A Life in Dreams

I never knew Tam Tran, but by all accounts, she was a young and vibrant activist, artist, and scholar whose lasting legacy among her peers was that she was passionate about the arts and social activism.  It was with much sadness that I first knew of her by reading that she and a fellow activist and friend, Cinthya Felix Perez, passed away in a car accident on May 15th 2010 while on a road trip in Maine. In her passing, her life’s work was highlighted among the many tributes to her, and through these tributes, I come to know Tam’s convictions and feel moved by them.

Tam Tran was a graduate student in Brown University’s American Civilization Ph.D. program.  Tam’s family relocated after the war to Germany, where she was born, and then later settled in Southern California, where she grew up.  She self-identified as a “stateless refugee” which is an eloquent way of describing how the busywork of geopolitics and war produced statelessness, and that those who fall under that category enjoy the benefits of stateless protection, which is to say little to no protection.  This is the situation for millions of people who are global refugees.  Tam advocated for the rights of all those who fall outside the civic and social protections of the state, and in California where she grew up it is a vastly heterogeneous group.  In her young life she became one of the most ardent voices and proponents of the Dream Act, a proposed federal law that would allow undocumented college students in the U.S. to gain citizenship so that when they graduate they can legally live and work in the country of their residence.  It is estimated that 65,000 undocumented high school students graduate in the U.S. annually.

I wish I had known Tam Tran, I feel we might have crossed paths eventually, as Vietnamese women scholars interested in issues about social justice, education, and access.  She surely would have taught me much about the ways that art, advocacy, and scholarship can affirm each other.  She was an aspiring filmmaker, a graduate of UCLA.  Her short video “Lost and Found” (you can watch the video below) melded all of these into an eloquent testimony about the multitude sacrifices that undocumented students and their families make in order to enter the education system in the U.S.  If you have a moment, watch it and be reminded of what an accomplishment it is for anyone to graduate from anything, no less a university institution in the U.S.  It takes commitment, it takes resolve, it takes thick skin, and it takes support.  Tam’s demonstrated commitment to this cause connects the Vietnamese diasporic experience to that of many diasporic and refugee populations.  We are needy people who do a lot on our own.

I am becoming aware of her work, and of the movement for the Dream Act at a time when the national debates in the U.S. about Arizona’s strident laws against illegal immigration are raging.  It seems each side is trying to figure out the most rational perspective to justify their particular bents.  Tam Tran’s advocacy, and that of those who support the Dream Act, seems to offer us another important consideration.  That is to take a closer look at the lives of “undocumented” students who have invested their hearts into the education they have attained and the lives they have built, and to think about the true cost of denying them access to the rights of citizenship.  The U.S. is a country that espouses the virtues of education, but we find that public education in a large state like California is in the grips of an emergency, direly so.  The facilities and the means simply are not there.  So we are encouraged to nurture eager students, students who will want to be educated and who will make the most of inadequate circumstances.  If, as every campaigning politician reminds us regularly, education is the answer to all of our most grave social ills, shouldn’t we be jumping for joy when we find students who embrace the opportunity to learn and to engage in civic discussion and debate?  Or at least, shouldn’t that encourage those in the U.S. to reflect on our own critical capacities, say in our definitions and practices of citizenship and inclusion?

I hope that you will feel enlightened by Tam Tran’s video and read further on the Dream Act, if not to become further engaged in the  U.S.’s current debates about immigration, then to become further impassioned in your own life’s work–or both, as I have been.

You can read further about Tam Tran’s life and the Dream act  at:

latimesblogs on Tam Tran

Dream Act

-Cam Vu

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