Local riders embark on a 540-mile bicycle tour to support immigration reform
With The DREAM Act languishing in Congress for the 13th straight year and the House of Representativesâ€™ failure to take up a comprehensive immigration reform bill that overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate, it would be easy for even the most dedicated champions of immigration reform to become jaded.
But as tempting as it may be to give in to cynicism over the lack of change nationally, a group of young activists are taking a more positive tack: They ride.
On Thursday, Aug. 8, a group of 35 riders and support crewâ€”made up of undocumented students, undocumented workers, people of color, friends, allies, and U.S. citizensâ€”will embark upon the fifth annual Tour de Dreams de California, a 540-mile bicycle trek from UC Berkeley to UC Los Angeles. UC campuses have proven to be strategically located for the ride, but the tour is also for students from California State Universities and community colleges.
The event originated as a tuition fundraiser for undocumented students but has grown into a way to empower participants and raise awareness about immigration issues. Statewide, numbers for undocumented students are hard to come by. UC Santa Cruz, for example, does not officially track undocumented students. However, a UCSC staff member who asked not to be identified tells GT they know of between 80 and 90 undocumented students at the school, but that the actual number is probably higher.
This yearâ€™s Tour de Dreams, in which four Santa Cruz residents are participating, will arrive at the base of the UCSC campus mid-afternoon on Saturday, Aug. 10, following a day spent biking over the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Jose. After resting and replenishing in Santa Cruz, they will hit the road again early Sunday morning, riding along the Monterey Bay on the way to their next overnight stay in Salinas.
â€œIt is representative of the power and potential we all have to be self-sufficient, to move freely, without fear,â€ says Santa Cruz resident and Tour rider Irene Oâ€™Connell, who is of Mexican and Irish descent. â€œThis is definitely a form of activism â€¦ committing time to a long-distance, physically intensive, political participatory action.â€
They are not professional bicycle riders and, for most, the trip will be a strenuous one. But the participants are no strangers to challenges: their struggle to complete the Tour de Dreams mirrors the difficulty, especially among the undocumented, that many of them face in their day-to-day lives.
â€œAt the end of each dayâ€™s ride, we have a sit-down and we talk about it,â€ says Xochitlquetzal, who was a founder and organizer of the first Tour while living in Santa Cruz in 2009, and who goes by one name. â€œ[In past years] we have had folks â€¦ who will say, â€˜Wow, getting up that hill was hard.â€™ There were folks on that [Santa Cruz Mountains] ride who are so focused, who say it reminded them of their journey through junior college or college, and how sometimes that journey seems like it will never end. We say that playfully, but thereâ€™s also something profoundly significant about that analysis or interpretation.â€
Xochitlquetzal, who came to the U.S. at the age of 3 and grew up here undocumented, thinks that publicizing that undocumented statusâ€”and the identity struggles it entailsâ€”is important to the cause behind the Tour de Dreams.
â€œI come from Mexico. My ethnicity is brownâ€”Iâ€™m a person of color,â€ says Xochitlquetzal. â€œIâ€™m struggling with what that means, struggling with my sense of indigeneity and the cultural upbringing of being brought up in the United States of America.â€
Not all tour participants advertise their immigration status as freely. But for all undocumented participants, the act of riding bikes in their everyday lives as well as in the Tour is a way of expressing independence.
â€œIt’s very symbolic. When it started out â€¦ a lot of the riders were undocumentedâ€”they didn’t have a way to get around the community,â€ says Evelyn Martinez, an organizer of this yearâ€™s tour. â€œRather than breaking the law and driving [without a license], or standing on corners and waiting for buses, they decided to take their mobility into their own hands and ride bicycles.â€
When the Tour de Dreams started, the impetus was to raise tuition money for undocumented students, who are not eligible for the federal financial aid and student loans that often make obtaining a degree feasible. The 540-mile bicycle route is a nod to Californiaâ€™s AB 540, says Martinez, a law that allows undocumented students who attended high school in California to pay in-state tuition at public institutions.
In 2011, Californiaâ€™s DREAM Act allowed undocumented students to apply for private scholarships, and later added state aid, such as Cal Grants, to their list of options. And last yearâ€™s deferred action decision by the Obama Administration provided temporary legal status for certain undocumented young people who came to the country with their parents.
The passage of the California DREAM Act was in no small measure due to the efforts of activists such as those who participate in the Tour de Dreams, says Rep. Sam Farr, (D-Santa Cruz).
â€œYoung activists are playing an important role in the immigration debate,â€ says Farr, who has co-sponsored every version of the federal DREAM Act, which has never passed Congress. â€œThe collective story of the DREAMers is a major reason there has been a shift in public opinion. The Tour de Dreams is a great way to continue to raise awareness around the need for comprehensive immigration reform.â€
Xochitlquetzal, who will be riding in the Tour de Dreams for the fifth time, has enjoyed watching the tour evolve from a fundraiser to a platform for raising awareness about immigration reform.
Recent UCSC graduate, Santa Cruz resident and longtime activist Jacqueline Seydel is riding in her first Tour de Dreams because she thinks itâ€™s vital for allies of the undocumented to show support. She also thinks itâ€™s important for someone in her cultural position to speak out.
â€œThereâ€™s a certain amount of privilege in saying Iâ€™m white, because Iâ€™m allowed to pass. Iâ€™m German, Irish and Czechoslovakian, but itâ€™s different for people of color whose cultural heritage is demonized,â€œ says Seydel. â€œThereâ€™s a disparity of representation in our media, so ally-ship is important. Advocacy for people whose voices who are not represented must be taken on by those whose voices are.â€
Seydel, who works with local youth in the Resource Center for Nonviolenceâ€™s Project ReGeneration, is also a fan of the fact that the Tour de Dreams is organized by young people in a collective fashion and is a â€œsharing-based economy.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve … made [it] part of our culture that we wouldnâ€™t be hierarchical,â€ says Xochitlquetzal.
The riders and support crew pool their money for meals and trip expenses. They donâ€™t stay in motels or eat at restaurants. Instead, everyone brings a sleeping bag and they make arrangements with local universities or other free places to sleep. Sometimes they sleep outside. Volunteers cook food in whatever kitchen facilities can be arranged in each town they stay in. Given this structure, organizers say they are grateful for the generosity of supporters who donate food and first aid supplies or the cash needed to purchase them.
Some riders still collect pledges from sponsors based on the miles they ride to raise tuition funds. The group also holds fundraising events before each tour to help cover expenses. As of press time, a FundRazr link on the groupâ€™s Facebook page has raised $125 toward a $1,000 goal for a scholarship fund they plan to award to an undocumented student.
As the riders make their way through California, the backdrop of recent legislative inaction on immigration reform isnâ€™t slowing them down.
â€œChange and reform is possible,â€ says Oâ€™Connell. â€œIt just takes commitmentâ€”a true-hearted willingness to seek truth. No one is free until every one of us is free.â€
The Tour de Dreams will arrive at UC Santa Cruz between 2 and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10 near the large sign at the main entrance, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. In-person donations of non-perishable food and cash are welcome. To donate or follow online, find the Tour de Dreams on Facebook. Photo: keana parker