Rafael R. Solórzano
June 26, 2019
In the summer of 2015 I traveled to Miami, Florida, to begin a journey that traced the route of the Trail of Dreams, a four-month, 1,500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC, undertaken by four community college students in 2010. The goal of these four activists was, in part, to ask the Obama administration to stop the detention and deportation of undocumented migrants and the separation of families and to promote immigration reform. My goal was to collect interviews from the four students—Felipe Matos, Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, and Juan Rodriguez—as well as the coalition partners that made the Trail of Dreams possible. All were undocumented except for Juan, who attained legal residency in 2008 after being undocumented for thirteen years. Their activism shifted viewpoints about undocumented migrants and inspired undocumented and undocuqueer youth to build spaces of community and resistance.
Funded in part by a grant from the CSRC/IAC (specifically, the Tamar Diana Wilson Fund) and Emory University’s James Weldon Johnson Institute fellowship, I spent four years documenting and writing about the Trail of Dreams. In addition to conducting more than forty interviews, I visited key places along the route where press conferences and community gatherings were held. At the end of these four years, I found myself immersed in data. Researching twenty-first-century social movements can be a daunting process because of the immense amount of primary source material available—YouTube videos, photographs, blog posts, local and national press coverage. These data can form a critical record of a movement and constitute what Horacio Roque Ramirez has called “a weapon of evidence against historical erasure and social analysis that fails to consider the experiences of individuals and communities on their own terms.” Indeed, reviewing an organization’s living archive of evidence provided new insight into the institutional space and place that the Trail of Dreams emerged from.
At the heart of the data I collected is information that appeared on the Trail of Dreams website (trail2010.org), now defunct, which I archived in 2015. The website introduced student activists, outlined their mission, described their organizational allies, collected news stories and press releases, and promoted events. It also contained a blog, Notes from the Trail, with posts (including cyber testimonios) from the students and their supporters. Embedded in the posts were more than thirty YouTube videos and a library of photographs. A thick map of the marchers’ route linked sites on the map to images and testimonios. Rounding out the data that I collected are Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, and blog posts related to another campaign, Fast for Families. My decision to archive the content on the website was an ethical one: I wanted to ensure that the information would be preserved for researchers, including me, and for consumption and interpretation by the public.
Websites as Archives of Migrant Justice
Websites can allow us to see the development of a social movement. The Trail of Dreams website was built by Presente.org, an organization that actively supports Latina/o/x causes. Presente’s campaign for the Trail of Dreams included media and messaging and management of the website, which informed and educated the public about the Trail’s goals. Uncomfortable with the messaging used by political pundits, mainstream media networks, and traditional migrant rights organizations, Presente.org—along with students, coalition partners, allies, and others who participated in the Trail of Dreams—developed a radical migrant politic for Trail of Dreams, one that would reflect the efforts of the communities involved, at the earliest stage of the campaign. Media scholar Sasha Costanza-Chock, writing in Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets!, affirms how the “messages and frames” used in such narratives have “important implications for the kind of movement that emerges,” determining who shapes and controls it. Political theorist Cristina Beltrán has aptly described this “participatory politics” as a “‘queer’ vision of democracy.”
In 2015 I had the opportunity to speak with the founders of Presente.org, Favianna Rodriguez and Roberto Lovato. Both are outspoken Latina/o advocates for migrant rights. Before developing the campaign for Trail of Dreams, Presente.org supported the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court and worked to have Lou Dobbs fired from CNN. Favianna, an artist and website developer, helped design the first-rate interactive website for the Trail of Dreams campaign. She told me that it had been important to choose a pallet and layout that would demonstrate the “boldness and edge” of the activists to a broad base of followers. Favianna also noted that it was essential to create a “good story” that captured the lived experiences of not only those who participated in the march but also people living in the communities they visited. Supporters along the route who were committed to documenting the journey produced website content by taking still photos and shooting video. They also made posters and other signage, printed T-shirts, promoted online fundraising, and developed media for Facebook and YouTube. Their involvement demonstrated the importance of developing not only a public narrative but also a counter-discourse that permitted them to formulate oppositional interests and needs.
Cyber Testimonios as Emotional Records
Among the posts in Notes from the Trail were sixty-seven cyber testimonios related to the Trail of Dreams campaign. Cyber testimonios are the twenty-first-century form of testimonios—first-person statements of social significance that document experiences within marginalized communities—which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The cyber testimonios from the blog reveal the abuses and inequities that undocumented youth suffer: they depict physical discomfort, a longing for equality, and the frustration of living in an unjust society. The blog became a critical space that documented the emergence of new identities and racial difference. As an arena in which undocumented youth—queer youth, women of color, youth who were leaders or supporters—could reveal their personal experiences and their legal status, Notes from the Trail offered them the opportunity to discuss their opposition to the rise of detentions and deportations and their arguments relating to comprehensive immigration reform.
