Remembering Tam Tran: UCLA’s Vietnamese Culture Night

By two days, the diaCRITICS editors have chosen to delay dao strom’s sequential post — “True Laws (Pt. 2) and a New Song”in order to feature a preview of the Monday January 17 tribute to Tam Tran at UCLA’s VSA Culture Show. Please consider attending this event, if you are in Los Angeles. diaCRITIC Cam Vu also wrote about Tam Tran in May 2010.

Tam Tran as snow angel, photographed by Cinthya Felix

Last May, I learned of the passing of my 27-year-old friend Tam Tran, a DREAM Act activist, filmmaker, and Brown University doctoral student whom I’d first met through the American Studies Association. She was killed in a car accident on her way to a conference, along with her friend and fellow activist Cinthya Felix. As UCLA students, they’d became two of the nation’s leading advocates for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (“DREAM Act”). Due to the extent of Tam’s involvement on behalf of the undocumented, her life and death has inspired many tributes in the last eight months, including the Rhode Island legislature’s resolutions on May 20, 2010, expressing profound sympathy for Tam’s passing, from both the House and the Senate. Her legacy continues in California, as well, where her family has lived since their arrival in the U.S.

On Monday, January 17, the Vietnamese Student Union at UCLA will present its 2011 Vietnamese Culture Night, “Còn nuoc, còn tát — Still We Rise,” a tribute to and commemoration of Tam Tran. According to UCLA’s VSA:

This year’s story is based on the true trials and tribulations of the Tran family, demonstrating the resilience of Vietnamese people. Following the Vietnam War, the family fled Vietnam and found refuge in Germany before settling in the United States.  After more than a decade of rebuilding their lives in America, the family risks losing everything when the government threatens to deport them for being undocumented.  Today, the struggle continues.  How will Tam’s legacy be remembered and continued? Through the power of perseverance, ‘Still We Rise’ is the story of a family fighting for a place to call home.

For a friend of Tam’s, the VSA’s choice to write and perform the Tran family’s life is meaningful to me. Tam also graduated with her BA in American Literature and Culture from UCLA, so it is especially fitting and touching that her alma mater would honor her this way. Yet as a mixed-race second generation Vietnamese American, I am especially heartened to see such progressive politics take center stage for a VSA culture show. Often Vietnamese Americans feel distant from the debate about ‘illegality’ in the U.S., deeming the ‘problem’ to be one affecting southern migrants of Mexican and Central American descent who cross U.S. borders by land rather than by sea and air. How many Vietnamese Americans think that the DREAM Act might apply to one of our ‘own’? Tam Tran’s biography and her DREAM Act activism rightly blur such distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ encouraging us to identify more closely with the ongoing debates about nation, belonging, and citizenship.

Tam speaking at a press conference in 2007, courtesy Senator Dick Durbin's office

If you are in southern California this month, please take the opportunity to attend VSA’s 2011 culture show “Còn nuoc, còn tát — Still We Rise” on January 17 at UCLA:

Royce Hall Auditorium

UCLA Campus

Los Angeles, CA 90095

Doors Open at 6:00 pm, show Starts at 7:00 pm
FREE Tickets Available at UCLA Central Ticketing Office (CTO) on January 10th

For more ticketing info, contact [email protected]

Facebook: VSU Bruins


In closing, I am reposting my op-ed appreciation piece, which originally ran in June 2010 on New America Media soon after I learned of Tam’s passing. It is a humble tribute to someone of enormous courage, compassion, and resilience. It suffices here as a preface to the show on January 17, for those who aren’t familiar with Tam’s inspiring life.


Tam Tran, courtesy Brown University

When I learned that Tam Tran had died in a car crash in May, I felt sorrow and disbelief.  Had the young woman I’d befriended last November, over conversations about the Vietnamese diaspora, filmmaking, activism, and graduate school, really been killed in car accident along with her friend and fellow activist Cinthya Felix?

When I met Tam at the American Studies Association conference, she was so centered, compassionate, and warm. Over dinner, Tam had mentioned her advocacy for undocumented students through her filmmaking—she later sent me her film Lost and Found. Yet she’d relayed her passions so humbly. Tam never announced that she was, actually, a nationally celebrated advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrant students, an effort she began in earnest as a student at UCLA. She never openly recalled her 2007 testimonies to the House Judiciary Committee as a pioneer in the student movement for the DREAM Act, which, if passed, would give undocumented students who graduated from a U.S. high school a path to citizenship through university education or military service.

