One Tribe: My undocumented American experience


(This piece was first published on

Since Magellan’s arrival, other cultures in addition to Spain have been overlaid upon us; the Americans and the Japanese briefly.  We altered our appearance and played roles that were conducive to life rather than dignity or morality. We couldn’t afford otherwise. In doing so, we became less and less like ourselves all the while, the instinct to maintain our tribal nature remained. We just found different ways to name it, depending on the language of the conquistador whom we wished to emulate. We did it to be spared the cruelties of war and imperialism.

We were cunning, we were chameleons, we suffered irreparable losses but we survived. We became diasporic in nature.  As part of that dispersion, I became an alternative social bred, somewhere between Filipina and American.

Upon my arrival, I adopted a self in an attempt to be more American. Later on, I just felt like a fraud. I skirted around these emotions for 20 years. Assimilation had a cost. The DREAMers took it back when they proclaimed their status.  I am realizing its cost for me.

Where did we (and by we, I mean my undocumented brothers and sisters) go when we became a little more like them and a little less like us? My mother was hopeful that in coming here so young that I would grow to sound like “them”, and less like “us”. This way my origins would not be questioned. Now I have no trace of a Filipino accent. When I speak Tagalog, my Fil-Am relatives look at me sideways. However despite all the molding, some things could not be re-made. Now I wish to un-make what is no longer necessary.

Truth is, I was a weird kid. My reading tells me that not fitting in is part of the American immigrant experience. A therapist once told me it was creativity. I recognize it now as part of my undocumented American experience. I got the best advice on this life from Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles. I loved her characters, purposefully on the outskirts.  I loved their monster nature and their vulnerability. So many of her vampires were brought into the life by force. Some vampires loved their makers. Others hated them for perverting their mortality. It seemed their vampire powers magnified the best or worst of their humanity. I wondered if I would have been this way had I not been placed in this life.  I concluded such things were already in me, just heightened.

In life, Lestat was a formidable human. He once slayed several wolves to protect his village. Among his family, he was the one with dreams and the capacity to achieve them. Circumstance and some of his family wouldn’t allow it. He was made into a vampire by someone seeking something special. Magnus was unlike his vampire kind, having chosen the life. Unlike his peers, he had captured a vampire in chains and taken the blood. He called Lestat “wolf killer” as he stalked him before the pounce. Unlike other makers that stayed with their fledglings, Magnus chose departure. He had made his own pyre after he had showed Lestat his hiding place from the sun. He also showed him the treasure collected during the centuries. His only other instruction was to scatter his ashes. In the absence of a mentor, Lestat was left to his own devices. He found himself in the company of those that tried to manipulate his power and those who loved him. It depended on the nature of those to whom he revealed himself. He of course made fledglings. Some were enhanced by the gift and others were destroyed by it. Most of these interactions left him broken in one way or the other, not unlike my own interactions. It was after a departure of Gabrielle, his mother, companion and true equal that Lestat sought out his vampire origins.

He had once heard the legend of Marius. In his travels, Lestat was able to go where no human could go. He saw desserts, rain forests and mountain ranges. His immortality made him impregnable against the elements but always alone. While roaming distant lands, Lestat started to write Marius messages.  They were carvings where it would have been impossible for humans to access.  With no avail, Lestat flew into the sun and then buried himself in the ground.  He stopped feeding on the life in the earth and dried up, only left with an awareness.  He could sense life going on above him and time progressing. In some instances he thought his heart pumped, aching for the blood that would restore him. Alas, it was Marius’ heart he heard and Marius’ blood that restored him. When they made contact, Marius treated him like a son the way mentors in my undocumented community have treated me.

When Lestat awoke, he found himself in Marius’ lair in a remote Mediterranean island. Lestat learned that Marius had been the watcher and the scholar among them. He learned of Marius’ vampire origins and finally what had helped him survive the centuries. Marius told Lestat that he had been able to survive the passage of time because he was already a man when he was made. He explained that those that were made too soon, that did not live a lifetime before their vampire lives, were the ones that went early into the fire. He told Lestat that if he meant so withstand immortality, he needed to live out one complete lifetime as soon as he could. “To forestall it may be to lose everything, to despair and to go into the earth again, never to rise.” With that Marius asked him to go back into the world, to Lestat’s disappointment just having found Marius.

I have read this book many times. I’ve always written those lines down for their power. The significance of this conversation has revealed itself as I get closer to the age when Marius was made. Fortunately, my lessons have come in decades and not centuries. I felt something similar leaving Geneseo just as I was “getting it”. I had established a solid group of friends, my grades improved tremendously, and I felt better about myself. With that balance I didn’t want to go into the unknown. I was in a safe space as an undocumented student. I had no idea what the work world had in store for me. My parents paid my tuition as I was ineligible for financial aid. There was no graduate school in my immediate future. I had to get out and work. I had a conversation with Dr. McCoy (insert link) before I left. She told me that having connected with culture, I had gotten what I needed from Geneseo.

