Current Anthropology Preview: Awakening to a Nightmare

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez, Jr.

In advance of the upcoming printing of the June issue of Current Anthropology, we welcome guest-bloggers Roberto G. Gonzales and Leo R. Chavez with a summary previewing their article “Awakening to a Nightmare”: Abjectivity and Illegality in the Lives of Undocumented 1.5 Generation Latino Immigrants in the United States.” (Current Anthropology 53(3). 2012)


The political rhetoric over the fate of the children of undocumented immigrants is deeply divided.  Are they simply “illegal aliens” who broke the law and thus do not deserve what is called a “path to citizenship”? Or, are undocumented young people filled with great potential and we should provide a way for them to live and work legally in the United States?

“Awakening to a Nightmare” attempts to go beyond the political rhetoric. Using data collected from a random-sample survey and in-depth ethnographic interviews, it provides insight into lived experiences of undocumented young Latinos in Orange County, California, who came to the United States as children. They daily confront the importance of citizenship.  They are constantly aware of the potential for detection and deportation during the current period of heightened police surveillance and rising deportation numbers.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act was first introduced in Congress almost eleven years ago in effort to reconcile the untenable circumstances confronting these young people. While legislators continue to debate their futures, these young people must carry out their everyday lives.  Through the narratives of the study’s respondents, “Awakening to a Nightmare” reveals daily life to be rife with legal obstacles and risks. While much of contemporary immigration research focuses on outcomes, this study shows that increased enforcement efforts narrow their worlds and sows fears—so much that even mundane acts of driving, waiting for the bus, and traffic stops can lead to the loss of a car, prison and deportation.

The consequences of two related processes—the shrinking of rights for non-citizens and the intensification of enforcement efforts—are profoundly felt as young Latinos confront their undocumented status.  As they get older and want to experience the rites of passage common to American youth – getting a driver’s license, traveling, and applying to college – they come to realize they are different from their friends. As one young person told us, “It was like awaking to a nightmare.” The constraints on their lives become real and unavoidable, as one interviewee said:

I know I can do so much more, but I can’t because…I can’t choose where I live.  I can’t choose where I work.  And the worst thing is that I can’t choose my friends.  In high school I was able to do that.  I can’t anymore. I can’t even hang out with my high school friends anymore and that hurts a lot.  Yeah, they want to do grown up stuff.  I can’t do anything that is eighteen and over.  I can’t do anything.  I can only hang out where little kids hang out.  I can’t hang out with them. I can’t travel with them.  I can’t go out to dinner with them.  I can’t go to Vegas with them.  If I want to go to a bar, I don’t even have a drink.  If they want to go to San Diego, if they want to go visits museums down there, if they want to go to Sea World, I can‘t go with them.  I can’t go to Los Angeles.  I can’t go to any clubs in L.A.

“Awakening to a Nightmare” explores what an abject life means.  Undocumented Latino youth realize society sees them as discardable, as easily castaway. The idea that undocumented young people should simply “self-deport,” as if they did not have emotional or social attachments to the United States, captures this sense of being discardable and unwanted.  Rather than merely give up, many of the young people profiled here became involved in campaigns to change the law.  They are called DREAMers because they hope for the day the U.S. Congress passes the DREAM Act, thus giving them a chance to become legal residents and even citizens.  For these young people, this would be a sign that society recognizes them as contributing members of society. Until then, they must wait.

“Awakening to a Nightmare” is thus both timely and revealing, providing important insights into the fundamental questions facing the nation and the future of undocumented young people living among us.


Current Anthropology, published by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, is a transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. Communicating across the subfields, the journal features papers in a wide variety of areas, including social, cultural, and physical anthropology as well as ethnology and ethnohistory, archaeology and prehistory, folklore, and linguistics.