By sharing his DACA story on stage, Alex Alpharaoh hopes to change the immigration debate
Alex Alpharaoh is an actor, writer and spoken-word poet. He’s also a DACA recipient. With the program set to expire, Alpharaoh is sharing his story in "WET: A DACAmented Journey."
Alex Alpharaoh is an actor, writer and spoken-word poet. He’s also an Angeleno, a dad and a DACA recipient. Alpharaoh was born in Guatemala City and was brought to the U.S. by his mother when he was an infant.
DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, was created by President Obama in 2012. It gave young, undocumented immigrants like Alpharaoh temporary protection from deportation and two-year, renewable work permits.
But the future of DACA, and Alex’s future too, were called into question with the election of Donald Trump, who during his campaign promised to end DACA.
In September, the Trump Administration announced that DACA would be rescinded in six months and called on Congress to come up with a solution for the roughly 800,000 Dreamers who are in Alpharaoh's same circumstances.
In “WET: A DACAmented Journey,” playing now at Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles in Atwater Village, Alpharaoh recounts the complicated process of gaining protection under the DACA program, and then formally applying for U.S. citizenship.
In the second act of the play, he travels back to Guatemala for the first time so that he can establish an official point of entry into the United States. It’s a decision that came with enormous risk, because his re-entry wasn't guaranteed.
But Alpharaoh did return. While he was in Guatemala, he got the idea to tell his story on stage.
"I was in my mother's old room in my grandmother's house," Alpharaoh says. "And I told my God that if I made it back home, this was the story I was going to tell."
In 2012, President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. What did that mean to you at the time?
I was 29 years old, I was couch surfing. I was homeless at the time because part of the frustration of growing up undocumented in the country was that I've always considered myself an American, I do every single day. There's nothing un-American about me except that there's a piece of paper that I lack. That's about it, in my opinion.
And so in 2012, when President Obama announced the DACA program, it gave me hope because I had none. I had gone to the Capitol building with my mentors, we literally knocked on doors, trying to get meetings with [legislators], to see if they were willing to sponsor a private bill. Because even though The DREAM Act was up and being passed around in Congress, it didn't seem like it was going to go anywhere. Years later, it still hasn't. So they were trying to figure out a way to help me stay in the country. And the way that they did that was by helping to pay for my schooling. But by the time President Obama announced the DACA program, I was already out of school for two years. I was working odd jobs and trying to sustain myself as well as I could in the underground economy. I didn't have a social security number. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even drive so I had to take the bus or I had to walk or get rides because the last thing that I needed was to get myself in trouble over something minimal that would risk anything that could potentially happen to me as far as getting adjustment of status.
So it wasn't until he announced that that there was a sign of hope. It's funny, I put in my application for DACA on September 5th, 2012. Exactly five years later, Jeff Sessions announces the rescindment of the program. So it's kind of ironic and tragic at the same time, because I've lived my life as an American my entire life even though I didn't have proper documentation. And for the last four-and-a-half years I've been able to get a taste of what it's like to live a normal life, to be able to do the things that people take for granted so often. Something as simple as having a driver's license or open up a bank account, things that I cherish. I look at my driver's license sometimes and think, Damn, it took 30 years to get this.
In part of this play, you tell a harrowing story of your mom bringing you into the country. I believe she was 15 and you were how old?
I was a month-and-a-half, two months old.
Can you relate that part of the story?
Just to put this in context, my daughter is 15 and I say that in the play. I don't even let her go to the corner store by herself. But here you have Lucresia, a 15-year-old child with a child, traveling thousands of miles away from anyone she knows, anyone who loves her, who cares about her, with no money, no food, without any way of getting in contact with anyone. And she was terrified of getting caught. Not because she was going to get sent back to Guatemala, but she was terrified because at the time I had developed yellow fever and jaundice. We'd been starving. It took us a month to get from Guatemala City, which is where my parents are from, to the Tijuana-San Ysidro border. And a week into the journey, she got robbed. Two weeks into the journey, we ran out of food, we were starving. Her breast milk had dried up and she was feeding me any kind of water that she could find. And that's what eventually made me sick. And by the end of the fourth week, that's when I had turned yellow and I started convulsing and I went into shock. I basically stopped living.
She held me in her arms, she's desperately crying out for help, yelling for someone to do something because she didn't know what to do. There happened to be a woman that had just joined the journey and I remember asking my mom, So what do you remember about this woman? And my mom said, I don't remember anything about her other than she was kind and she took you from me. She took your lifeless body from me as I was praying to La Virgen de Guadalupe to save your life. And she blew life into your lungs and when you woke up and she started crying, she took your mouth and she put it to her breast and she fed you. And then she had to turn me over to a coyote, a smuggler, because he was concerned that if she traveled with me — either through the sewers or through the desert — I wasn't going to be strong enough to make the journey and I was going to die. Or if were were traveling with the group if I woke up and started crying I was going to get everyone caught.