Cristina Beltrán has argued that undocumented activists’ use of new social media can facilitate “a participatory politics that rejects secrecy and criminalization in favor of more aggressive forms of nonconformist visibility, voice and protest.” Notes from the Trail was a powerful tool that allowed undocumented youth to amplify their voices and challenge older forms of authority while creating a welcoming space that pluralized their stories and identities. They “queered” the migrant rights movement by “expressing more complex and sophisticated conceptions of loyalty, legality, migration, sexuality, and patriotism” through their personal accounts. Building on these terms, undocumented and undocuqueer youth became experts in creating a transmedia testimonio that could be shared across multiple media platforms.
The Digital Needs Archiving by Us
In 2010 the Trail of Dreams website was becoming the voice of the undocumented youth movement. The posted content—YouTube videos, pictures, online petitions, and cyber testimonios—was easily shared, and it circulated widely in social networks dedicated to migrant rights and undocumented youth. Indeed, the cyber testimonios were making a deep impact and cultivating a following online and offline. Despite the website’s importance, I knew that these materials would not last forever. I archived the Trail of Dreams website after returning from my first trip to the Southeast in 2015, before the website was taken down in January 2019. Archiving the site involved capturing snapshots of each website page, saving the pages as PDF documents, and downloading photos and videos. I used Wayback Machine, a service that allowed me to access archived versions of the website. Only seven versions of the home page were archived between January 1 and May 1, 2010.
In 2015, as I walked through cities on the Trail of Dreams, I imagined the activists, sometimes alone and sometimes with a group of supporters, marching along sidewalks, streets, and rural highways. I imagined them marching in the sun, rain, and, at times, snow, holding signs and banners. I imagined youth, mothers, and fathers who were moved to tears. I also imagined cops who profile people by the color of their skin and KKK rallies like the one in Nahunta, Georgia, in February 2010. I could hear marchers chanting, bullhorns blaring, and horns sounding from cars that zoomed by, their drivers offering support. I could sense their alarm when they encountered cops and when a drunken bicyclist followed them for more than a mile.
These experiences are represented in my archive of digital data from the Trail of Dreams website, data that are no longer available online. Application updates and platform migration can cause websites to disappear, regardless of their impact and importance, as Liana Gamber-Thompson and Arely Zimmerman found when researching the coming-out stories that undocumented youth shared online between 2010 and 2013. To ensure the preservation of Chicanx and Latinx perspectives, especially those at the grassroots that challenge mainstream representations, it is critical that we make a record of these tools and technologies, to preserve them against historical erasure. For those who decide to accept this responsibility, I highly recommend (borrowing from Maria Kondo, who advises us to keep only what sparks joy), archiving the websites that bring you joy.
Rafael R. Solórzano is a first-generation college student who will be joining California State University, Los Angeles as assistant professor in the Department of Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies in the fall of 2019. He received his PhD in Chicana and Chicano studies from the University of California, Los Angeles and was a member of the program’s first graduating cohort. His dissertation, The Trail of Dreams: Forging New Visions of Migrant Justice, documents the political ingenuity of the undocumented youth who participated in and supported the Trail of Dreams, a four-month, 1,500-mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC, in 2010.
- Since 2010, Juan Rodriguez has changed his name to Isabel Souza-Rodriguez. During an interview, Isabel shared how hir name change was part of affirming hir gender non-conforming identity. We agreed that it was okay to use hir previous name in order to document their involvement in the Trail of Dreams as Juan or when others cite him as Juan. As for pronouns, it was agreed to the following self-identification pronouns: she, he, ze, hir, they.
- Horacio Roque Ramirez, “A Living Archive of Desire: Teresita la Campesina and the Embodiment of Queer Latino Community Histories,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette Burton, 111–35 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 124.
- A thick map is an interactive, multilayered map that can incorporate, for example, description of cultural context, diverse viewpoints, supporting data, and so on.
- Roberto Lovato, interview with author, November 2015.
- Sasha Costanza-Chock, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2014), 17.
- Cristina Beltrán, “Undocumented, Unafraid, and Unapologetic”: DREAM Activists, Immigrant Politics, and the Queering of Democracy,” in From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in a Digital Age, edited by Danielle Allen and Jennifer S. Light, 80–104 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 81.
- Lovato, interview with author. Presente.org was a key organization of those demanding that CNN drop Lou Dobbs, an outspoken proponent of restricting immigration. Dobbs abruptly announced that he was leaving CNN in November 2009. In my interview with Favianna in 2015, she pointed out that “you don’t just say Lou Dobbs is racist,” but rather, “you have to break down specifically why he’s racist.”
- Favianna Rodriguez, interview with author, November 2015.
- Beltrán, “Undocumented, Unafraid, and Unapologetic,” 81.
- Liana Gamber-Thompson and Arely M. Zimmerman, “DREAMing Citizenship: Undocumented Youth, Coming Out, and Patways to Participation,” in By Any Media Necessary: New Youth Activism, by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Arely Zimmerman, and Elisabeth Soep, 186–218 (New York: New York University Press, 2016).
- Jillian M Báez, “Spreadable Citizenship; Undocumented Youth Activists and Social Media,” in The Routledge Companion to Latina/O Media, edited by María Elena Cepeda and Dolores Inés Casillas, 419–28 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017).
- Gamber-Thompson and Zimmerman, “DREAMing Citizenship.” Their research discovered that websites that were key to the undocumented youth movement are no longer accessible.