June 6, 2018 at 9:18 am PDT | by Raymundo Baltazar
La Migra, education and ‘Project Runway’

Raymundo Baltazar works at UCLA Arts and is a former contestant on ‘Project Runway.’ (Photo courtesy Raymundo Baltazar)

Ten cuidado con la Migra! (Be careful with immigration). A mother’s plea that functioned as a subtle warning to not sabotage my American dream-in-the-making. However, for me, her words were the fuel that propelled me to do better, to overcome, and to always remain vigilant. And though the trauma of fearing la migra will forever be engrained in my psyche, I thank my Mother for ensuring my safety was her top priority.

In our family, education has always reigned supreme and a measure of one’s character. So keeping me safe was her way of ensuring I could reach for an education. Imagine a nine-year-old, unable to speak English, undocumented, queer and afraid; my educational forecast seemed cloudy. I was aware that on any given day, I could be deported. But the fear never derailed me or my three sisters from seeking an education.

Unfortunately, by the end of my first week in class, the experts at my local elementary school had declared that I was an at-risk youth. I assumed they meant at-risk of la migra but I was wrong. Years later, I can attest that shedding the stigma of being called at-risk has proven harder to do than overcoming my fear of la migra. Now, as a first generation Angeleño, and the first to attend and graduate from a university—UCLA Summa Cum Laude and Chancellor’s Marshall—I have realized that the power of testimonio (testimony) helped me tremendously. By reading the testimonies of individuals that have dealt with similar challenges, I found hope. And in that same spirit, my hope is that by sharing a few personal anecdotes, they can add to the discourse of immigrants and their positive contributions to this nation and beyond. I hope that my story can serve as a testament to the power of testimonio and a reminder that immigrant children have the right to succeed.

From an early age, my love for the arts has profoundly influenced and impacted my life. Though I was frequently discouraged because, as an undocumented immigrant, an education in the arts was simply unheard of—my desire and quest never abated. At 13 years old, I found a newspaper column that inspired an early academic pursuit— “Take my Picture Gary Leonard” in the Los Angeles Reader. Its visual narratives challenged me to discover my artistic agency. Shortly thereafter, I embarked on what my mother called Raymundo’s cultural adventures. With my RTD bus pass in my pocket and my camera in hand, I set out to document my new home: Los Angeles. Through my cultural adventures, I learned that I wanted to be not just a participant but a contributor. The arts became my reason for living and from that day forward, ensuring that the arts became accessible, valued, and celebrated by all people became my passion.

In 1998, as my high school classmates prepared for college, I decided to take a risk. I auditioned for the Bob Fosse Dance Scholarship. Though I was technically raw and had far fewer years of formal dance training, I knew that the odds were against me; a condition I was all too familiar with. A week later, the phone rang in Mr. Long’s class. He answered and then summoned me to his desk. Assuming the worst, I fearfully walked over to him, only to find out the call was to congratulate me on winning. The award was the first real acknowledgement of my performing abilities and receiving the Bob Fosse Scholarship changed my life. The scholarship was an accomplishment that encouraged me to never give up on my talents, to believe in my personal attributes and most especially, it defined the type of person I could become. Years later, I took a bigger risk: auditioning for “Project Runway.”

I had so much fun as a contestant on “Project Runway!” However, my role and purpose felt a bit predetermined. It was on the first episode that I came out to my father living in Mexico. In retrospect, I feel like the experience negatively affected my family. I felt like I exposed too much. My father died last December and we never talked about “Project Runway.” I regret not asking him about how he felt. The experience was everything you can imagine: parties, access, money, travel and shenanigans. Post Auf Wiedersehen, I decided to go back to my original quest: an education. I immediately sought to shed yet another title and believe me, shedding the title of Fashion Designer was easy, all it took was to be eliminated from “Project Runway.” I went from the runways to the hallways of UCLA and thus, my chapter as a student began.

June is always double the fun for me: my birthday and Pride! I will be turning 38 and this will be my 12th Pride celebration with Jonathan, my beloved husband. I now work at UCLA Arts. And finally, after more than 20 years of filling out forms and enduring all manner of ridicule, five years ago, I was delivered from the nightmare existence undocumented status confers. I am now a U.S. citizen. At last, I returned to Morelos, Mexico, my birthplace. And while I remain perpetually afraid of la migra, growing up an undocumented immigrant in a strange way helped me to develop perseverance and resourcefulness. These strengths have served me well, for I am at-risk no more. Happy Feliz Pride!

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