SAM COMEN PHOTOGRAPHY
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Dreamers: Undocumented & Unafraid

In 2013, with immigration reform in the political spotlight, I photographed these young people --all of them undocumented, all of them bravely willing to have their photo be published along with their names-- to present their individual stories to inform, illustrate, and illuminate the larger policy debate.

I was moved by their rallying cry "undocumented and unafraid" and I found them to be empowered, highly organized activists working on a variety of fronts for reform. I believe that if these young people are willing to stand up at personal risk to advocate for change, then documented citizens should be compelled to support them.

The 28 photos that follow were shot in and around Los Angeles in the subjects' workplaces, homes, community centers, and in the midst of demonstrations. An excerpt from the series was published by CNNPhotos.com in August 2013.

MYISHA ARELLANO

MYISHA ARELLANO

My name is Myisha Arellano I am a 20-year-old undocumented woman living in the San Fernando Valley -- where I have lived ever since I came to the U.S. from Mexico City with my family twelve years ago. In high school I came to terms with my immigration status, and became empowered and empowered others through activism and art. I've seen the power that young immigrants gain by being conscious and organized: which is why I am part of the Immigrant Youth Coalition, an organization that shares the same views. Part of that consciousness has to do with being aware of the external forces that forced our families to leave our countries of origin. Even though our immigration statuses changed from documented to undocumented, our lives as working class people have always been harsh. We came here knowing that we would still struggle on this side of the border, but hoped that the difficulties would diminish at least a little bit. This is why I don’t believe that immigration reform or the DREAM Act will all of a sudden make the lives of immigrants easy. Our lives will be the same -- but it will allow us to live with less fear.

[Myisha is pictured in her bedroom in her family home in Los Angeles, CA.]

AGUSTIN FLORES

AGUSTIN FLORES

My name is Agustin "Tapatio" Flores and I’m a college student and activist living in the Northeast San Fernando Valley who identifies as UndocuQueer -- a term used by undocumented individuals who also identify as LGBTQ to draw attention to the intersections of our communities. As a photojournalist, I aspire to change people’s perspectives with my photography. In this photo I’m documenting the painting of two new additions to the Pacoima Mural Mile, a 1.5 mile stretch of murals created by Pacoima artists and community members. I love photographing things like this art installation because I feel it's crucial to document history as it's happening.

[Agustin is pictured during a mural installation in Pacoima, CA.]

RUBY SOTO

RUBY SOTO

Being undocumented not only labels me as something I am not, but it also takes away my true identity. I am a high school student residing in Santa Ana. My name? I have not been given the opportunity to share my name because I am called an alien, an immigrant, illegal, and wetback. This is how much being "undocumented" takes charge in my life. Ruby Soto is non-existent as a person but as a mere number; someone who will only live to help this country yet not even given a chance to be somebody. Yes, I am a person who loves to learn new things and discover what the world has to offer but I am everyday restricted from doing so because of how I am labeled. Those who have walked and keep walking in the same shoes as me constantly ask "What am I though? Why am I hated so much that I might be taken away from my family or from the place I was born?" I think about these questions, I feel burning emotions inside of me, but no one ever hears me. Although, not everything is over until we give up. I have not given up yet and I don't plan on doing so. With RAIZ, a youth group here in Santa Ana empowering youth to stand up for their beliefs and fight for their rights (Resistencia, Autonomia, Igualidad, Liderazgo) I was capable of finding a piece of who I am; for once, I took charge at school and began a DREAMers club to end those emotions of fear and terror which should not be felt in youth at all. I am very loving and caring but if somebody is too foolish enough to label me something I am not such as illegal, alien, or wetback, then i will definitely fight against that until things change. So tell me, what makes me so different from you if you haven't met me yet?

[Ruby is pictured in RAIZ’s headquarters at El Centro Cultural De Mexico in Santa Ana, CA.]

LUIS MORENO

LUIS MORENO

I was born in Villa Union, Durango, Mexico in 1987 and was in the States by 1989. I've grown up Orange, Riverside, and Santa Barbara Counties; and now live in the city of Los Angeles. I was active in the undocumented student community at the University of California Santa Barbara and now doing work with immigrant rights with the Immigrant Youth Coalition and Cuentame, a non-profit organization focused on video and new media organizing and activism. Though I would be eligible for a potential DREAM Act and would love to see it passed, I don't identify as a "DREAMer": I think the label is easily manipulated by politicians. As far as undocumented immigration, I think it's inevitable under the process of this type of globalization.

[Luis is pictured in his apartment in Los Angeles, CA.]

