By franciso aviles pino
It's 2006, and before she is Dr. Silvia Rodriguez Vega, Silvia is an undocumented undergrad who doesn’t know if she will be able to finish college and if she should sell her car to pay her rent. We talk on the phone now more than 16 years later and she sounds relieved and grateful for the journey she's had. Her voice is familiar, I’ve known about her work since 2015 and maybe earlier—but she has been a beacon to many immigrant writers like me, and her recent work I know will expose her to more who either identify or need to understand what immigrant youth, people and what immigrant people generally go through in this country.
Scholars routinely dig through the news or call up organizations to find their next academic project to then make into a book, for Dr. Rogriguez Vega, her debut academic book published by NYU Press, is both an interdisciplinary feat and an account of her professional researcher life so far. Drawing Deportation: Art and Resistance among Immigrant Children — hits the bookstore shelves on valentines day in 2023. The book is arguably a love letter to immigrant children but it is also bitter medicine to understanding the American tragedy known as family separation.
“If we want to create a better country and society, we need to confront it," says Dr. Rogriguez Vega
The book analyzes over 300 drawings, theater performances, and family interviews of kids in Arizona and Los Angeles who have been impacted by the “deportation machine” of both the Obama and Trump administrations. Rodriguez Vega sharply contributes to the conversation around the immigrant justice system yes but she is also in conversation with writers like Dr. Eve Ewing, Isabel Wilkerson, and Dr. Tara Yosso- writer/scholars who prioritize the dignity of their subjects arguing that the knowledge and experiences of people of color is not only a deep legitimate source of knowledge but also a needed source for evidence of what the consequences of laws and systems really do. Many academic texts tend to only rotate internally across scholars and policy workers but Rodriguez Vega hopes this book lives on as a testament to the status quo and as a tool for people who care about immigrant communities.
Contrary to reactionary projects about family separation and immigrant kids in detention centers the book documents over 15 years of work. You can feel the trust in the chapters and in each story.
Before the book and the tenureship at UC Santa Barbara, Silvia was an immigrant who never thought of intellectualizing the work she was doing until a mentor pushed her to apply to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She got in.
At the time, movements against SB1070 and Sheriff Arpaio were erupting across the state and all local to national news outlets relied and uplifted the stories of its leaders, Silvia being one of them.
In the nationally televised show, Don Francisco Presenta, then 23 years old, Silvia was invited as a guest and talked about the hardships of campaigning and making ends meet to get through her master's program at Harvard and how the community she had been building over time had helped her get there. As her time at Harvard grew to a close, the limbo around what to expect next still lingered with her and she went back home to Arizona to continue to do the community work which would later inspire her work that she did before even going to Harvard.
She recalls her time at Harvard as the beginning of her expanding her world in ways she never thought possible. Finding time to think through what her life was, how it was rapidly changing but also how it was not. She had a glimpse however of the power of institutions like Harvard, though imperfect, they could radically change the lives of the communities she cared for or atleast offer the tools to carve away forms of justice and respite.
For Silvia, this was one of the hardest yet most beautiful moments of her life. She had garnered a deep interest in pursuing a career as a scholar and was motivated by another mentor to apply to UCLA’s Department of Chicana/o Studies. One of the first of its kind at the time, the Department grew with her. Rodriguez Vega would soon collect the prestigious Ford fellowship and the UC President's Postdoc that would allow her even more time to document and write the book.
The stories of children in this book give them breath and an interpretation that is hard to find in scholarship and writing about children. Rodriguez Vega demands that we as readers and possibly older participants of the world consider looking the children in the eye instead of looking down at them.
Moustafa Bayoumi wrote that “to be young is to be at the crossroads of life,” and Rodriguez Vega wrote in her dedication of the book to “children of immigrants serving as bridges between worlds.”
Although the children in this book are older now, it's important for Vega for people to pay attention to their experiences. “If we want to create a better country and society, we need to confront it. Not only to read about it but to be able to visually see the stories through these writings” she tells me after a long pause.
Vega and NYU press have a planned press tour in Los Angeles and Anaheim California and the east coast this February. You can follow Dr. Silvia Rodriguez Vega on Twitter.
Francisco Aviles Pino is a Mexican writer whose work has appeared in Vogue, The Intercept, The Nation, Netflix, and HarperCollins. They are alum of the Macondo Writers Workshop, the NALAC Leadership Institute, The Poetry Foundation's Incubator Fellowship, the Center for Cultural Power's Disruptors Fellowship in Screenwriting, and UCLA where they are currently a Senior Fellow for the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health and also teach creative writing and theatre in the UCLA School of Art.
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