How did the idea for this play come about?
It actually came to me when I was in Guatemala. I was in the process of trying to come back home. And I remember joking with my mother who went with me and we were at the airport at LAX. I said, Mom, wouldn't this be cool if I turned this into a play? And she just kind of chuckles and she goes, Knowing you, you probably will. But when we were supposed to come back, there was a lot of fear, obviously. The first version of the Muslim travel ban had just kicked in a few days before. And the [acting] Attorney General had just been fired for permanently stopping the ban. And there was a new Attorney General who had resumed it. So there was a lot of tension and the politics were changing literally by the hour when I was in Guatemala.
I was in my mother's old room in my grandmother's house. And I told my God that if I made it back home that this was the story I was going to tell. So upon coming back home, literally less than a week of me getting back home, I went to Ensemble Studio Theater in Los Angeles and I spoke to my friend and producer, Liz Ross. She was one of the first individuals that I revealed what my immigration situation was at the time. And she was like, Oh my god. Her first reaction was immediate concern for me, saying, Well, do you really think this is a story that you should be telling?
How do you decide that this is something you have to do even if there is a risk that comes with it?
Primarily because I'm an artist. It's my life's work. If I'm not doing this I'm going to be doing something else and it's going to be in the same vein. I'm a storyteller. I'm an actor. I'm a writer and so this is what I've chosen to do for the rest of my life. And so if I can't find the courage to tell my own story, how can I find the courage to tell someone else's story? Or a story that can be relatable by the masses? And so her biggest concern was, Are you going to be okay? She didn't know what the content of the story was until 15 minutes [before the first show]. I was terrified.
I was driving in the car and I had my 15-year-old daughter with me and as we were maybe two blocks away from the theater. I looked at her and I said, You know what? I can't do this. This is too much. This is too risky. This is stupid. Why am I here? It's ridiculous. I'm doing it for a bunch of claps and I'm going to end up getting myself deported. And my daughter, she rolled down the windows and she said, You know what, dad? It stinks in here. It stinks like fear and it's yours. If you do not do this, you are no longer allowed to tell me that I have to finish something. And everything that you have ever taught me about starting something and finishing it becomes invalid.
I said, But Aileen, you realize if I get caught I'm going away. And she said, Dad, but you came back. You're here for a reason. And so I did it and people's mouths were kind of open after the first reading and the biggest concern was, How can we tell this story while keeping Alex safe? And the biggest indicator was whether or not I would get my work permit around the time that they wanted to do it. So we put a pause to that because it hadn't been renewed at the time.
[JOHN HORN: But now it has been?]
There are a couple of things that come out in the play. You have worked in social work, you have a degree in psychology, you've done hospice care. How do you go from those things to becoming an artist? Or is the artistry always involved in what you're doing?
I believe that when you're passionate and you love something, it's not just something that you do. It encompasses your entire life. It envelops your life. I've been acting a fool since I was a kid. I started taking drama classes when I was in sixth grade. My third grade teacher taught me poetry. By the time that I finished the third grade I memorized maybe 25 poems — Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" being the first one. And just being involved with the arts at a very early age. I grew up in a part of Echo Park where they were constantly filming, so I got a chance to see the process up close and personal and have lunch with famous people that I didn't know were famous at the time because I was just a kid. So that kind of stuck with me.
And then when I was in college, I didn't have anything to do, I was getting ready to transfer. I needed to do some electives for my general education. The only class that was available was Introduction to Theatre. And I said, Why not?
When you present this play, and people come up to you who might not be familiar with what it's like to be a Dreamer or in the DACA program, how do you hope they see the world differently after they listen to your story?
It's about changing the narrative that people have in their minds. Even just the term Dreamer. I was having a conversation the other day about what it means to be a Dreamer. And it's a term that is used with endearment and a term that's used with sympathy, but it's a term that bothers me somewhat because to call me a Dreamer is to deny that I'm a realist. Because to associate an individual like myself with The DREAM Act is to associate me with failed legislation. That's how I see it. I mean, I don't have a problem with it, but every time I hear that term it reminds me that for 17 years I've been working towards putting my faith and trust in our Congress to do something about us because we're not bad people.
I wouldn't go as far as to say it's an insult. But I would say that's a reminder. Like you're saying that I haven't accomplished anything. And the thing about us individuals that are undocumented in this country is that we're getting older. It was cool to call me a Dreamer when I was 17, when I was 19 and I had the whole world in front of me and I could be anything I want. But I'm 35 years old now. I have a 15-year-old daughter and I'm not getting any younger. And as the days go by, the circumstances get starker and darker.