Towards UndocuScholarship: Using Our Lived Experiences to Craft Space and Representation in Academia


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Have you ever heard the common expression, “life is like a movie”? As a four-year-old child, who arrived with my family in South Central, Los Angeles in the early 90s, my life felt like a movie. However, the movie I was observing outside my window was of a world that was on fire! I was witnessing the “L.A. Uprising” historical event, and the chaos from a society that was facing a long historical trajectory of its race relations with underrepresented and marginalized communities. And yet, my parents, like most immigrant families, expressed to me, “we are moving to the U.S. for a better life.” Faced with this incongruence during my childhood, I often questioned the idea of migrating to the U.S. “for a better future.” I remember asking myself, “what is my place in this society?” 

As an immigrant youth growing up in inner-city-Los Angeles, I would come to find my place not as a physical location, but rather in the social imaginary I read about in historical and sociological books. These texts helped me understand the history of my migration and the diaspora of Mexicanos and other Latinx migrants to the U.S. They provided me with a sense of belonging even when I actively experienced a society that did not. I was always drawn to social science classes from middle school to high school that sparked my curiosity of historical events in the realm of current events. By the time I graduated high school, I knew my passion was history and that I wanted to teach and inform students’ own critical consciousness development. 

Attending a Cal State University allowed me to foster and nurture my passion for history and teaching. Attending a public, state-based-university, liberal arts educational system meant that my professors’ focus was on their teaching and mentoring. Taking my first Chicana and Chicano Studies class was life-changing and revolutionary for my thinking! The femtorship I received by Chicana professors pushed me to think critically about historical events, my own positionality and how my values both challenge and reinstate societal structures. Additionally, Chicana and Chicano Studies was the truly first space, academically and socially, where I felt safe in exploring my undocumented status and the history of immigration. The coupling of the support from my femtors and my experience growing up in South Central L.A. in the early 90s, allowed me to see the value of being a professor and motivated me to pursue research in order to make sense of my experience as an immigrant. 

Now as a professor, one of the most rewarding experiences of receiving my doctorate degree and becoming a professor as an undocumented individual is the opportunity to reciprocate the mentorship and passion for research, teaching, and social justice to undocumented and formerly undocumented students. As such, I would first advise undocumented and formerly undocumented students interested in graduate school to always look for femtors/mentors who are willing to listen to your ideas and goals in order to help you grow as a professional and as an individual. I recognize this is not easy. It is important to be kind and patient with yourself as you search for those individuals. Choosing if, how, and when we might disclose our vulnerable identities is something that takes time; give yourself the time to process how you feel about femtorship/mentorship and community relationships.

Second, pursuing a career in professorship and academia is not an easy or short-term decision – you will need to do a lot of internal searching to understand where your passions lie and what questions motivate you long-term. Academia can be a place of isolation where scholars are trained to be objective and removed from their research interests. My recommendation is the opposite: your positionality can inform your research and teaching experiences in critical and important ways. I recommend you reflect on your formative experiences as undocumented or formerly undocumented and use it as a strength towards your academic experience. In graduate school and academia, you will commonly be asked, “what is your research question(s)?” I recommend turning that question on its head by instead asking: “what are my life-long questions?” For me, that question was “what is my place in this society?” And that led me to the career path as a scholar-activist professor. 

Third, as you go through graduate school, one important thing to consider is what kind of professorship path do you want to pursue. Is your passion teaching, pedagogy, and mentoring? Are you more passionate about pursuing a position focused on research, investigations, and publications? If the answer to those questions is complicated… no worries, that’s how most professors feel… torn in between! Think back to your higher education experience, did you attend universities that are deemed “liberal arts” where the professors’ primary focus was to teach with a minor focus on research? Or perhaps you attended universities that were deemed “Research One” or “Research Two” institutions where your professors were evaluated for their research, publications, and grant funded projects. If you had the opportunity to attend community college – how did that experience shape your outlook on higher education? Do you want to teach or have an administrative role in the community college system? These are important questions to consider. They will help shape your decisions about what type of professorship career path you want to pursue and your academic plans to do so. 

My doctorate degree is in American Studies, whose foundations stem from Cultural Studies. I focused on analyzing cultural production and knowledge systems on cultural identity. Growing up as an immigrant in the U.S., film and television were portals to decipher and understand which migrants/immigrants were represented and (un)acknowledged in society. As such, I combined my passion for Cultural Studies (focusing on film) with a critical lens of Immigration Studies. Film is a particular space in which migrants/immigrants are often represented in negative or limited portrayals across popular culture. Cultural Studies scholars and historians argue that popular cultural media, such as film, operates as a historical archive wherein misrepresentation of groups comes to stand in as valid understandings of said groups, as inferred knowledge. When I say, “inferred knowledge,” I mean the ways in which an idea or concept about a particular group appears to be true through its pervasiveness in media representation. For example, in my research I look at films that are considered “re-vindictive,” to examine how the negative stereotypes of immigrants in film become fact through the repetitive loop of media representation. As UndocuScholars – from an undocumented or formerly undocumented status and positionality – we must disrupt and decolonize the xenophobic lens that exist in institutional representation of migrants/immigrants. We must offer a counternarrative and document alternative representations. In doing so, we can produce alternative migrant/immigrant imaginaries that shed light on our community’s resilience and empower our communities. 

Photo credit: Noom Peerapong

I began this blog post with the popular phrase, “life is like a movie,” to showcase how my childhood migration story led me to develop a critical consciousness and interest in higher education as a way to answer “life-questions.” Feeling like an “film extra” without much direction or agency to produce my own narrative, I leaned on professors and mentors who carved spaces of empowerment. In my journey as a professor, I reflected on my “life-questions” to write the script (dissertation manuscript). As UndocuScholars, I challenge you to envision your own (un)documenting process towards new migrant imaginaries. 

RAFA self-identifies as an UndocuScholar – a scholar researching and writing about the immigrant experience from an undocumented perspective. Rafa has lived undocumented in the U.S. for over thirty years, while also recognizing that his privilege of qualifying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program allows him to pursue higher education and begin his career in academia. Rafa is currently an Assistant Professor and is engaged in public projects that seek to connect academic work with community development.


Castoriadis, Cornelius. The Imaginary Institution of Society, Polity Press, 1987. 

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, 30th Anniversary Ed., 2000. 

Lee, John. “A Time to Riot: L.A. Uprising 1992.” Colorlines, 5.2, 2002.

Martínez, Rafael A. “Transformative Borders in Cinema: Evolving Concepts of Migrant 

Crossings,” La Frontera: Reflections on Borders in American Culture. AMERICANA

eBooks, 2016. 

Pastor, Manuel, Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. South Central Dreams: Finding Home and 

Building Community in South L.A. New York University Press, 2021. 

Schmidt Camacho, Alicia R. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico

Borderlands, NYU Press, 2008. 

Villazor, Rose Cuison. “Reflecting on California and Prop. 187: From the Anti-Immigration

State to the Sanctuary State,” UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 53, Issue 3, 2015. 


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