From left: Felix, Tran, and Ramos
From left: Felix, Tran, and Ramos

An OC DREAMer Remembers His Friends and Mentors, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix

The Weekly was unable to attend the memorial service held yesterday at UCLA in honor of Garden Grove resident Tam Tran and Los Angeles resident Cinthya Felix, two graduates of the school who long advocated on behalf of their fellow undocumented college students and whose lives were tragically cut short this past weekend in Maine. So we asked one of our own to send us a dispatch: Matias Ramos, my former intern, proud OC'er, and himself an activist on behalf of the DREAM Act, which seeks a path to citizenship for young people brought to this country as children. His heartfelt words after the jump:

More than 500 people from across the country packed the largest classroom at UCLA yesterday for a memorial for two pioneers of the DREAM movement: Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix.

Tam graduated in 2006 with a degree in American literature and culture, and was currently pursuing a Ph.D in American Civilization at Brown University. Cinthya graduated in 2007 with degrees in English and Spanish literature, and was currently studying for a Master's in Public Health at Columbia. Both of them were undocumented students, and part of the first classes of students to enter UCLA after the passage of AB540, a law designed to give more opportunities to undocumented youth in California. Tran was born in Germany to Vietnamese refugee parents and moved to the United States when she was 6 years old. Felix's family immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1999.

In the spring of 2004, I was a senior at Loara High School in Anaheim and terrified to let anyone know that I had no legal status in the US. That's when Tam and I had both been accepted to UCLA. She was set to transfer from Santa Ana College, and we were welcomed to campus by a newly formed, completely underground organization: IDEAS at UCLA.

Cinthya and the rest of the founding cohort hosted a reception during "Scholars' Day," an event meant to encourage low-income and first-generation students to make UCLA their college choice. During the time where almost a thousand students were filling a big auditorium to participate in a financial aid workshop, IDEAS held a reception for a dozen or so incoming students.

For the first time maybe ever, an undocumented pipeline to higher education was being created. Tam and Cinthya understood the significance of that moment in academic terms, and the rest of us are barely beginning to understand its significance in political terms.

Tam was the more prominent public figure, even if her reserved nature made her feel uncomfortable about being in the spotlight. She testified in Congress in 2007, right before the heartbreaking vote on the DREAM Act. We had support of the majority, but not enough votes for cloture. Her testimony went viral and many knew her name. She always remained humble, and always tried to lift up others who had the courage to speak up.

Through the years, Tam and Cinthya became best friends, and spent a lot of time together visiting each other in New York City and Providence since their move to the East Coast. Wherever they went, they remained leaders who told stories of undocumented struggle, preached the gospel of following one's dreams, and inspired others to be at their best.

That was the spirit of the memorial yesterday, where speaker after speaker highlighted their own personal memory of Tam and Cinthya. Tam's brother read a poem, calling his sister "the best German import since Mercedes Benz." Cinthya's mentor talked about her resilience, and how the first gathering of undocumented students was convened after Cinthya was denied a scholarship that she had rightfully earned. We heard from their best friends, Susan and Dana, who shared how they never let their lack of status mean a lack of opportunities. Activists, professors, the UCLA chancellor, and students who came into the school paid their respects for about two hours.

Two of Tam's documentaries were shown:
"Lost and Found" and "Seattle Underground Railroad." The former followed Stephanie, summarizing what a daily two-hour commute looks like when you are undocumented and can't afford to live near Westwood. I was part of the latter, showing an unconventional college road trip for undocumented students.

I was asked to share experiences from the trip. I told funny stories about a week-long mission.Cinthya was the mastermind organizer of the trip, and Tam was the videographer for it. She was working on a film class project and made a 12-minute documentary about our experience. We were fighting for our freedom not just to drive safely on California freeways, but also to get into movie theaters and dance clubs.

Cinthya's memorable line in the documentary spoke of a political truth that she rarely showed, being more preoccupied with serving her community than engaging the malignant forces that deny others like her the opportunity to be free: "The state wants your money so they let you buy the car, get the tags, register the car, buy insurance, but when it comes to giving you a license, they don't want to give you one."

Hearing Cinthya's voice, with her unapologetic accent and fearless leadership, brought her spirit to the room. Because of people like her and Tam, the movement has changed. More young people are coming to terms with their undocumented status, and are ready to take on the world like Tam and Cinthya took on it, barrier after barrier, campus after campus. They are walking towards the nation's capital, sitting in front Congress, speaking out at rallies, and getting into the top schools.

At the conclusion of the memorial service, more than a hundred undocumented youth, from UCLA and other local campuses, filled the stage. They sang together to give them one last goodbye, echoing a line from an artist of a different movement: "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one".

Tam and Cynthia taught us that.


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