DANNY PARK

DANNY PARK

My name is Danny Park and I'm a DREAMer. When I graduated high school in 2010 I was not able to go to the colleges I'd been accepted to because I did not qualify for any financial aid and my family couldn't afford tuition. However I did not give up. Being undocumented shattered my plan, but not my dreams. I was determined to continue on with my education. I did my own research and found out that I qualified for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals): I filed it on my own and it granted me driver's license and work permit. For all three years I attended community college, I paid for my own tuition with scholarships from local organizations and churches and also by tutoring high school students. It was challenging keeping up with academics when I was working 20+ hours a week, but I'm proud to say that after all the hard work, I'll be transferring to UCLA in fall. I've benefited mostly from API (Asian Pacific Islander) organizations, so I wanted to give back to my community. That's why I'm working at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles on the policy and advocacy team. My focus this summer is to fix the broken immigration system and strive for one that reunites families and grants equal opportunities for undocumented students.

[Danny is pictured at the offices of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Downtown Los Angeles,CA]

ROOSTER CABRERA

ROOSTER CABRERA

I'm Rooster Cabrera, a 20-year-old undocumented queer ponk from East Los Angeles. Relocated at the age of four from Sinaloa, Mexico. The first in my family to graduate high school and move on to higher education in the US. Started organizing my peers in high school around educational justice issues and moved on to work with Corazon Del Pueblo in Boyle Heights. I help manage the community-supported collective dedicated to education, the arts, and social action.

[Rooster is pictured in the Corazon Del Pueblo community center in Boyle Heights, CA.]

LUIS E. GONZALEZ

LUIS E. GONZALEZ

My name is Luis E. Gonzalez.  I'm from Mexico City and I came to the US on June 4th 2007 at age 15. I came because my family and I wanted to be together for the first time in a long time. I'm a DREAMer who was tired of waiting for change to happen: now I'm fighting to make it happen. My American Dream is to discover what I'm capable of and to be who I truly am. My work in my family's restaurants and trucks does not define who I am or who I will be: it just reminds me to who I don't want to become, and what I'm fighting for. My family and the people that I love are the most important motivation for my work.

[Luis is pictured at work on one of his family’s catering trucks in Eagle Rock, CA.]

CHRISTIAN ALVAREZ

CHRISTIAN ALVAREZ

My name is Christian Alvarez; I came to Los Angeles at the age of 5 from Guadalajara, Jalisco. Growing up I didn't have a grasp of what it meant to be undocumented. Reality struck at the end of high school in 2009, when, despite graduating with honors at the top 4% of my class, I had no access to financial aid that would have let me attend the UCs I'd been admitted to. I couldn't afford out-of-pocket tuition. Now, four years later and under AB540, I registered at Los Angeles Valley College for a degree in Business administration and I've become an active member of the San Fernando Valley Dream Team. Through our organization we bring tangible changes that benefit the undocumented community in the San Fernando Valley through education, advocacy, and collaboration. I've learned that there are opportunities to help others and by helping others we help ourselves. I've always liked being part of a team, which is one of the reasons why I am playing football with the California Dolphins and hope to run my own business in the near future.

[Christian is pictured just after a game with the California Dolphins in Los Angeles, CA.]

CLAUDIA RAMIREZ

CLAUDIA RAMIREZ

My name is Claudia Ramirez Hernandez and this is mi vida. When I came to the USA I was only 4 years old. I came here because I was going to meet my dad and he had plans to take me to Disneyland but he got injured. He hurt his back so bad that he couldn't walk. My mom did not have the heart to leave him at his worst moment so we decided to stay even if it meant letting our visa expire. The first time I came out to my class as undocumented I was bullied. It made me believe that being undocumented was a disease and it made me scared to let anyone know. When my senior year of high school came I did not ask for help because I thought there was no help for me. I know because of that I made many mistakes in college. Then I heard that AB540 was challenged and it frightened me. That was one of the reasons I tried to commit suicide when I was 19. I drank pills because I wanted to die and I didn't see any point in life. My mom called 911 and I was taken to the hospital. A week after I was released, I went to the beach with family and I remember thinking how cool it would be to drown. I was in the water with my sister and out of the blue my sister said "adios". I asked her why and she said, "I don't know, I just feel like saying that."  So I told her "give me your hand and don't let go." We decided to play in one more wave but that's when water dragged us to the deep part of the ocean. We did not know how to swim so we were drowning. Someone came and got my sister and the lifeguard got me. When I saw them carrying my sister out of the water it made me think that I needed to stop and live life with new meaning. Then I was asked to form a group to help AB540 students and then that's how Unidos was started. I needed help so I went to church and I prayed that I would meet someone who could help me understand the dream act and AB130.  That's when I met Kevin who announced that he was collecting signatures for AB131 and St. Lawrence Dream Team was created. I'm doing this because I know it is time to let go of fear and to stop protecting myself behind four walls. If I can do it, so can you, so I invite you right now to go out there and do something about it.  Today is the day to make changes and make that dream real and never let fear control your life because you are not alone. We are all here for you.

