Immigrant Rights Activist Angy Rivera on Coming Out of the Shadows
According to the American Immigration Council, of the 65,000 undocumented students who graduate high school every year in the U.S., only 5 to 10 percent of them will be able to continue their education by attending a college or university. This is an alarming statistic when you consider that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the U.S. will require a secondary degree. This statistic becomes even more alarming when the growing income gap between those with college degrees and those without degrees is taken into account, and while it may be said that secondary education is not the only way to secure financial security, future prospects for undocumented youth are uncertain to say the least.
Mikaela Shwer’s 2015 film Don’t Tell Anyone/ No Le Digas A Nadie follows the journey of a young woman named Angy Rivera, now 26, who has been grappling with this reality since graduating high school. While her three younger siblings were born in the U.S. with the benefits of full citizenship, both Angy and her mother constantly live with the fear of deportation—with the possibility of being separated from the rest of their family. This fear is ever present for Angy, noting, “Being undocumented isn’t something we can put in the back of our heads. When I wake up, it’s the first thing I think about.” Furthermore, as someone who worked hard throughout her time in high school, being held back from opportunities available to her peers—such as access to federal financial aid for school—reinforced the harsh realities and pain that comes from growing up undocumented in the U.S.
For the majority of her life, Angy kept her immigration status a secret. This, however, was not the only secret she kept: From the ages of 4 to 8, Angy was sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Ultimately, this was the reason she was able to obtain what’s called U Non-Immigrant status or a U-visa, which exists to protect immigrants who have suffered violent crimes in the U.S. as part of the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act. Angy does express frustration in the film over these circumstances. The trauma she’s experienced has ultimately been what allowed her to remain in the U.S., not doing well in school or giving back to her community. It is this contradiction in the system that pushes her to continue advocating for other undocumented youth and their right to access financial aid and higher education.
Would you give me a little background on yourself and your work?
I am an immigrant from Colombia and became involved in the immigrant rights movement at the New York State Youth Leadership Council in 2009 as a senior in high school because I found out I didn’t qualify for FAFSA. I am now the Co-Director here at the NYSYLC.
And you talk about it in the film as well. Could you tell me a little about what the organization does/is currently working on?
The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a 10-year-old organization led by undocumented youth fighting for immigrant justice. Through leadership development, grassroots organizing, and fundraising, we build the leadership of undocumented people and work to challenge the unjust immigration system. We have an awesome summer program to build community and host political education trainings. We will be selecting our scholarship awardees soon.
For those who haven’t seen the film, would you mind talking about your experience with filming the documentary and working with director, Mikaela Shwer? How did you end up crossing paths with her at the beginning of this journey?
Mikaela saw an article about me in New York magazine and reached out for us to film a short PSA about “Ask Angy”, the advice column I started in 2010. After meeting my family, friends, NYSYLC, and disclosing the assault I experienced, we continued to film, making a full film. We filmed for about 2 years and a half. The process was hard at first, being vulnerable on camera wasn’t easy for me. Opening my home to cameras and laying out all my family secrets opens us up for judgment.
In the film, Don’t Tell Anyone/ No Le Digas A Nadie, you talk about “coming out” as being associated with your immigration status. Will you expand on what that moment of “coming out” was like for you and how that has ultimately impacted who you are now?
The concept of coming out of the shadows about your immigration status was developed by undocumented and queer activists in Chicago who were inspired by the coming out of the closet tactic used by the LGBTQ movement. We put together the first “Coming Out of the Shadows” event in NYC in 2010 and I participated in it. It was exhilarating and nerve wracking. I am glad I did it because it helped me find my voice and purpose. When you are undocumented you are told by everyone you should remain in the shadows, scared, quiet. This was aimed at reclaiming our power.
I was also really interested in the relationship between you and your mother in the film. It seems as though there was hesitance coming from her about you being vocal about your immigration status while what you wanted to do was reclaim the power that comes with being “undocumented and unafraid”. I was especially moved by her participating in a rally with you and talking about her immigration status at the end of the film. Since shooting ended, has there been any change in the dynamic of your relationship with her regarding this topic? Do you feel like you two have become a lot closer because of that moment in the documentary?
She is more unapologetic and open. She defends herself and her co-workers all the time and tries to support me in my work when she can. My mom is also more unafraid in her personal life, she has gotten on planes and taken trips. Which is new, as someone who never wanted to leave the state out of fear of deportation. She has now flown to Florida, Puerto Rico and Nevada. I am so proud of her. Her coming out brought us closer together because she understood why social justice work matters to me and impacts us all.
I also wanted to talk to you about the particular issue of mental health and sexual assault because you yourself reveal in the film that you were a victim of sexual assault when you were very young. We know it’s very common to see statistics about suicide rates being really high among Latinx youth and I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on this, especially because you work with undocumented youth and have personal experience with the stress that comes with navigating through educational institutions, trying to obtain a visa, feeling like you can’t talk about your immigration status, and so much more.
Yes, mental health and lack of resources/access to services is real for the Latino community and immigrant populations (since not all immigrants are Latinos). There is a lot of gaps when it comes to talking about this. Undocumented immigrants also experience depression and anxiety, from living in constant fear/anti-immigrant climate and the intersections of violence… when you are a black immigrant, trans immigrant, etc. The Undocublack Network wrote this great piece about being undocumented black and mental health.
And lastly, what advice do you have for undocumented youth especially now in our current political climate? And for young activists who are either being directly impacted or want to be allies to those who are directly impacted?
Now is the time to be involved and organize. Our communities are used to uncertain futures and anti-immigrant sentiment. This is not new. And we need every person to be involved and support as much as possible. It is okay to feel afraid, that is a very real feeling. But we can’t let it paralyze us.
To learn more about Ask Angy and the NYSYLC, visit their website.