Instead we discussed mutual origins—our parents escaped Việt Nam, before we were born, as part of the postwar exodus. Tam’s last email to me mentioned that she had ordered lê thị diễm thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, after my recommendation. Since bereavement informs so much of that stunning novel about the Vietnamese boat refugee experience and diasporic identity, I find it especially poignant that we said goodbye within its tender pages.

Tam’s story differs from typical Vietnamese-American experiences, since her 1982 birth in Germany after her father fled Việt Nam by boat entered her into a statelessness that followed her throughout her 27 years. The German navy had rescued her father’s boat at sea, but wouldn’t grant citizenship to him or his family. Although the family eventually emigrated to the United States to live near Tam’s aunt, the United States denied them asylum, since they came from Germany and not Việt Nam.

From age 6, Tam grew up in California lacking citizenship anywhere—in the words of her UCLA mentor and friend Professor Kent Wong, as “a victim of a disgraceful immigration morass.” Yet her struggles shaped her compassion for those lacking legal status. At UCLA, Tam co-founded with Cinthya Felix an undocumented student support network, Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (IDEAS), while pursuing her B.A. in American Literature and Culture. She also learned documentary filmmaking and made Lost and Found, a short advocacy film about an undocumented student at UCLA. When she entered a doctorate program at Brown University in Rhode Island, she co-founded the Brown Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (BIRC).

Susan Melgarejo, Cinthya Felix, and Tam Tran

Two years into her doctorate, Tam outlined a groundbreaking dissertation, merging historical inquiry with participant observation to consider the power of student politics over the last half-century. As a student, Tam became one of the nation’s leading advocates for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (“DREAM Act”).

In 2007, Tam testified before Congres. “I hate filling out forms, especially the ones that limit me to checking off boxes for categories I don’t even identity with,” Tam told the House Judiciary Committee. “Place of birth? Germany. But I’m not German. Ethnicity? I’m Vietnamese, but I’ve never been to Việt Nam. However, these forms never ask me where I was raised or educated.” Since many undocumented students fear immigration authorities, they rarely speak in public about their legal status, especially on a stage as large as Congress. Tam was that courageous, even at age 24.

And it was her testimony that brought about her worst fears—and her strongest support. Three days later, ICE agents raided her family’s home to arrest her parents and younger brother, hoping to silence Tam’s activism. Through calls to Congress and immigration attorneys, Tam stopped her family’s detention and deportation. Yet their freedom was contingent upon ankle bracelets and curfews—house arrest. Although shaken, Tam was also aware of their power.

She told Kent Wong at UCLA, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys, and just disappear.”

In 2009, she expressed anger yet resolved to keep fighting to change immigration in this country. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me,” Tam told Lori Kido Lopez. “Now my parents understand why I do immigrant’s rights activism. If anything, ironically, this whole mess of events made us closer as a family.”

I mourn her family’s loss, as they part with their brave, brilliant, beautiful, and loving Tam. Her brother Lolly writes, “We are happy to see that she touched so many lives.” Yet concern for her family’s fate, with Tam gone, weighs heavily on her friends and allies. Hundreds have signed a petition to senators regarding her family’s immigration status, requesting posthumous citizenship for Tam. “There is real fear that without Tam’s presence and protection, the family is now in danger of detention and possibly deportation,” the petition explains. “Tam’s prominence and public activism acted as a shield for the entire family. Her death leaves them vulnerable to ICE intimidation and arrest.”

Perhaps our advocacy is helped by the Rhode Island legislature’s resolutions on May 20, expressing profound sympathy for Tam’s passing. “Tam Ngoc Tran was a humble and gentle soul who departed this world all too soon, but left a profound and lasting legacy,” the bills explain. “Her efforts to give undocumented students the right to pursue higher education were noble and heartfelt. She uplifted and enriched the lives of all who knew her and she was an inspiration to us all.” Within continued debates about “illegality” and immigrants’ “rights” to remain here, hopefully the recognition granted to Tam by these unique resolutions would guard her family from deportation from their home of 21 years. Tam’s passing is already one too many tragedies.

Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor of diaCRITICS

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  1. I can relate to the story yet in a way not, I was born and raised in the united states buT when it came to filling out nationality forms I had always put Vietnamese but in my early teenage years I found out my biological father was Caucasian. I was raised in a vietnamese household so I have no idea what it is like to be part white. Until recently when my kids started school they wanted to know what multiple ethnicity and nationality they are so how confusing for them when I have to mark down multiple boxes. But I really don’t see the point because it does not help with elementary and high school funding.


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