Smash Pages Q&A: Alberto Ledesma on ‘Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer’

In his first book, Alberto Ledesma combines comics, illustrations and essays to examine what it means to be undocumented in the United States.

Alberto Ledesma’s first book, Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a pre-American Life combines comics, illustrations and essays to examine what it means to be undocumented in the United States. It’s a deeply moving book that is very personal, but Ledesma is also interested in using his own story as a springboard to discussing other topics and towards a larger conversation. Ledesma has a love of comics, and makes clear in the book that keeping a sketchbook is key to how he works. It is a deeply felt, very political book that eschews narrative and seeks many ways to think about these political concerns and the artistic approaches of combining text and art.

The book is the first of a new imprint, Latinographix, part of Mad Creek Books at Ohio State University. Ledesma holds a doctorate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and works there today, but he’s very interested in starting a much wider conversation around these issues and how they relate to questions of American identity.

How do you describe Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer?

Alberto Ledesma: It is a hybrid book. It isn’t something that I planned. It’s something that came together out of its own volition. I had been trying to initiate a critical dialogue around what it means to be undocumented in terms of its relation to American identity for many years. My degree is in Ethnic Studies at Berkeley and I wrote a dissertation focusing on representations of undocumented characters in Mexican-American fiction. What I wanted was to initiate a public conversation about what the undocumented experience means in terms of the larger American narrative. Of course, a lot of it was driven by my own biography. I always wondered how that identity came to be socially constructed and so I wanted to initiate a dialogue with my colleagues so that we could interrogate it together. Ethnic Studies focuses on doing critiques of the ways that societal discourses are racialized and the way ethnocentrism informs those discourses. I thought that this was a very natural kind of conversation to have

I was also writing short autobiographical stories at the same time. My undocumented experience had been so visceral for me that it compelled me to write short fiction and poetry because I was not brave enough to do memoir at that time. It wasn’t until I started cartooning that that my memoir and a public conversation about my experience really emerged. It took me a while to realize why it was that cartooning made it easy for me to deal with this difficult subject and it struck me that it was the nature of the form. The cartoons were much more accessible among my intended audience. This was in the early 2000’s when I began to see with the Dreamer movement. There was some curiosity about what this experience is about so I began addressing that epistemology and asking questions about it and trying to provoke some reflection on it. Once I had disseminated enough of my work, there were a number of people who became very interested in it so I kept going. That is the way that the book really came into being. Once I amassed a number of cartoons and essays I approached Frederick Aldama to see if we could put a book together. Ohio State University Press had just begun a new imprint called Latinographix.

In one drawing in the book you have “Your Influences” and one of them is Spider-Man. Were you always drawing and reading comics?

I was. I mean, while I have a very rudimentary drawing style, comics have always influenced me. I can tell you an anecdote about this. It was about two years after my dad had brought us from Mexico and we lived in this very small – my parents now own that house and live there – house in the heart of East Oakland, which at that time was predominantly African-American. We were one of two Latino families for several blocks around where we lived. Because we were so different and didn’t speak English we tended to be inside most of the time. This was a time of some social unrest. Living in East Oakland there was a lot of frustration. It wasn’t easy to interact with other kids, so we used to live in a very sheltered way. One night the whole family was home and we were watching this TV program all crowded into one room. I saw a piece of cardboard and a pencil and I just started doing a portrait of the family. Before that I had not thought of myself as an artist in any way, but when I drew it my dad studied the portrait for a while. He was laughing to himself because of the facial expressions I had drawn. I had no training; it was just instinct, trying to catch the emotion. I still recall it as one of the fondest memories of this connection with my dad. He was amazed by the way I had captured the personality of all the family members.

Comic books were key for me because I loved reading them. My mom used to have from her own childhood stacks and stacks of comic books – some of them, like Memin Pinguin, were racist; but, as a five year old I could not discern how bad they were. Often she would encourage me to look at the comics because I would become absorbed by them, the pictures and the stories that I could figure out by the action of the characters. When I came to the US comic books were an easy thing to get into because I could purchase them at convenient stores and my dad would not mind paying 25 cents or so for one or more of them. They became the tools that helped me socialize to being in the US. Comic books helped me learn English. There was text on the image and often I learned how to associate certain actions with certain words and over time that was where some of my knowledge of the English language came from.