[Claudia is pictured in her family home in Los Angeles, CA.]

ALESSANDRO NEGRETE

ALESSANDRO NEGRETE

My name is Alessandro Negrete; I am 30 years young, and a queer immigrant of color. I came to the U.S when I was 3-months-old and have lived in Los Angeles most of my life, mostly in Boyle Heights where I currently live. I've seen little inclusivity in immigration reforms to date: DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has helped plenty of youth, but still marginalizes a lot of other folks who have been here their entire lives. By organizing with my peers, creating clinics, "know your rights" trainings and healing circles to discuss the disenfranchisement and disparities of the Undocu Community, I hope to foster conversations with those who have not yet found the will to scream and tell their own stories.

[Alessandro is pictured immediately after holding a banner that demands immigration reform overrush hour traffic in Downtown Los Angeles, CA.]

JONATHAN PEREZ

JONATHAN PEREZ

My name is Jonathan Perez, I’m 26-years-old, and I grew up in East Los Angeles where I attended Garfield High School; one of the most overcrowded schools in the nation. When I first realized that most students in my high school did not graduate due to overcrowding I began to organize youth to improve the conditions in our schools so we can all reach higher education. Our efforts led us to the construction of a new high school in my community, Esteban Torres High School, as well as many reforms that have drastically improved the education of thousands of youth in East LA. I deeply love my community and will continue fighting to improve it.

[Jonathan is pictured at Esteban Torres High School, which he campaigned to have built, in East LosAngeles, CA]

 

SARAI MOJICA

SARAI MOJICA

I am Sarai Mojica. I am a student activist and a undocumented person. My preferred subject in study is anthropology, the study of people, because it weaves together all aspects of life. Being undocumented to the states has taught me what humyns often feel: unwanted. The scale of feeling unwanted is vast and there will always be someone reaffirming those harsh realities. Coming out as undocumented has empowered me to stand up for what's right in all areas of my life as well as becoming the creator of my own realities. 

[Sarai is pictured on Pasadena City College’s campus, at the reflecting pool where she recently participated in a public declaration of her immigration status in a “Coming Out of the Shadows” demonstration.]

JEWELL ALINGASA

JEWELL ALINGASA

As a DREAMer I know the many struggles and sacrifices that undocumented families have to make. These families inspire me with their ability to strive and remain optimistic in the face of those who ignorantly claim that immigration reform is a free pass. Those who oppose any sort of immigration reform are unable to see the political and economic necessity for worldwide migration -- and I know that if they were to truly grasp this, they wouldn't be so quick to pass such cruel and heartless judgments onto these communities that struggle so much as it is. Being an activist, I am empowered to fight for myself and my community -- I take this risk everyday for fear of a greater consequence that comes with doing nothing at all. But I know I cannot win this battle alone. Working with Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles has shown me there are others who can see the nature and necessity of fair and equal immigration reform. Through their engagement in the community I've been able to share my story and have my voice heard, and now I proudly march beside my community and demand a better future.

[Jewell is pictured at the offices of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Downtown Los Angeles,CA]

CARLOS PEREA

CARLOS PEREA

My name is Carlos Perea, I came to the United States when I was 14 years old. I'm from Puebla, Mexico. I currently attend Santa Ana College and will be transferring to a four-year university next year to pursue a Sociology degree. I'm a member of RAIZ, an immigrant youth group based out of El Centro Cultural De Mexico. As a group we believe it is important to fight against enforcement laws that criminalize our immigrant community. As I have been in the immigrant rights movement since I was a high school student I have realized that advocating for the DREAM Act or Immigration Reform should not be the only focus. It is important to organize with our community to fight against deportations and the Pol-ICE (La Polimigra). A fight to keep our families together.

[Carlos is pictured during a RAIZ meeting at El Centro Cultural De Mexico in Santa Ana, CA.]

