At UC Berkeley’s Luncheon in the Library, scholar-author-artist Alberto Ledesma lifts the veil on a life undocumented

Zoom screen of presentation shows Ledesma and an illustration
Author Alberto Ledesma, right, shows one of his illustrations and speaks during the virtual Luncheon in the Library event on Jan. 15, 2022. (Zoom)

The distance from East Oakland to UC Berkeley is short — just over a dozen miles, depending on where you start.

But after listening to just a snippet of Alberto Ledesma’s emotional journey, that distance sounds like it could more accurately be measured in light-years.

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Ledesma was brought to Oakland as an undocumented immigrant in the mid-’70s, when he was 8 years old. Growing up, Ledesma remembers the ever-present threat of deportation casting a shadow over his family. Conversations about the family’s undocumented status were spoken in hushed tones.

“I heard my father constantly repeating, ‘Siempre ten cuidado, Alberto’ — always be careful, because what you do out there in the mean streets of East Oakland affects us all,” Ledesma recalled.

But Ledesma turned that long-buried family secret into a source of inspiration. Poignantly rendered in words and his own drawings, 2017’s Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life is “an amalgamation of personal essays, autoethnographic illustrations, existential confessions, nervous predictions about our nation’s future, and insecure love letters” to his family, as Ledesma describes it. (Ledesma and his family have since become U.S. citizens.)

Earlier this month at the virtual Luncheon in the Library, an annual event for Library supporters, Ledesma guided 150-plus attendees through a series of stirring vignettes from his life, with insights that stretched beyond the pages of his book. During the hourlong talk, Ledesma told a story of rejection, fear, love, and resilience, charting his path from 82nd Avenue in East Oakland to the hallowed halls of UC Berkeley, where he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees — and where he now serves as assistant dean for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the Division of Arts & Humanities.

Here are three things we learned from Ledesma’s talk.

Ledesma said illustrating helped him communicate how he was feeling when he couldn’t find the right words. (Zoom)

1. Sometimes words are not enough.

Years ago, as anti-immigrant sentiments flared, Ledesma was eager to share his story. But when trying to write about his experience as an undocumented immigrant — one he had long been silent about out of necessity — he couldn’t find the words.

“In many ways, cartooning has allowed me to communicate these existential fears much more effectively than my writing ever could,” he said.

For Ledesma, art is a form of therapy, connecting him to other people with similar experiences: After posting his art on Facebook, he noticed a growing audience responding to his illustrations, finding their own stories reflected in his work.

Art is also an emotional language that can convey meaning that words cannot, he said. In the white space between panels in comic art, for example, “there’s a lot that is implied … in terms of the narrative that is being developed,” he said.

“With the undocumented immigrant narrative, that’s where the richness is at,” he said. “There’s a lot of strategic silence that is captured there.”

Janet Wilson Greig ’66 was among those attending the talk, which she called “superb.” Greig, who was a social science field major at Berkeley, said gratitude inspires her support of the Library. (“How could I have ever made it to graduation without it?” she said.)

For nearly a decade, Greig and her husband have supported college Dreamers, and she recognized the struggle that undocumented immigrants can face when opening up about their lives.

“I loved Alberto Ledesma’s description of how important his cartooning was to his ability to tell his story,” Greig said.

2. Support is available for undocumented students.

The title of Ledesma’s book was inspired by the students he would meet while working at Berkeley’s Student Learning Center. In some cases, students had spent their whole lives thinking they were U.S. citizens, but when it was time to apply for schools, and supply proof of citizenship, their parents would reveal that such proof didn’t exist.

“Psychologically, a lot of these students were not ready to embrace these identities,” he said. “So they became ‘reluctant Dreamers.’”

Berkeley’s Undocumented Student Program is the leading program of its kind in the nation, Ledesma said, providing comprehensive support for undergraduate and graduate students who are undocumented. (In early 2020, the Robert D. Haas Undocumented Community Resource Center, a space for undocumented students and allies, opened on the UC Berkeley campus.)

In California, Assembly Bill 540, signed into law in 2001, allows undocumented students (and others who are eligible) to pay in-state tuition rates at the state’s public universities.

“We’re lucky to be in California, (which) has great policies for undocumented students,” he said.

3. His advice: Lean into fear.

Ledesma knows firsthand the anxieties of being an undocumented immigrant.

He remembers his family being “seemingly locked up” in their rental home in East Oakland out of fear of being discovered as undocumented. At Fremont High School in Oakland, he attempted to evade detection by blending in with the American-born Latinx kids, adopting their sense of style, which included crisp khakis, plaid dress shirts, and neatly coiffed pompadours.

Fear is an inexorable part of the undocumented experience. And while it can be crippling, there’s also another side to it, Ledesma said.

“You’re always at the highest point of stress in this university,” Ledesma said, relaying the message he gives undocumented students. “And in that highest point of stress, you can run away, you can ball up, but there’s also an opportunity to discover new talents.”

His advice?

“Lean into that anxiety,” he said. “Feel the fear, but do it anyway. Think about the more aspirational side of that hope and aspiration, and lean in towards that.”

In his nationwide travels as assistant dean for diversity, inclusion, and equity in Berkeley’s Division of Arts & Humanities, Ledesma has witnessed a wave of undocumented scholars overcoming their fears to enter universities, earn their advanced degrees, and get hired at institutions of higher learning across the country.

“This is why I have so much hope,” Ledesma said. “In spite of the cynical hate that we’ve been subjected to, that has been designed to disrupt their pathways, in spite of all these fears, that spirit that once inspired my parents, their parents, to seek a better life — that spirit is still alive and thriving.”

The Luncheon in the Library is a private, invite-only event honoring Library supporters. Past speakers include Carol Christ, Chancellor of UC Berkeley; Adam Hochschild, lecturer, historian, and journalist; and Rita Moreno, dancer, singer, and actress.