Reading the book, it felt like drawing and the practice of keeping a sketchbook has been very important for you.

Yes. For me it was a combination of sketchbook and diary. I took a lot of writing classes when I was in college and often doing a diary was a key tool that we used, especially for writing memoir. How to identify themes and jot down reflections and so I got used to that. When I started adding images to it, sometimes it would click. Sometimes they didn’t, but it was something I did very frequently

Going back to that question of comics being accessible, I’ve been talking with a lot of political cartoonists this past year and political cartooning is this tradition of arguing for an idea in a way that even if you can’t read, you can understand. I think that continues to carry over and be important.

Political cartooning has always been one of my favorite art forms. Lalo Alcaraz is one of my big influences. I knew Lalo when he was at Berkeley. Now and then, when I was an aspiring cartoonist and he was already well established on campus, we used to talk shop – of course he was light years ahead of me. For me the political cartoon was important because it allowed me to communicate dissent. Among the comics my Mom had in Mexico, I loved Rius. The issue for me was my own agency in drawing anything in terms of having a political opinion. When I was a student in high school I used to draw innocuous things like flowers and fancy lettering for party flyers, but in terms of images that had a political edge, I did not do that until after amnesty and my legal situation was solved. I remember taking a memoir class at Berkeley with Cherríe Moraga. During that class I had to write four or five essays for a final projects but along with the essays I also chose to submit six or seven detailed drawings that I thought complimented the essays. That was the first A+ I received at Berkeley. I was blown away by how doing the drawings helped me think better about what I was writing. It created a nice contrast. And of course having written about a subject made it easier to draw a subtle image. That was in the early nineties.

What I learned from the writing classes that I took at Berkeley – both before I got my doctorate and afterwards – was that a good story is always about a sharply defined conflict. I learned that doing effective drawings will capture a reader’s or viewer’s interest in the same way. You have to capture that moment of highest tension. For me if you look at narrative forms when you’re working with fiction or short stories there are very strict rules about how narrators or protagonists or characters in the stories – the agents in the story – are supposed to work. With cartooning it’s different because you can have omnipresent perspectives and first person perspectives at the same time in a harmonious way. It’s not as jarring as if you were writing a story.

You use superhero images here and there in the book and superheroes and in general and Superman in particular have been discussed in terms of the immigrant experience. They involve dual identities and secret lives and many of these ideas and themes you’re discussing.

It’s a parody of course, a comment on the powerful versus the powerless; but, if you look at comic books, that’s the main metaphor has been exploited to create some really interesting narratives. Certainly that is the case with Superman and if you look at the X-Men with the ways that whole communities of people are being regulated or being ostracized for who they are. That narrative has created billions in profits for Marvel and DC. My point is that the universality of the story does translate. Audiences will react to it. My sense is that undocumented immigrant stories themselves haven’t had places where they can be safely related or enough exposure for people to understand the universal themes presented in them. My whole goal is start to humanize what it means to be undocumented, even with my very limited vantage point that I have. There are certainly more visceral and more dramatic stories than mine out there about being undocumented, for example Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway. What I want to do is create a couple moments of empathy where there’s a sense of shared humanity between the reader and the once-undocumented author.

Was there a model for what you wanted this book to be?

My model was Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years. That book was a collection of essays and poems, different narrative genres that she was using informed by her identity being half-Chicana lesbian at a time when embracing a lesbian identity within the Mexican American community was frowned upon. I identified with that kind lonely but very motivated activist perspective a great deal. I felt the same kind of disquiet and need for trying to provoke a dialogue that her book articulated about her own experiences. Because I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher I asked Cherríe questions about what she was trying to do with her work and what obstacles she had to overcome in terms of a larger vision. I have never been as brave, talented, or socially dedicated as she was. What I learned from her was how important it was to tell the truth – particularly if it is a truth that is counter-intuitive. I didn’t have the talents in terms of the narrative genres that she did. She’s a fantastic essayist, she’s a playwright and a poet and she’s amazing in the way that she articulates her criticism; but I could write essays and I could draw, so that’s what I put in my little book.