DELIA ARRIAGA

DELIA ARRIAGA

My name is Delia Esmeralda Arriaga. At five months old, my 19-year-old parents carried me safely from Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States. I grew up in Southeast Los Angeles, moving from one small apartment to the next. My parents instilled the value of education in me from an early age, and eventually I became Valedictorian of my graduating high school class. Attending the University of California, Los Angeles meant a four-hour round trip commute on public transportation every day and working in local restaurants to cover my own tuition. While taking a full load of classes at UCLA, I worked as an advocate for the rights of undocumented students. My family's support was always invaluable: I'll always remember that each day, after hours on campus and at work, my father would pick me up from the train station late at night and my mom would always save me dinner. After graduation I've continued to do social justice work to provide opportunities for new immigrant youth to develop their leadership skills. I feel ambivalent about a potential DREAM Act: the Dreamer identity is sometimes used to justify why I deserve a path to citizenship while my parents continue to be criminalized. Without my family and community, I would not have been able to accomplish my goals or become who I am today. We ALL deserve the right to pursue our dreams without fear.

[Delia is pictured outside her parents’ home in South Gate, CA.]

ANAIS BRAVO

ANAIS BRAVO

My name is Anais Bravo. I came to the US from Mexico in 1995 at the age of 10, and I'm currently living in the San Gabriel Valley just East of Los Angeles. My greatest influence is my family.  My grandparents devoted their lives to helping and serving others.  This taught me to work for what I believe in and being involved in the fight for immigrant's rights these past five years has opened my eyes to how we, as people, regardless of our status, can relate to one another through the struggles we face in our every day lives. This serves as a constant reminder that we are fighting for something much larger than immigration reform.

[Anais is pictured at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, where she does advocacywork, in Downtown Los Angeles, CA.]

ANTHONY NG

ANTHONY NG

My family and I came to this country about 12 years ago at the age of 12 from the Philippines to seek our American  Dream -- a better life and opportunity.  As a leader in the immigrant youth movement, I have the honor of wearing many hats: I work primarily as a policy advocate and organizer for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities through Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA. I also organize my immigrant youth peers through Dream Team LA and United We Dream. Both roles are crucial in my advocacy for inclusive comprehensive immigration reform.

[Anthony is pictured at his desk at the offices of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in DowntownLos Angeles.]

JULIO RODRIGUEZ

JULIO RODRIGUEZ

I was brought over when I was 2-years-old and have lived in the US for 21 years. Growing up, I held egalitarian beliefs and refused to embrace the idea of borders, of arbitrary lines on a map. I am currently facing deportation as a direct result of the federal "secure communities" law. But what communities does the law keep secure? Not mine. Not those of the working class. If it were not for my community's support I would either be in a detention center or deported by now. While we continue to live in a world segregated by borders, while we allow oppressive governments to stay in power, undocumented and unafraid I will remain.

[Julio is pictured outside his bedroom/workshop in Cudahy, CA.]

DAVID LEMUS

DAVID LEMUS

My name is David Antonio Lemus Pérez. I was born in El Salvador, and arrived to Los Angeles in 2008 when I was 15-years-old. I'm now 20 years old. The U.S. Empire funded a civil war in my home country for more than a decade, as a result many Salvadorans fled, and the ones that stayed faced a destroyed economy.  Due to economic hardships my family was forced to leave. I am currently attending UC Berkeley studying Ethnic Studies. I'm part of USEU (Unión Salvadoreña de Estudianes Universitario) and IYC (the Immigrant Youth Coalition.) In this picture I am protesting with carwasheros to advocate for improved working conditions and fair wages

[David is pictured on a picket line in Century City, CA.]

JORGE LUIS RESENDEZ

JORGE LUIS RESENDEZ

After many years of working two jobs and commuting from my family home in the San Fernando Valley to West L.A. everyday, I finally graduated from UCLA this past June with a bachelor's degree in Chicano Studies. Though I've achieved some of my dreams against all odds, I continue to organize with the immigrant community as the lead organizer for the San Fernando Valley Dream Team, an undocumented youth led group that advocates for immigrant rights. 

[Jorge is pictured outside his family home in San Fernando, CA.]

LUIS SERRANO

LUIS SERRANO

My name is Luis Serrano I am undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic. I am originally from Sonora, Mexico and I now reside in Los Angeles. I have been here for almost two decades and for the last several years I've been organizing with the Immigrant Youth Coalition of Los Angeles to better our community and the circumstances that we as immigrants live in. I've identified as a working class person and not a scholar, the reason why is because I never found the resources to keep myself afloat while going to school. School is a part time ordeal for now. I do what I need to do to make ends meet and survive in this anti immigrant environment we call America. I came from a humble background, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad had a taco truck. This is how they supported my sister, brother and I. My parents divorced while I was in high school, leaving my mom to fend for us because my father was too depressed to be here, and went back to Mexico for several years. Although I have not been living the life that most young immigrants are expected to live, like being a college grad, a scholar, I am still making my way through and doing my best to keep my head up and thrive with my community. Success in this country is very individualistic, we all need to be successful.

