An Interview with Moises Serrano, Storyteller and Activist

The first time I saw Moises Serrano, he was with a film crew on move in day outside of Hill House. They were shooting the final parts of Forbidden: Queer and Undocumented in Rural America, a documentary that features his story as an undocumented, gay man living in North Carolina. The documentary, filmed by Tiffany Rhynard and Katie Barnhill, will come out March 15th, and will be screened at Sarah Lawrence during the spring semester. I sat down with Moises to discuss his role in the the documentary, his storytelling and activism, and how he thinks that we, as the Sarah Lawrence community, can mobilize to enact change.


Rebecca Dayan: What, in your words, is Forbidden: Queer and Undocumented in Rural America about?

Moises Serrano: I think that Forbidden: Queer and Undocumented in Rural America is about changing the narrative and stereotypes that people, especially in the Southeast, might have about immigrants and also queer people. I grew up in very rural parts of North Carolina, my family were migrant workers, and living in the deep South always had a huge impact on my character, who I was, and how I was brought up. Forbidden really just tells the story of how you manage to cope when every single part of your identity is constantly under attack in the South; as a person of color, as a Mexican male, as someone who does not have citizenship in the United States, as someone who is gay…How do all of these things come together and what story do they tell? So, Forbidden again is about telling my story and perhaps being a platform for other people to share their voices as well.


R: How did you become involved in the movement?

M: I became involved over four years ago. In 2010, there was an early push towards immigration reform, and my very first action was marching in Washington DC in the March for America, which is when hundreds of thousands of immigrant rights supporters  came together to ask for some type of legislation that would provide a pathway towards citizenship for undocumented individuals in our nation. That was my very first action that I ever did, and I was hooked. I wanted to continue to do this, so I went home for a few months and I eventually met a friend and we started our own organization, El Cambio which in Spanish means “The Change.” I became the first undocumented student in my part of the state to come out as undocumented, and I decided to do that, again, to change the narrative on what it meant to be undocumented and also to try to put a local face to a national issue. So that’s what I did: I came out as undocumented, and I said ‘You know, I’m just a student, I graduated high school, I just want to go to college”. That was really needed, because at the time North Carolina was still barring undocumented individuals from even attending community college or public universities, and to this day they still have a law against undocumented students. I wanted to share my story and not live a lie anymore.


R: So you met the directors of the film through your activism?

M: It’s really funny, because for the last four years I’ve been publicly sharing my story. I don’t even like to consider myself an activist; I think I’m a storyteller, and activism is just one part of being a storyteller. I always go to these different places in North Carolina, and I never know what kind of connections it will lead to. I was partnering up with Wake Forest University to do a storytelling segment for them, and one of the directors [of Forbidden] was going to film my stories for the university, and it just so happened that  her friend Tiffany Reinhard, one of the other producers and editors for the film, was there in North Carolina that day. They came to interview me for the Wake Forest project, and they were so moved by my story, but more than anything, I think that they were amazed that they lacked of knowledge on the subject. They were astounded by how much they didn’t know and how much the American people didn’t know about immigration.


R: I certainly shared the experience that the directors did…the first time I met an undocumented immigrant from my city in the East Coast, and I think that a lot of people had had similar realizations.

M: Yeah, definitely, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault. There are a lot of factors in play that explain why you didn’t know. First of all, the media- our stories aren’t really portrayed in the media the way we want them to be. I still hear very derogatory terms towards undocumented like “illegals” or “aliens”, and for the last 10 years I have always heard this very conservative rhetoric abouton immigrants, and that leads to the a criminalization of the community, which leads to incarceration and deportation. And most of all, people think that this is only an issue at the border, but that’s not true. Immigrants, like the word says, migrate to wherever the jobs are, and it really doesn’t matter geographically, it’s just where they can make a living.


R: Something that interests me is that the documentary is about both being undocumented and queer, and I feel like the media doesn’t talk about both of those things together. Is there a plight that is specific to people who are undocumented and queer that not everyone in the undocumented community shares?

M: Yeah, I think that our documentary is the first documentary nation wide that is speaking about these issues, most of all because the undocumented community is very religious, and they can also tend to be homophobic. I don’t think that they are more or less [homophobic] that the general population, I just think that as a nation we tend to be homophobic, so the undocumented community is not excluded from that. There is a special plight that is being lived by undocumented and queer people, most of all because we have to come out of two closets. Imagine having to come out to your friends at school as undocumented, but also having to come out to your friends as gay. It’s always living in two shadows, in two closets. I had to come out to my country as undocumented, but I had to come out to my family as gay. Even then, living in the Southeast, I organized with no resources and built my organization out of my own pocket; working full time and doing activism full time. So my reason for saying that is, we have very few allies. In the South, we have found allies in the churches on immigration issues, but the religious community tends to be conservative on LGBT issues. I live in this dichotomy where I go to share my story at American churches, but I can only share one part of my story, and that’s my immigrant story. And I feel that that has been that way for the last four years, that I can never share my story in either community because of the fact that I’m gay. It’s the same when I go to Catholic Church with my immigrant community; they know that I’m gay, but there’s a stereotype people have. But this documentary is trying to change that narrative. It’s also important because a lot of the people nation-wide that are leaders in the immigrant movement are also LGBTQ, and it’s funny because many people don’t know that, but the activists at the forefront of this battle are LGBTQ and they are actually being left out of protections for LGBT citizens. During the last immigration reform battle in the Senate, there was a special clause to recognize LGBTQ families, and that was immediately dropped. Again, it’s about how  you live on this line where you’re being excluded for both communities.


R: Do you feel that the LGBT movement also ignores the rights of immigrants?

