Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran, Cinthya Felix, and the Immigrant Youth Movement
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Like other undocumented immigrants, Cinthya was unable to get a driver’s license in California. She understood the contradiction: “The state wants our money, so they let us buy the car, get insurance, and pay for registration. But when it comes to giving us a license, they don’t want to give you one” (Tran 2007). She could not get a license in California, but she had a plan. She organized a group of students to drive to the state of Washington, where it is easier for immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Tam Tran was one of the few students in IDEAS who had a driver’s license, so she joined the trip and brought her camera to document the experience, producing the film The Seattle Underground Railroad.
At UCLA, Cinthya was one of the founders of IDEAS, which began as a clandestine support group. Undocumented students gathered to share survival tips and assist one another in navigating the frequently unfriendly waters of the big university. As the group’s numbers grew, it developed into a bold public-advocacy organization, orchestrating mock graduation ceremonies on campus, immigrant youth empowerment conferences that drew hundreds of students to UCLA, and an annual banquet that raised funds for members to complete their educations. Cinthya and Tam became leading activists and fast friends. After their deaths, IDEAS was recognized by the University of California’s president and regents as an outstanding student organization within the university.
Cinthya graduated with a degree in English literature and minors in Spanish and Mexican studies, but her ambition was to have a career in medicine. Since she was certain that medical schools would not accept applicants without legal status, she decided to apply to master’s degree programs in public health instead, eventually choosing Columbia University. In graduate school, she conducted research on health care access within immigrant communities, while waiting tables at night to support herself.
Tam and Cinthya were pioneers, undocumented immigrant students who had made it into graduate programs at exclusive private universities. But this achievement was not without its share of alienation and isolation. As they had in California, Tam and Cinthya relied on each other, and their experiences on the East Coast only deepened their friendship. To celebrate the end of the school year, they took a road trip to Maine to visit lighthouses, eat lobster, and prepare for summer. As they were returning from their trip, they were killed by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane of traffic.
Two days later, more than five hundred students gathered at UCLA for a memorial in Tam’s and Cinthya’s honor. Vigils were held in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Washington, DC, Rhode Island, and Florida. Students in Arizona made buttons bearing Tam’s and Cinthya’s pictures. Most importantly, students in many areas of the country commemorated Tam’s and Cinthya’s spirit by carrying on their work, staging sit-ins, street closures, civil disobedience actions, hunger strikes, the Dream Freedom Ride, and other activities. These untimely deaths have been mourned and memorialized by members of Congress, the California state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles City Council. In Tam’s and Cinthya’s memory, Dream activists reaffirmed their commitment to fight for the DREAM Act.
Although we mourn the passing of Cinthya and Tam, we celebrate their lives. They were sisters; they were kindred spirits, always in sync, planning their next meal, their next act of defiant and optimistic activism, searching for a new adventure, pursuing their next dream. They accomplished more in their short lives than ever could have been imagined. Their spirit lives on in the hundreds of IDEAS alumni, in the thousands of young immigrants who embrace them as role models, and in the millions of immigrants who will one day be empowered to emerge from the shadows.