papers broke a cultural taboo held by many insiders in Ledesma’s undocumented community. This taboo reached inside the very walls of his family home, where the fear of detection and deportation hung like a black cloud over their daily existence.
In this work, Alberto Ledesma offers a perspective of the American experience that few have written about, plumbing its layers of complexity through richly observed episodes, supplemented by striking text-and-image panels. His personal stories reveal troubling family dynamics, from the pain of feeling misunderstood to his father’s emotional unavailability and bouts of drinking. They also explore Alberto’s adolescent years, when the ache to free himself from the constant secrecy demanded by the family’s status was at its height. Stories of close calls render the fear palpable. In one vivid example, Alberto, his siblings, and their mother sit in a parked car next to a field while their father wanders into the undergrowth to pick wild cactus leaves. As cars occupied by white people pass by, some drivers cast suspicious glances at the Mexican family. When one of the sisters spots a no-trespassing sign, tension turns to panic and eventually to anger at their father for placing them in such a vulnerable position.
In 1986, the Ledesma family achieved legal status through provisions outlined in the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a law passed during the Reagan administration. But as Alberto explains, “though we were now ‘legal,’ those twelve years of conditioning did not disappear.” Long after his status is resolved, the fear of being hunted persists. He demonstrates the extent of that struggle through contemporary exchanges with his young daughter, Sofia, who peppers him with such questions as, “What does it mean that you were once illegal?”
Ledesma ultimately transitioned into academic life, earning a Ph.D. and landing a teaching and administrative position at the University of California at Berkley. He connects his academic drive to the phenomena of “hyper-documentation.” Originated by Dr. Aurora Chang, this term “describes the effort by Dreamers to accrue awards, accolades, and eventually academic degrees to compensate for having been undocumented.” The burdensome effect of this impulse comes through in one of Ledesma’s most potent drawings, which shows a brown-skinned person dressed in cap and gown, pulling a file cabinet tethered by rope and bursting with award certificates.
In addition to its memoir sections, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer includes dozens of serial and stand-alone text-and-image panels, which reflect on multiple aspects of undocumented life. An entire chapter, “The Undocumented Alphabet,” illuminates twenty-six poignant realities experienced by the community. They include:
“A” is for the ABUELITOS left back in Mexico and the knowledge that until you fix your status you can’t go visit them no matter how much you miss them.
“E” is for the EDUCATION your mother asked you to get so that you wouldn’t end up working at the same garment factory she did.
Crossing the southern border without papers is an act fraught with peril, but as Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer makes clear, it’s only the start of a long, precarious journey that plays out in the daily existence of millions of undocumented Americans. At this writing, the future of many DACA recipients and other undocumented youth remains in limbo. Their fate is in the hands of elected officials all too willing to play political football with human lives. Alberto Ledesma’s account offers a strong and essential counterpoint to the xenophobia infecting public discourse about U.S. immigration. It brings penetrating light into the liminal spaces occupied not only by Dreamers, but all undocumented immigrants, and makes a convincing case that their stories deserve a chapter in our national narrative.
Last month, while Alberto Ledesma was at The Ohio State University for a panel on comics and immigration, he stopped for this photo opportunity with Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés Pérez, sons of our fellow Latinxs in Kid Lit blogger, Ashley Hope Pérez.
Liam Miguel read Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer from cover to cover (even the parts in cursive, which were tricky for him at first), and he was thrilled to get his copy signed. For him, hearing Alberto’s stories was a way to better understand his father’s path to legal status as well as the realities for many young people who were not so fortunate to come at a time when that path was opened.
About the author-illustrator: Alberto Ledesma, a Mexican-American scholar of literature, holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley. His publications include poetry, academic articles, and short stories, which have appeared in Con/Safos: A Chicana/o Literary Magazine, and in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series (#17). He has also published essays in ColorLines and New America Media. Ledesma, who participated in Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Workshop and in the VONA Writers Workshop, serves as Graduate Diversity Director for the Outreach and Diversity Office of the Arts & Humanities Division in the College of Letters & Science at the University of California, Berkeley.