In the years after my undergraduate education, I lost myself in solitary sports. I re-read my Anne Rice books, got myself into graduate school and was entrenched in a career. I succeeded because I started doing things I had never done before like triathlons. I did things that I didn’t think were possible like finance a graduate degree. Yet I found ways towards self-destructive behaviors. I am certain I didn’t wish for true oblivion, which would have been depression or deportation, but in all ways I needed a place for the frustration. It built within unbeknownst to me as a result of my immigration status. I’d like to say that I was the DREAMer that excelled academically and athletically but I wasn’t. I am a weekend warrior and I was much the same coming up the academic ranks. I wasn’t valedictorian of my class but I was in the top 10. I wasn’t a great swimmer but I worked hard and aided my team to victories. I had nice friends but despite their influence I had issues. I felt manic depressive because in their company, I was like them. On my own, I felt like something gangrenous was within me.  I acted out, found friends on the fringe and pursued unhealthy relationships. I took my angst out on my body as an athlete. As I got older, I discovered the drink. Most times it was fun and a time to spend with friends. Other times it was dangerous. I was lucky to be surrounded by people that cared about me. Other times I was just lucky to be alone and save myself the embarrassment.

Like Lestat who feigned humanity, and my ancestors who feigned political allegiances, I feigned put together suburban professional. Some days weren’t “feigned”. I definitely worked my butt off to balance a career and graduate school.  At Age 20 something I was still trying to fit in. My efforts to assimilate, establish a career and further my education had a cost.   I use to have a trendy studio apartment. I use to strum my blue guitar and “sample” wines. I once found myself alone and passed out on the floor. I’ve had a few anxiety attacks. Sometimes they were about work. I once had a violent anxiety moment regarding a roommate. It was a nasty female situation made worse in my mind by her knowing my undocumented status.

My anti-depressant of choice carried me for about 7 years. My relationships with men, friends and myself were landmines. I grew to understand why my dad and ourDark Passenger had their beers. My father’s temperament was exacerbated by our illegality. There was some part of me that was slowly seeing my father’s image reflected in me.

As Lestat sought our Marius, who had the centuries to study their kind, I found my answers in data. After a while I grew to trust data more than one single person’s point of view. In the past I have allowed people with vociferous opinions to dictate my person. The results were disastrous. It may be that data was how found my way or back to a person I liked.

Like Lestat I wished for a life out of the margins. Like him I wished I could have “made it known to the whole world of our kind, and to draw them together”. Given our current immigration system, there were few options. I always sought some kind of absolution from illegality. Unfortunately I was seeking it from a person. I didn’t know it was the system incapable of recognizing my personhood. I didn’t know that’s what I was trying to get back.

The amazing thing about Lestat was that he did draw his kind together in the most spectacular way possible. He would have done it in his human life. As much as I draw parallels between my life and Lestat’s I think we might only be alike in the one conversation with Marius that I am re-telling. Lestat is a badass among badasses and he loved it. This story is of Lestat’s beginnings.  I am almost middle aged and still into the data. My problem is that there is so much data and I am slow to process it. The implications are massive. Reading Edge of Terror led me to Mr. Karnow’s book and I am not done writing about it. When I read the history of my people, I started to see my friendships past as a microcosm of my people taking on identities that didn’t belong to them. They were coping with imperialism and war as I was coping with the results of colonialism.

I resented my peers that never had to hide their identities. It destroyed some of my adult relationships.  I suspected identity was sometimes a result of privilege. I grew not to fault my peers, knowing their lives were shaped by different narratives. Like me, they too sought tribe members for their life’s journey. Undocumented or not, the lives of 20 and 20 something career women has its challenges.  It was inevitable my life would intersect with theirs. It was the fate my mother wanted with our migration. The differing narratives between me and my peers and our different identities accumulated over time was inevitable. My own narrative, not having originated from a place of power is something with which I struggle to reconcile. In the end, it was a better life than what was in store from me had we not migrated.

I think back to Lestat and how his heart broke and sore with the relationships he made. I think about the relationships that have lifted and broken me. Lestat embraced his nature with his immortal strength as I have embraced life in my damaged state. I admire Lestat’s defiance against all the rules that kept him “safe” as my blogging has aired my dirty laundry and voiced the less savory aspects of the DREAMer.

It might have happened in the past decade that I believed I belonged here. It was definitely in the past five years that I learned to love myself. Motherhood demanded such a thing if I was going to teach it to my son. I am not exceptional but in the belly of the beast, the part of me that needed to write it all out is a re-make of an image that is my own. I had been safe believing what the system wanted me to believe. I loathed myself in the process. I take a little piece of my historic tribe to go on despite systemic barriers. I take a piece of Lestat in loving myself despite my flaws.

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Categories: Personal stories

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