- The Undocu-Graduation (2015–17): The Performance of Citizenship and Anti-Ritual
The institutions have not given us stuff. We have fought for it! We have built it! So, to the graduates here today: We all have to dismantle the status quo. Many people do not want to see us graduate, and this is our resistance.—Alejandra Pérez1
In the spring of 2016, concurrent to the political rise of Donald Trump, undocumented youth undertook actions of resistance at graduation ceremonies. These performative actions were met with both support and backlash via social media (Rogers). One high-school graduate in Texas, for instance, who revealed her undocumented status in her valedictorian address, later deleted her Twitter account due to the vitriolic comments her speech had incited. It stands to reason that such public declarations by undocumented youth, and the subsequent retaliations, would intensify along with Trump’s divisive rhetoric. One month later, and counter to the public platform afforded to the undocumented graduates, three people whose family members had been killed by undocumented immigrants gave televised testimonies at the Republican National Convention. Trump, in his own comments, saw fit to mention that one of the victims, killed on the night of her own university graduation, had graduated with a 4.0 GPA (Graves and Moorthy). It would thus seem that on the one hand, academic success is considered a praiseworthy hallmark of good citizenship, but on the other, academic achievers who go public with their undocumentedness risk becoming open targets in need of deportation.
And while the political climate in 2016 saw heightened media attention regarding such actions, the struggles of the undocumented youth movement are hardly new, nor are the performative strategies they have employed to promote their message. Since the early 2000s and the introduction of the (still-unpassed) DREAM act,2 undocumented youth activists have staged sit-ins, lecture tours, protests, and waged social-media campaigns to contest the narratives that vilify them (Bennion; Nicholls; Preston; Truax). Outstanding among these various acts of self-representation is the ongoing Undocu-Graduation, an independent graduation ceremony produced by the Washington DREAM Coalition (WDC), an activist group of undocumented youth in Washington State. Since its inaugural in 2015, when then-candidate Trump was seen by many as too unconventional, the Undocu-Graduation has been defiantly highlighting the achievements of undocumented students in the state. Variously described by its participants as a “passive political statement,” a “coming out,” and an “act of resistance,” the Undocu-Graduation is both a community-empowering event and an efficacious rite of passage for persons struggling against their own legal precarity. This note not only examines the goals of this ongoing ceremony, but also charts its rhetorical changes as political tides have shifted against its producers.
Drawing on interviews from the last three Undocu-Graduations, it is clear that despite the reignited hostilities toward them, the WDC continues to stage its commencement ritual with hopeful intentions; that it can craft dignified self-representations, inspire its audience, and control its own narrative.3 For the participants I interviewed, their goals were clearly situated toward community celebration, personal transformation, and positive self-representation. [End Page 151]
Undocu-Graduation 2015: A “Passive Message” for a High-Powered Audience
On June 20, 2015, one year after the passage of Washington State’s REAL Hope Act,4 which provided undocumented youth the ability to apply for state-funded financial aid, nine undocumented students from various parts of the state converged in Seattle to walk at their self-produced graduation ceremony (whether completing a high school diploma or university degree). Replete with caps and gowns of various colors, a keynote speaker, a customized backdrop for post-ceremony photos, a rented sound system, hand-mixed Italian sodas, and food supplied by the students and their families, the ceremony came together through the limited resources of the participants themselves. Unconnected to any institution, yet staged with the dignifying formality of any graduation, this symbolic event was conceived as a performative act that would serve multiple goals: to celebrate the accomplishments of its graduates and their families, to commemorate the passage of the REAL Hope Act, and to show high...