Single candle at the illumination ceremony

Interview with Roberto G. Gonzales

Roberto G. Gonzales discusses his newest book, Lives in Limbo, with Eugenia Naamon ’18. Gonzales has been dedicated to observing and researching undocumented youth and their transition into adulthood in the U.S for over a decade. Roberto G. Gonzales received his PH.D from the University of California and is an Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of education. In his welcoming office overlooking Cambridge, Gonzales gave insight on cultural visibility, personal obstacles he faced during the creative process, and what it really means to come of age in America.

For me, while reading the story, I found myself frustrated by this serious limbo effect. How do you watch these people over 12 years and continue to stay positive?

…This is something that can be very discouraging and it is hard to stay focused. …As a sociologist [who was] trying to make sense of what was happening – having that long view of their lives was very helpful… Ultimately I was able to see these young people who crossed into their 20’s and then into their 30’s and the various turns that they took. The longitudinal perspective was very valuable.

That really sets this book apart – the patience and time that it took to build this relationship throughout the book. Did you feel like you were responsible to council these respondents when they would talk to you about their lives and responsibilities?

Certainly my task as a researcher is to really understand. And as a social scientist, I needed to make sense of the pattern and relationship between these individual stories and the larger pattern or larger story. Nevertheless, as a qualitative researcher, ethnographer and someone who has been around for a long period of their lives, it is hard to maintain this kind of distance. I got to know their families and children. I was present for birthdays, college graduations and many other aspects of their lives… I was around to give advice to these young people.

Did you plan on spending 12 years on this observation?

…I didn’t know or plan to spend this much time on one project. I’m glad I did. I was ready to stop shortly before the DACA implementation of 2012. But my editor said to me “This is too important. This is the contemporary story – it’s changed now”. …With the policy landscape things changed, and I wanted to make sure that I came to a sensible stopping point that allowed me to really say something about the current political format.

I guess that leads me into my next question. What do you think has been the biggest win politically for the undocumented community?

 I think the answer to that question is a complicated one. Probably the biggest win so far for this segment of undocumented immigrants is… DACA and the increased visibility…[Advocates] have really moved public opinion on this issue [and] the majority of Americans (7 out of 10) support some pathway.

I think that as a result of public opinion on this issue and just bringing greater visibility there [have been] developments including additional equity bills, in state tuition, state financial aid, several business leaders and college presidents endorse the Dream Act and became allies for these students. So the complicated part of this is that what the public knows is really based around a limited story…

These are the “chosen ones” that you referenced.

Exactly. There’s this narrative about undocumented students that is based of course on the reality that there are dozens of class valedictorians, student presidents, star athletes, model students  – hundreds of them (14:45) – but that’s what we’ve focused on – most news stories cover those success stories. We heard a lot in 2007-2009 about kids who were brought to this country through no fault of their own and despite the obstacles they’ve become very successful. This narrative that is based on the experiences of ‘the talented tenth’ if you will. …It obscures the reality that many of them are going through. And it doesn’t address some of the other things like what it mean to live in a poor family? What it means to live in a household where one or more of your parents are undocumented? What does it mean to grow up here like you belong, and at a really critical time you have to watch your friends move forward while you have no other choice but to stay in place?

What, in your opinion, needs to happen immediately, from policy-makers and lawmakers that will effect change on the status of undocumented people in the U.S.?

Sure. I think that the legalization is going to be the tide that lifts all boats. …I think absolutely DACA has been a game changer… In the short term – almost 730,000 people now have DACA – they are getting jobs, increasing their earrings, they are starting to build their credit through credit cards and bank accounts, they’re getting driver s licenses, health care through college or through work—they are taking giant steps towards the American mainstream(20:23). However DACA is partial…. Even if DACA is in place for the rest of DACA beneficiary’s lives, what does it mean then? That every two years they have to renew their status knowing that if they’re late turning in their paper work or they don’t have the money on time they could be out of status for a period of time. What does it mean for them to know that every two years they have to check in with the U.S. Government? Always self-policing their actions – always being hyper aware. So having some sort of pathway is going to be really critical.

That family dynamic is unimaginable. Everyone is looking over their shoulder whether or not you are undocumented.

That is a really important point here. There are 11 million people living in an undocumented residency status in this country. But here’s an issue that effects far more people than 11 million. Because for every one of them there are family members, partners, spouses, friends, --there are members of their place of worship, employers and employees. … [The reality] is that we don’t live in isolation. So indeed this issue has tremendous ripple effects.

Why did you want to become an ally to this group specifically?

R: Well I really wanted to understand more. …I spent ten years after college working as a youth worker in Chicago… [Undocumented kids] were hitting 8th grade and 9th grade and then running into a wall. Their friends were moving forward, getting afterschool jobs, getting drivers licenses, thinking about college, registering to vote, getting financial aid for college, starting careers, meeting friends after work for a drink – all of these things that these [undocumented] young people could not participate. Then, I get into a graduate program in sociology in southern California…and I started meeting a lot of young people with very similar stories. [They have] come to the U.S at 6 months old, 2 years old. 5 years old, and have grown up side by side with American born peers and friends. They’ve grown up pledging allegiance to the American flag. They’ve grown up to Barney and the Power Rangers. They had the same experiences as those peers and are rooted in their communities and friendships. And again, as [their peers] move forward, [these undocumented young adults] stay stuck…

Where there any obstacles, personally or professionally, that you faced while writing this book?

… I think that this book for me is kind of my own, not coming of age, but growing into adulthood and I think there are interesting parallels here. In terms of challenges, I think what I didn’t realize early on was the extent to which taking on these stories was effecting me. After my first long wave of these interviews, my dissertation, I moved from southern California to the bay area. For the year I was running my dissertation I had a lot of health problems. And what I came to understand was that after 7 and a half months of doing interviews— I was taking in a lot of stories [ accompanied with] a lot of pain and hardship. This is what I think is part of the unintended consequences of opening up a space for people to tell you their stories. As objective as I try to be as a researcher, it is very difficult to not be moved and not be affected by [these stories].

This dialog has been condensed and edited with the consent of interviewee.