01/04/2012 07:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Documenting Undocumented Youth: Behind the Scenes with DREAMers Adrift

A few years back, Julio Salgado and his friends graduated from college and found themselves, like many of their peers, adrift: no good job prospects, hard-earned diplomas gathering dust under a slumped economy. But their drift was anchored by a heavy secret: they didn't have papers, so every post-college hurdle that young people commonly face was thickened by the politics of a broken immigration system.

An epiphany came on the Day of the Dead, the Día de los Muertos that celebrates mortality and the afterlife. In the spirit of the holiday, Salgado and his colleagues, Jesus Iñiguez, Fernando Romero, and Deisy Hernandez, decided to create an altar in memory of their dreams. And the video they made of the mock memorial inspired them to keep going and see where their art would take them.

Today, the California-based team of four "DREAMers"--named for the thus far-failed DREAM Act legislation, which would provide legal status to undocumented immigrants who get a college education in the U.S.--run a nationwide media project devoted to telling stories about life as an undocumented youth.

Despite the name, DREAMers Adrift has a serious mission: to give voice and vision to an emergent political movement through media, ranging from spoken word to visual art to blogging. And despite their legal quagmires, they've made the plight of countless young people visible with a video series called "Undocumented and Awkward," which whimsically depicts the absurdities of everyday life without papers.

The cringe-worthy moments depicted in the pithy YouTube skits range from the embarrassment of running into an old schoolmate while cleaning his hotel room; or getting stuck out in the cold on a blind date when the bouncer at the club demands an official driver's license; or the humiliation of trying to make the most out of a miserable office job because, hey, it's a "step up" from a vocation that involves "stabbing yourself with a kitchen knife or accidentally breathing poison."

CultureStrike talked to Julio Salgado--whose videos and cartoons are informed by his nearly nine-year odyssey trying to go to school and support himself with odd jobs--on his project's fusion of art and activism. Here's an edited version of the conversation.

Michelle Chen: How did DREAMers Adrift start?

Julio Salgado: After college, the four of us undocumented college graduates, we felt a lot of the conversations within the DREAM Act; it's about students, and people who are still in college. And there was no real conversation about what happens once you graduate from college, which is what's going on with us. ... And so it just so happened last year, right before the DREAM Act went into the last attempt in Congress, we created this video around the Day of the Dead, the Día de los Muertos. And we sort of wanted to pay homage to our dreams, and we all had these diplomas that we couldn't really use--very dramatic, you know? We created this piece that was just our, literally, pouring our hearts in there, and how we were feeling at the time. Eventually, the DREAM Act didn't pass, but it wasn't even about the DA anymore. It was about putting our stories out there so that people could... see that there's a voice out there that wasn't the regular media telling us, "Oh, those illegal aliens..." but something that came from the heart.

MC: How is your situation, as a post-graduate DREAMer, different from the DREAMers we've seen in the news, who are still students?

JS: When we were in college, the thing was "Don't tell anybody you're undocumented. Don't tell because you never know..." It was almost this underground network that we had of counselors and professors who were helping us. But this new generation of DREAMers are sort of like coming out and you know, all up in yo face, and getting arrested and doing all these things. So they were a huge, big-time inspiration for us to come out and sort of put our lives on the line for people to see. But I felt that, well, I'm not an organizer. I went to school to be a journalist, and I wanted to tell a story. But I couldn't get a job with a newspaper. So we created our own platform in a very non-traditional way.

In some form or another, we're all activists, because we go to the marches, we go to the rallies, and initially we were really pushing for the DREAM Act. But like I said, it's gone beyond the DREAM Act. It's not even about a piece of legislation, it's about empowering ourselves for using this media, passing it on, saying to other students, "Hey, use this video and tell people."

MC: What has been the response from viewers?

JS: For the most part it's been positive, students, and people who are active, but also people who have actually have been deported, we're talking about people who are just scared of going out and dealing with the police.

I mentioned some of the queer issues in the videos. And some of the comments, from people using, "Fag this, fag that." I'm just like, woah, we still have a long way to go even as undocumented folks. ... People think that if you're part of an oppressed minority, you would try to understand other oppressed minorities. But what we're seeing is that putting stuff online opens the door for a lot of negativity. But we try to focus on the positive. And we want to continue to do this work. I don't know where it's going to go. We're just happy to be able to tell a story and do what we do.

MC: Was college the time that you first really understood the barriers you were facing?

JS: From the get go, it was really a struggle to pay for school. My parents never really saved up for me to go to college, so it was all up to me. I couldn't get federal financial aid, and so that was a challenge. But I was like, "Nah, I'm not gonna let that stop me. I'm gonna keep washing dishes, keep doing construction work, and continue my education." It took me eight and a half years to finish college.

MC: Did you ever feel like your status wasn't just a financial setback, but might put you at risk of deportation?

JS: Yes. There were times where I had to risk driving without a license, and I didn't know if a cop was going to arrest me and then eventually incarcerate me, and then eventually deportation. I was very, very careful. I think the reason why undocumented students, especially DREAMers are called "model" students is not because we want to be. We have to. We have to be super careful, because you can't be getting in trouble. If you do, you have so much to lose. It's not about just getting arrested, it's the possibility of not seeing your family in a really long time. It was very unnerving. I was constantly thinking about it.

MC: What do you think of the DREAM Act and the politics surrounding it, especially with some saying that it's shortsighted to push for just the DREAM Act without a comprehensive immigration reform bill as well?

JS: If you're waiting for that perfect piece of legislation, while politicians are playing with us with a political game, we're going to be undocumented forever. But now, I think that whole conversation last year, hopefully, openened the conversation to the bigger picture of immigration reform for all. It won't stop anti-immigrant feelings, it won't stop people from hating us. But it would try to fix something that has been broken for a really long time. Definitely, it was a very problematic bill. It created a lot of divides even between DREAMers who were being pulled from all kinds of sides. It's sad, but it's the truth. It's a game that people are playing with us. And so by us fighting back and saying "Yo, no, I'm gonna tell my own story." It's almost a defense mechanism against this crazy, big political machine, that sometimes is more powerful than us. But they can't take away our stories. They can't take away what we really have to say.

Visit DREAMers Adrift to learn more about their work and their stories.

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses art and activism in the struggle for immigrants' rights.