[Luis is pictured in MacArthur Park, in Downtown Los Angeles, CA, adjacent to the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education where he was working with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.]

ELOISA AMADOR LARA

ELOISA AMADOR LARA

My name is Eloisa Amador Lara and I came to the United State from Mexico at the age of 9 with my parents and two older brothers. Several years after we settled in the U.S., my oldest brother was deported back to Mexico, breaking our family apart. There is not one day that goes by that I don't think of him. I miss him a lot and I wish he were still here with us. I am entering the last year of my undergraduate education at the California State University Fullerton. I am less than a year away from getting my Bachelor’s degree in Human Services and a minor in Chicano/a Studies. I commute almost 60 miles on the bus, each day, to get to campus. At the university, I volunteer at the Links Mentoring Program (this photo was made in the program's offices) where I help mentor first generation college students on how to make the best of their college experience. I hope that there is an immigration reform that is just and humane for all immigrants in this country. I wish that there is a stop to the separation of families, and I dream on the day when my family can be reunited again.

[Eloisa is pictured at her desk in the Cal State Fullerton’s Links Mentoring Program in Fullerton, CA.]

FRANCISCO ROMERO

FRANCISCO ROMERO

My name is Francisco Romero. I am a 25-year old undocumented UC Berkeley student, pro-immigrant activist, and filmmaker. My place of birth is Mexico City, but for the last 24 years I have called Los Angeles my home. I'm a member of the Immigrant Youth Coalition and document the work the activist organization does -- I'm compelled to document because my fellow members risk a great deal fighting for what they believe in and the communities they love. In this photo I'm at Los Angeles' Twin Towers jail, in the midst of shooting a short documentary film about the July 2013 “Undocumented Caravan to Restore Trust for California Families,” a non-violent multi-city action in which undocumented activists traveled through California to the state capitol to demand an end to mandatory collaboration between state and local law enforcement with I.C.E. My film follows the brave participants of the Caravan as they work to exposing injustices committed by law enforcements and empower undocumented communities. My ultimate goal is to become a studio executive, and completing my studies at UC Berkeley is the first step in that direction; however, I will always hold in spot in my heart for social justice work. 

[Francisco is pictured while shooting his short documentary film outside Los Angeles County’s TwinTowers jail in Los Angeles, CA.]

MIGUEL MONTALVA

MIGUEL MONTALVA

My name is Miguel Montalva. I'm a community organizer for the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition: in my organizing I focus on the inequalities within my immigrant and LGBTQ community. I've lived in the U.S. for more than 22 years: in this photo I'm in my parents' home in Santa Ana, CA where I lived for 15 yearsThis fall I begin working on my Ph.D. in Sociology in Boston. To date I've completed my MA in Sociology (2011) and a dual BA in Music and Sociology (2007) both from California State University, Los Angeles.

[Miguel is pictured in his bedroom in his family home in Santa Ana, CA.]

ADRIANA AGUILAR

ADRIANA AGUILAR

I am Adriana Aguilar, a 23-year-old undocumented chingona (badass womyn) who is going to college. I migrated along with my family when I was a year and a half old from Puebla, Mexico to East LA. As soon as I started going to East Los Angeles College I started to develop my leadership and organizing skills. I learned the importance of empowerment. This couldn't have happened without down-to-earth professors and other students who together formed an undocumented support group that we came to call Students for Equal Rights. My family has never understood why I'm involved in immigrant's, womyn's, and education rights movements; I don't think they understand when I tell them I am a community organizer. The only thing they do understand is my passion to empower my community and to create access and resource for those who need them.  I intend to always work with communities that are systematically disadvantaged and plant seeds of love, awareness and consciousness in new generations to one day have a world free of injustice.

[Adriana is pictured on the campus of East Los Angeles College.]

ISABEL FONG

ISABEL FONG

My name is Isabel Fong and I am eighteen years old. I've been living in the United States for over six years now and I came from Panama. My parents decided to move up north, a place where they thought life was going to be better: the United States. While living in America I faced two things: a feeling of displacement, and adjusting to a new culture. The emotional stress of these events brought me to my lowest point and for a while I felt as if I couldn’t even be myself. But then I realized that I was my own worst enemy. I needed to overcome my difficulties and stand up for myself. Now I am heading over to college and pursuing my American Dream. 

[Isabel is pictured in Los Angeles’ Chinatown at a bus stop she uses in her travels around the city.]