Students

‘We Are Ready to Thrive’

Moises Serrano, an undocumented and gay student, tells the story of his unlikely journey to college in a new documentary film

August 23, 2017

Kayley Mull

Moises Serrano was 18 months old when his family emigrated from Cancun, Mexico, seeking a brighter future in rural North Carolina. While his parents picked tobacco and strawberries, Moises struggled to fit in among his peers as a gay, undocumented immigrant with an uncertain future.

He tells his story about coming of age in a conservative small town and the doors that college eventually opened for him in a documentary scheduled for release on September 1 on LogoTV. The project, Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, will be screened at festivals this fall.

After years of thinking college was out of reach, Mr. Serrano earned a full ride to Sarah Lawrence College. Looming over the start of his senior year, though, is a September 5 deadline for President Trump to act on DACA — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Ten state attorneys general have vowed to sue if Mr. Trump doesn’t rescind the policy, which allows certain undocumented people to attend college with little fear of deportation.

Mr. Serrano spoke to The Chronicle about the constant limbo of living as an undocumented immigrant, the thrill of getting accepted to college, and the "viciousness" of America’s immigration laws.

How difficult was it growing up gay and undocumented in rural North Carolina?

It was such an alienating experience. I kind of felt that within my own family, being gay and growing up in a conservative, religious household. It was really hard not having support at school. I was struggling with the fact that I was going to graduate and couldn’t go to college, and at the same time, worrying that I might be rejected by my family if I came out. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

Then you feel like you have to decide which narrative you want to focus on. Within some religious groups, there was basic support for immigration reform but not for my LGBT status.

Tell me how you ended up at Sarah Lawrence.

My whole journey to Sarah Lawrence was serendipitous.

Activism opened a pathway to education, which I hadn’t anticipated seven years ago when I came out as undocumented.

Growing up in North Carolina, I wanted to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study journalism, but undocumented students have to pay out-of-state-tuition and aren’t eligible for financial aid.

Logo Documentary Film
Moises Serrano, shown here marching in a pro-immigration rally in Greensboro, N.C., in 2013, says activism opened the door to education for him.
After high school, I was working with United We Dream, the largest national youth-led immigrant group.

One of my friends there, who was also undocumented, had been accepted and received financial aid at Sarah Lawrence the year before I applied. She helped me get the college-application fee waived and convinced me that I should apply. I should be used to living in limbo, but waiting for that decision was hard. Being undocumented in this country means being worn down every day. I wasn’t used to having good things happen to me, and the fact that this college believed in me and thought I was worthy blew my mind.

Your joy and relief are clear in the video when you open the acceptance email from Sarah Lawrence. What happened, though, when you realized that, even with financial aid, it was out of reach?

That was actually a part of the documentary that I refused to film. I couldn’t bring myself to come to the camera and tell everyone that having come so close, I couldn’t go.

I was in a slump for a while and retreating back to these dark places, but I had met counselors who told me, "You can make a stronger case for yourself. You can appeal." I got letters from state leaders and even a handwritten letter from my mother in Spanish saying what a difference this would mean for me.

Eventually, I got a scholarship covering 99 percent. It’s been such an emotional roller coaster. I still don’t believe it.

How difficult was it to switch from activism to academe?

That’s a struggle to this day. The academic world still seems to believe that everything we can learn is in a textbook or is in the classroom. So much of what I learned happened in factories, in construction, and being with people who work 16 hours a day to support their families.

Even while at Sarah Lawrence, I prioritized my community-service work over my homework. We were still tackling deportation proceedings against members of our community, so juggling everything was hard. I had been out of school for seven years, so I was really doubting myself. I didn’t think my writing was up to par, and I had to relearn how to write an academic essay. My first year was kind of a black hole.

“The academic world still seems to believe that everything we can learn is in a textbook or is in the classroom.”
In college, you’re going to take classes that you most likely won’t need. Having to find value in those classes has been hard. The first semester of freshman year, I was excited about taking a class called "Democracy, Diversity, and Inequality," and thought it would tap into a lot of my experiences. It turned out it was rooted in 18th-century French political philosophy.

The professor was making the point that black people are better off now than they were in the 60s, but he hadn’t lived in the rural South. I distinctly remembered the case of a black boy who was found hanging from a playground swing in North Carolina, so I disagreed. But I was already feeling intimidated by the class and the professor.

I’ve gotten better at choosing classes. The public-policy classes I’ve taken since then have been earth-shattering.

How has college changed your approach to activism?

My role in the activist world has shifted. I’m no longer in the trenches fighting the good fight, but even while I’m in college, I’ve still been traveling around the country telling my story.

Sarah Lawrence is very progressive when it comes to LGBT issues, but my struggle there has been to awaken the progressive community to the challenges facing the undocumented community and the importance of preserving DACA.

How have President Trump’s flip-flops on the future of that program affected you?

It’s heartbreaking. I’m about to graduate after spending four years of my life here, and it’s depressing to think I won’t be able to pursue my career interests after graduation.

More than anything, I’m angry. We’re tired of just surviving. We are ready to thrive, and we don’t know what to do. Never knowing when DACA could be ripped away is terrifying.

What do you hope the documentary will accomplish?

The American public is so ill-informed, and our stories are so often misconstrued by conservative groups. I hope this documentary will be a great conversation starter. We can’t wait for Congress to act on immigration reform. We have to defend DACA, and I hope this film will help mobilize support for it. Without it, we’d have to go back into the shadows. I also want Americans to be aware of the viciousness of our immigration laws, which we want to believe are just. We effectively banned Asians from this country until 1965. Our immigration system has been used as a tool to ban groups we deem undesirable. That continues to this day.

The sections with your family members, when you’re dropped off at college and talk about your worries for them, are particularly moving. Was it difficult to persuade them to participate?

My mother did not want to go on camera. She was like, "You’re crazy — you’re going to get arrested." But she saw the difference that a personal narrative can make. It shows the power of the love that exists between families.

My mother’s and sister’s interviews are the parts of the documentary that energize me the most. Their stories are so relatable. Who likes to see their mother revisit old wounds in order for others to see her as a legitimate human being worthy of rights? But I believe their stories are contributing to bring concrete change in the way we talk about immigrants in our country.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.