Portland’s sky was a hazy post-apocalyptic orange hue and the air smelled of wildfire smoke September 5, 2017, the day the Trump Administration rescinded DACA, a program designed to protect undocumented youths from deportation and allow them to work in the country legally.
On that same day, Heldáy de la Cruz stepped down into the center of a crowd of hundreds rallied for DACA recipients—also called Dreamers—at the Terry Shrunk Plaza in downtown Portland with microphone in hand. He told the story of his parents bringing him to the United States from Mexico as a 2-year-old, a story of the obstacles of being undocumented, and how he and others found a voice through the DACA program.
“DACA unlocked the potential for us to pursue our goals. We were no longer bound by our circumstances but were given a taste of what it could be like to feel normal for once. It’s been difficult and frustrating to watch these politicians value immigration laws over our lives.”
We the Dreamers
Two days later, de la Cruz announced We the Dreamers: An Art Show to Defend DACA on Instagram and Facebook with a statement to Congress that read “Our futures are counting on you. You have failed again and again to pass the Dream Act (16 years and counting). I’m sick of hiding in the shadows and I am demanding change.”
The artwork de la Cruz created to advertise the show was based off imagery by Mexican florist Jesus Morelos.
The Dream Act is a legislative proposal to provide undocumented minors a pathway to permanent residency. Despite being introduced in Congress 5 times since 2001, no variation of the Act has passed.
He had no venue, no idea of what the show was going to look like, no sponsors, music or food, but he strategically planned the date for the show—December 1 and 2, 2017—between the announcement of DACA being rescinded and the end date of the 6 month window for legislative action. He wanted to give himself time to plan the show but also to use the show as a tool for keeping the conversation going. “I’ve noticed when news breaks on things like this people get really stoked to help and everybody’s angry. Everybody wants to do something about it,” he said. “Then several months later it sort of fizzles out.”
Since his announcement, a team of other activists have joined him to plan We the Dreamers and the event has grown bigger than he could have imagined. Alongside his 10 illustrations of DACA recipients, the December 1 show will feature a silent auction with items and services donated from over 50 local businesses, speakers, a DJ and musical guest, letterpress printing, food, and drinks.
The money raised from the silent auction, entry and donations will be donated to three immigrant rights organizations:
- United We Dream, an organization focused on legislative action on a national level
- The Oregon DACA Coalition, which organizes rallies and demonstrations on behalf of Dreamers in Oregon
- Pueblo Unido, a local organization that provides legal and financial aid to those in detention centers.
All the groups organize and advocate on behalf of DACA Dreamers and work to strengthen support for the Dream Act.
de la Cruz’s illustration ‘Jonathan’ along with 9 others was on display at We the Dreamers: An Art Show to Defend DACA.
DACA’s importance to de la Cruz
de la Cruz says he’s not accepting that DACA is being taken away. “I was given this thing and I’m running with it and I’m not letting it go. That’s why I feel the need to be really loud about this.” He says he feels that by being open and vulnerable about his status he can help those who are ignoring the issue put a face to what it means to be undocumented.
“Growing up undocumented you sort of just grow up with this fear all the time. Fear of authority, and of police, asking for too much, or making too loud of a sound. You don’t want to bring any attention to yourself for fear of being taken out of the country or breaking your family apart,” he says.
Like approximately 800,000 other DACA recipients, de la Cruz found total independence and newfound confidence through the program. DACA allowed him to get a driver’s license as well as the necessary documentation to work legally. In 2016 he started his dream job as an in-house Graphic Designer. Without a permanent solution to protect Dreamers, he is at risk to lose his work permit, identification, and home. He urges people to try to understand the obstacles immigrants are facing more fully and spread that message.
“I just completely and totally want people to know that they can do the research and they can understand things better and that’s part of supporting the cause,” he said.
From Standing Rock to Portland
His own journey as an activist started at Standing Rock Reservation, where he volunteered in the art tent making banners to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline in November 2016. When he came back to Portland he had a new focus on using his own skill-set for good, to help causes he cares about. “The work that I was doing, while I thought it was good, and people enjoyed it, and I was getting work –was missing that piece, this giving back and supporting the groups that have supported you.” Before the 2016 election, and before his experience at Standing Rock he was focused on making a name for himself on social media, gaining more followers and doing more freelance work, but that isn’t the case anymore.
“I almost feel like everything that I post or talk about needs to be politically or socially relevant now,” he says. “I definitely feel like my own priorities have shifted.”
For now, he’s putting all of his energy and attention into the show and looking for a gallery space to host the illustrations for a month to continue the message, but he already has his sights on how to continue to advocate for other DACA recipients and immigrant rights. While he figures out how to focus more of his time doing activist work, he hopes to spark that in other people as well.
“I’m not interested in going back into the background,” he said. “There’s really nothing there for me.”
About Heldáy de la Cruz
Heldáy is a Mexican illustrator and designer who focuses his work on identity and social justice issues, through his intersectionalities as a queer, brown, and undocumented individual. His work has been featured in Milk X Magazine (Hong Kong), the Huffington Post, the Oregonian, and Bustle Magazine. (@el.dye on IG) (www.heldaydelacruz.com)
Photo Courtesy of Heldáy de la Cruz