One reason I ask ,besides the obvious, is that this book is a hybrid but it also eschews plot or narrative.

Right. I think it’s more circular than anything else. The essays have a more linear narrative but even those have a lot of repetition around the experiences that to me are central to my experience. Again, pedagogically my goal is just to try to show how all enveloping the theme of undocumented fear is. Yet, you can be brave and fearful at the same time. You can be altruistic and fearful at the same time. You can make mistakes and offer powerful insights about the human condition at the same time that you have this overriding fear. There are things worth fighting for and I try to take that from the macro to the micro. I focus on my family and things that seem very mundane. I try to cover the same ideas from different vantage points. Especially when I got into “The Undocumented Alphabet” because that prompt is just a letter and it goes all over the place.

You spoke earlier about this silence around being undocumented and that’s been shifting in recent years with a new generation. I’m not sure how this political regime will affect that, but we have been seeing this activism change the debate and the discourse.

There’s a popular assumption out there, particularly among critics of undocumented immigration, that undocumented experience is irredeemable, something like original sin. Of course people broke the law and that’s a fact. There’s no easy way to rectify that. But what is often not taken into account is the larger morality of the laws that were broken or the context in which the transgression happened. What I try to address in my book is that this ethical dilemma consumes undocumented people just as much as those who are incapable of accepting any valid reason for violating certain laws. Even within my family, for example, there were all kinds of conflicts about what it meant to live as civic sinners having broken this immigration law. We were always doing penance for it; trying to be model students and diligent workers so as not to aggravate what was already done. Right now what we have an administration that is willing to push an entire class of people into the shadows, to have all of wearing scarlet letters marking them as unworthy of American aspirations or identities. At the same time, my work tries to illuminate all the ways that undocumented immigrant people try to reclaim their dignity, how they sacrifice physically and psychologically in an effort to find some sympathy among the larger population. One of the things that has inspired young people to go out there to organize and act is the larger hypocrisy of this administration.

Second generation kids who are born from first generation immigrants are themselves born into this ethical crisis. They want to be good citizens. They want to be members of society. At the same time, there’s no easy way for them to digest that experience. For me part of the work that I’m trying to do is to say, okay, this experience happened and it’s part of what it means to be American. If you look at the history of the U.S. there are all kinds of transgressions that are foundational to who we are as a society. But you can’t look critically at one supposed transgression—being undocumented—without contextualizing it in a larger history of social transgressions that have build our country.

Of course if you’re “illegal” the reality of it is you can only become American if you go through a legalizing process; however, culture is more fluid. I work with students all the time who don’t find out until they get admitted to college that their parents have hid their undocumented condition from them. Even though they got into this prestigious university, they still feel devastated and ashamed. The reason they weren’t told is because of their parents also felt this profound shame. For me that’s the thing about the book that I am trying to show. I want to try to map out the experience in a way that doesn’t vilify it and that doesn’t try to sugar coat it. I’m not a big fan of creating melodramas that are altruistic. For me it’s a question of developing some sense of humanity about what it means to be in this experience. This experience is part of a trajectory over time. You can be undocumented at one point of your life and you can be an American citizen at another point. We seem to forget that when we engage in the debate. We fit people into boxes and we want to keep them there.

One reason I asked about narrative is because you could have crafted a narrative of an undocumented childhood and ended with getting your citizenship and you avoided that.

I think that would be cliché. That’s what the Dreamer narrative is all about. At the same time, I don’t dismiss it. I chose the title very carefully. I do think that the Dreamer archetype or narrative does have a function – and it’s a function based in reality. I see students all the time who work their butts off and they’re amazing and they’re motivated by this desire to prove that they’re more than their legal identity. At the same time, there are all these other students who are trying to work very hard to prove the same thing but their situation is much more problematic and they can’t achieve as much. They’re no less Dreamers than those who are superstars.

As you make the point in the book, your doctorate doesn’t make you more deserving than your parents, who lack that education.

That’s right. Believe me, I’ve learned so many things and my dad doesn’t care. [laughs] He continues to school me.

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