Photo by August Miller of UVU Marketing
Alan Ledesma says he has caught the bug for politics. Fresh off his trip to Washington D.C. where he met with Congressman John Curtis, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and other politicians. He tidied up his bedroom on a sunny February day in the apartment where he lives just south of UVU’s campus, preparing for an on-camera portion of the interview.
“This will be more professional,” Ledesma said, picking up newspapers, books, and clothes from around his desk.
Ledesma, 24, was in the nation’s capital in support of negotiations for a new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, bill that could serve as a long-term solution to the program that President Trump ended in September of last year. DACA, which gave two-year work permits to undocumented minors with no criminal history, did not provide a path to citizenship, but was renewable and presented a way for its adherents to receive health care through their employment and earn money for education. With the first group of beneficiaries set to lose protection from deportation beginning in March, time is of the essence, and Ledesma is taking action to protect his and other Dreamers’ future.
Collecting tuition from families that could not afford the payments became a burden for Roman, and soon there were government officials looking to collect on the debt he had accumulated. Eventually his father had no other choice than to declare bankruptcy. In August 2002, the family was forced to sell all of its possessions and decided to start a new life in the United States. The Ledesmas gained entrance to America through travel visas and never looked back, hoping one day to gain amnesty as his aunt’s family had during the Reagan administration.
The first two years of life in the States were spent sharing his aunt and uncle’s one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Five people slept in the bedroom, four in the living room and one in the kitchen. Ten people in cramped quarters did not bother Ledesma who draws on fond memories living with his cousins.
Alan Ledesma attends a LDS church service in the Bronx with his mother, Columba, his father, Roman and younger sister, Brenda.
It sounds depressing in a way, but... I would do it all over again.
Roman immediately got to work as a dishwasher in his brother-in-law’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. He worked as a waiter at the restaurant, El Paso Taqueria, before he worked moving furniture and eventually settled as a worker in a shoe store. After a period of time there he went back to school to become a certified podiatrist. In 2004, two years after starting a new life in a new country, Alan and his family moved into an apartment of their own.
It is easy to see that the drive for progress — in his own life and those around him — comes from his father who worked tirelessly for so long to give his family something better. But it did not always manifest itself during Ledesma’s years spent attending Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School, where he laments his younger self’s carefree attitude.. He was the typical angst-filled teenager who was mad at everything.
“I didn’t know any better,” he said. “I knew I was undocumented but I didn’t think it mattered.”
He cut school, skated around New York City and played bass in a punk band. It was not until he arrived in Orem for his first semester at UVU that he started to contemplate his future and understand, not just the precarious nature of his citizenship, but the opportunities that lay in front of him if he took advantage of the support of his friends and family.
“It was kind of like a rebirth for me,” Ledesma said. “That’s when it really hit me.”
Several leaders from the Kingsbridge Second Ward, his Bronx congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, came to visit him while he got settled in his new home in Orem. They bought him groceries and helped with textbook costs. Members of the ward sent him care packages and even put together some money to go toward his tuition.
Andrew Bibby, a political science professor at UVU and associate director for the Center for Constitutional Studies, understood Ledesma’s position and asked frequently if he needed anything, whether it was help with food or books.
With the help of DACA, Ledesma was able to gain employment legally as a waiter at Chili’s where he saves money for tuition. Unfortunately, because he is not a citizen, he cannot receive in-state tuition except during summer semesters. This has forced him to take breaks from schooling in order to save enough money for the next semester. He’s technically a junior, having worked toward his degree off and on since 2011.
A few months later a new UVU student contacted him, looking for help to start a club for DACA students. He declined. The next day he was invited to be interviewed on KRCL where he met Dreamers from BYU and Salt Lake City. It was then he felt the pull to actively pursue progress once more.
“Being around them inspired me again and I said to myself, ‘Man, I have got to do something…why am I sitting here waiting for something to happen?’”
Winy Coronado, a student at UVU, who had contacted Ledesma after hearing his speech at the march, grinned as she recalled how he changed his mind and suddenly became interested.
I knew I was undocumented but I didn’t think it mattered.
They immediately began the process of creating the United Coalition of Undocumented Students (UCUS). Its aim is to be a safe space where DACA students can network with others in similar situations, but more importantly, find resources for anything from scholarships and financial aid to help filling out FAFSA forms.
The eventual goal is to find a space on campus for a Dream Center, like the one at the University of Utah, where DACA students have a physical location to assemble and seek support whenever they would like.
Finding means for Dreamers to complete their education is number one on Ledesma’s list of goals. He believes if people want to move up the ladder economically, they have to educate themselves. More than simply living more comfortable lives, education plays a role in the vision of change that he hopes to see in Washington one day.
“If we really want to change the system, it has to come from within us. We can march and mobilize all we want, but at the end of the day, if I really want to change the system, we have to run for senator…us Dreamers have to change the system from the inside.”
Since Ledesma was a child he has been told, by his father among others, that he has a gift of communication and leadership, but coming to understand what that means for his future is tough to reconcile.
“I sit in my bed thinking all the time, ‘Am I an activist? What am I?’”
Bibby, from whom Ledesma took two courses, noticed in him a “unique ability to relate the big ideas to current problems or controversies.”
“Alan is a thinker — a real thinker, not just a mouthpiece for some ideology, or an imitator,” Bibby says. “His activism is based in deep learning and a serious pursuit of knowledge — not just for the sake of winning a political debate, or talking points. He wants to learn because he wants to know, and he wants to know because he wants to improve the world.”
“I feel like maybe the Lord, or the sun, or whoever,” Ledesma says, more stoic in his delivery, slowing his rapid-fire Bronx accent, “I believe that it wants me here.”
During his trip to D.C., he was able to visit New York for the first time in three years. He went back to his high school to visit with old teachers and lecture some of the students. His coming-of-age attitude manifested itself when he apologized to his teachers for the way he behaved in their classes years earlier.
If i just roll over, then what is the point of coming to this country?
“If I just roll over, then what’s the point of coming to this country?” Ledesma says. “My father and my mother did not risk everything and sell all of their possessions for me to come to America and when the going got hard for me to just roll over.”
Finding his voice is a process and his role is still being defined one day at a time. In the meantime, all Ledesma can do is what’s best for his future and those who share his struggle.
“I don’t like the word activist. I don’t know if I consider myself an activist, honestly. I mean, yes, I’ve been blessed to have platforms to speak on … but I feel like this is something I’m doing to improve my future and the future of others … But I don’t feel like I’m the right person to be an activist yet. Yet.”
United Coalition for Undocumented Students at UVUInstagram @ucusuvu
Article by Ty Bianucci
Produced by Caden Damiano
Videography and Editing by Caden Damiano and Nick Duplessy
Layout and Design by Brian Talbert and Caden Damiano
#Dreamer Photo by August Miller of UVU Marketing
Bonus Interview Footage.
Big design enthusiast and am part of the digital storytelling team at The Review. Love to write, film, and connect people with technology.