By Juan Prieto
When I was eight, I crossed the border using my cousin’s papers. In other words, I came to this country pretending to be someone I’m not. Pretending to be someone else did not end there, as I went through life acting as if I was just another average citizen even though I am undocumented.
The pretense was hard. Given that my legal status was such a huge part of my life, it even dictated where I would study. Due to the complexity of my family’s status, I wanted to stay near home and help my father, who is finding it harder to work as he ages. So although UC San Diego was closer to my family, I chose UC Berkeley because at the time, it was the only school in the nation to support undocumented students. Although it has been hard for me to help my family back home, Berkeley helped me stop pretending about my legal status.
I began to truly believe I was undocumented and unafraid, as the chant goes.
But that’s changed since Donald Trump commanded the national spotlight.
At Cal, it’s become increasingly dangerous for undocumented students who are outspoken. Last June, I received an anonymous email threat claiming that my family and I had been reported to immigration officials, which caused me to stop going to classes for a week. Shortly after that, right-wing activist James O’Keefe came onto our campus. He built a mock wall by Sather Gate, and engaged in xenophobic conversations with anyone who would listen.
And on February 4th, my undocumented peers and I felt vulnerable when alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at Berkeley. According to the right-wing website Breitbart, Yiannopoulos intended to launch a campaign against undocumented students that night.
I spent much of that evening locked in my room, afraid to go out. I was afraid that being undocumented and vocal would make me a target for his followers. I blame UC Berkeley for enabling Milo Yiannopoulos and his fringe form of hate. At the University of Washington, a protester was shot at a Yiannopoulos event. At the University of Wisconsin, a transgender student was outed. Clearly, both Yiannopoulos’ tactics and followers could place some of us in physical danger.
I believe that UC Berkeley allowed the event to go on at the expense of students’ safety because it feared an attack over its reputation as the home of the Free Speech Movement. When it weighed the right for a bigot to organize radicalized white men over the safety of a marginalized group on our campus, it chose the former.
Now, as the nation examines the idea of free speech and who has it, Berkeley’s decision feels ironic. Because of the fear of deportation, undocumented immigrants like me feel the need to be more silent than ever. I fear that being too critical of immigration policies might mark me as a threat to the nation. Or that perhaps I need to tone down my thoughts on certain issues. That’s because the same people who claim that they have no freedom of expression want to use the power of the state to deport our perspectives from this nation. To remove us from the lives we’ve managed to create for ourselves here.
I graduate this May, worried that work and plans for law school might become impossible under the Trump administration. I refuse, however, to return to the shadows in fear.
I refuse to pretend to be anyone but myself any longer.
This essay was originally published on NPR’s “Perspectives.” It has been modified from its original version.
JUAN PRIETO is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley majoring in English. He is an on-campus organizer and activist for issues that impact undocumented students. He is currently the Transfer Retention Coordinator for the Raíces Recruitment and Retention Center (formerly known as RAZA), and sits on the board for the Social Justice Collaborative, a non-profit organization which protects immigrants from criminal law.