Cesar Vargas distinctly remembers the smell of glue in his kindergarten class, where one day his mother unexpectedly picked him up from school. But instead of going home, he, his younger brother and two older sisters were taken to a church in the town square.
There, his widowed mother kneeled at the altar and prayed, “Diosito, cuídanos.” (“God, watch over us.”)
Later that evening, carrying only a plastic bag with birth records and school documents, the family of five crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
So begins the story of New York’s first openly undocumented lawyer, who served as keynote speaker for Cal State Fullerton’s annual celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The Sept. 20 reception was hosted by President Mildred García with support from the Chicana and Chicano Resource Center and the Titan Dreamers Resource Center.
“It was a surreal moment,” said Vargas, recalling how at the age of 5 he found himself lying very still in a wet ditch during the late hours of the night. The silence broke when a coyote, or smuggler, said, “Vámonos!” (“Let’s go!”)
“We’re running, and we’re running, and we’re running. All I see is deep breaths and my mother holding my hand. All of a sudden, I see my mother fall down. No time to check whether she was OK. All I know is that the coyote picks up my little brother and we run.”
Decades later, Vargas stood in a gilded courtroom in Brooklyn, New York. In the city where he first immigrated, after a three-year legal battle for the right to practice law, he was officially sworn in as an attorney. His mother by his side, Vargas turned to her and said, “Mamá, tu hijo es un abogado.” (“Mom, your son is a lawyer.”)
“When we’re talking about Dreamers, it’s easy to say the Dreamers are the educated ones, they’re the good ones,” said Vargas. “But that implies that our parents are the bad ones. And I will never blame my mother for giving me a better life.
“Because of her, I was able to graduate high school, graduate college, graduate law school and to become the first undocumented attorney in the great state of New York,” he said.
Today, Vargas also is a nationally recognized leader at the forefront of the fight for immigration reform and co-founder of the Dream Action Coalition. Most recently, he served as the national Latino outreach strategist for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
“As Latinos, we have a powerful voice — whether we’re attorneys or whether we’re freshmen college students — we all have the power to change this great nation,” he said, adding that it begins with people sharing their immigrant stories, documented and undocumented alike.
Calling Vargas’ words “powerful” and “more important than ever,” President García reaffirmed the University’s commitment to standing with its undocumented students in the wake of the recently rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“Fellow Titans, I will not rest until all of our students have equitable access to the transformative power of higher education,” said García. “No government policies, border wall or DACA revision will ever change that for me.”
The event also featured two performances: a theatrical reading of “Cruz and Raymunda” — written by Victoria Flores of Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, and performed by CSUF theatre arts students Aisha Rivera and Jacqueline Castañeda and ensemble members Angela Apodaca and Hugo Fernandez Muñoz — about a 15-year-old girl determined to cross the border on a rainy school day with her best friend to be reunited with her mother; and a musical performance titled “Fuerza en Unidad” (“Strength in Unity”) by Isaiah Acevedo, a human services major.
The Chicano/Latino Faculty and Staff Association and Titan Dreamers Resource Center concluded the evening by honoring a student organization — Diversity, Resilience, Education, Access Movement Co-Operation (D.R.E.A.M. Co-Op) — for “contributions to the CSUF Latinx community and the community at large” and “contributions to empower, support and advocate for the lives of undocumented students.”
Cal State Fullerton, which was recently ranked No. 1 in California and No. 2 in the nation for awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students, continues its celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month through mid-October. For more information about upcoming activities, contact student organization Mesa Cooperativa at firstname.lastname@example.org.