M: Definitely. I think that it’s time that we hold both communities accountable. Unfortunately in the LGBT community in the Southeast, I’ve seen a lot of rejection because immigration is not an issue that specifically personally affects them, so we see a silence on undocumented immigrant issues. But again, it’s the same on the undocumented community side- there isn’t a lot of LGBT movement within that community because of the homophobic issues that that community might have. My intention is to start integrating being more intersectional about our work, and Forbidden was the beginning of that…because it’s still the same struggle for human rights.


R: How has your experience changed since you moved out of the rural south and to New York? Are you seeing different issues come up or similar ones?

M: Well, I’ve only been on campus for a short period of time, but I think that right now, with everything that’s happening with the Eric Garner case and Ferguson, I’m seeing the same issues, and I personally believe that we should no longer treat these issues as stand alone issues. The Eric Garner is no different from undocumented immigrants being murdered at the border by border patrol, I think that this is no different than trans women that are still being murdered in our nation. I think it’s time that we merge together as a movement to really eaffect change. We can’t win these battles if we are just focusing on Eric Garner, and that’s not to try to take away from that battle, but it’s the fact that we can’t let the black rights movement fight this alone, and where I’m going with that is that we need more intersectionality between the LGBT community, the black community, and the undocumented community, and we need to be intentional about being intersectional.


R: On a smaller scale, how do you think that Sarah Lawrence students can be allies to these movements? How do you think that the administration and student body can improve in terms of recognizing undocumented immigrants’ rights?

M: I would just like to see a greater solidarity with the students, but I think that before we can show solidarity there needs to be an intentional program for creating a sense of community here, and unfortunately I haven’t felt that here. Since I’ve arrived, I haven’t felt like a part of a community, and I’ve felt quite distanced from people on campus. So I think that that starts with us– we need to create mentorship programs, we need to create community service programs to build bonds within the student community if we are really going to affect change. Only then will we be able to see solidarity with each other. I didn’t see any movement on campus about the Ferguson decision, and there wasn’t really anyone talking about these issues… I was a little disappointed because I heard of the activism history of Sarah Lawrence. Before we can move forward, if we don’t create a sense of community in our student body, we’re not going to go anywhere.


R: How have you seen immigration advocacy at Sarah Lawrence?

M: Immigration advocacy at Sarah Lawrence has done a really great job of making the school more undocumented friendly, and I know that the school has a really friendly position towards undocumented students, which is why I’m here. But I think that the fact is that there is a disconnect between the administration and the student body, and I would like to see a greater solidarity within the student body on social justice issues. I think we’ve seen some activism after Ferguson and the Eric Garner issue, but there is still a lot of work to do… I saw a lot of people who didn’t go to these race discussions, who didn’t go to the DAPS discussions about the racial epithet that was written on a student’s door. I’ve seen a lot of silence from the student body, and to me that is very worrying.


R: On a much larger scale, recently Obama presented his executive order on immigration reform that would protect an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation. What is your reaction to it, and how do you think it can improve on the policy side of things?

M: I think that it is a huge step forward; personally my sister would be able to benefit from the new deferred action for parents program, so she will no longer have to live in fear of driving her kids to school every day, and she will no longer have to live in fear of being deported. That, in a sense, is a huge victory, but there is so much potential there. Recent estimates say that 4 to 5 million people would be covered by this program, but that still leaves a good 5-6 million people who are not. For example, my parents do not qualify for DAPA or any of the recent announcements that Obama made, so it’s about how we can take this victory, mobilize our community, run with it, and get an even bigger victory next year. There’s a lot of work to do… As DREAMers, we have become very good at changing the narrative. Right now, the majority of Americans approve of a pathway towards citizen ship for young people, but as we have built this narrative, we have built it at the expense of our parents. Citizenship for my parents is a hotly contested issue, and I feel as though the majority of Americans might not be on board with a pathway to citizenship for my mother, but in a sense they were the original DREAMers… they were the people who risked their lives bringing us to this country and crossing the border and hundreds of miles of desert just to get here. So I think right now what we need to focus on is trying to change this narrative and have immigrant adults come out of the shadows and share their stories. Hopefully by the next announcement we have a pathway for citizenship for everyone…I am actually very proud, because I have turned my mother into an activist and I think that that is one of the hardest things that you can ever do. I think that before you can organize the community, you have to organize your family, and that’s just the truth. My mother’s interview just came out today, where she came out sharing her story to the United States and her exclusion from the recent immigration announcement. It’s the small little steps, and we have to go through these steps before we get to the next battle. Again, it’s about changing the narrative.

R: On a more personal level, why did you choose to attend Sarah Lawrence, and how have you pursued your passions in your coursework?

M: I chose Sarah Lawrence mainly because of a personal connection. My friend Mayra Hidalgo told me about the school and she said it was really undocumented friendly, and I looked it up and saw some of the history of the school, and that was very motivating. I thought it would be not only a good place to study, but also a way to escape from my reality… I was done with living in North Carolina. I’m 25 years old now, but I have lived in North Carolina my entire life, so my dream has been to come to live and study in New York City. A lot of that had to do with my decision here, but also the administration was very generous and undocumented friendly, so I felt very supported by them during the process. I’ve been pursuing my interests here through some of my conference work. I’m going to be hopefully studying public policy, and The Policy of Immigration and Race in the United States (with Luisa Heredia) has been my favorite class yet. My conference work has been really analyzing the budget of the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2008 and I found that so interesting because I am seeing all of the issues that have affected me in the budget of the DHS unfold and then affect me personally, so I’m seeing a lot of history that I didn’t know before.


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