NEW YORK CITY – The story of the undocumented US immigrant found a face in Jose Antonio Vargas when he revealed his status in an iconic New York Times piece. It shook the national conversation and put a spotlight on the 11.7 million people without papers. Seth Ronquillo, a 22-year-old filmmaker originally from Caloocan City, Philippines, was also a part of that number.
“It takes courage to share your story to one person just on an individual level. But sharing it to the whole world? That takes even more courage,” he said. “I thought ‘Wow! Someone is just like me’ and that was really, really, inspiring.”
Like Vargas, Ronquillo did not learn of his undocumented status until he was a teenager. He moved to the states ten years ago in June 2004 with his mother, two brothers, and father, and realized this during college applications. A college counselor asked for immigration documentation and he learned that his H4 visa expired on the first day of his senior year.
The next summer, during orientation at UCLA, he learned to call himself “undocumented.” The only reason he could even enroll was thanks to a scholarship from “The Price is Right” TV host Drew Carey, who heard Ronquillo’s story after he attended the show. He maintained tuition with tutoring plus scholarships and financial aid made possible by the California DREAM Act passed in 2011.
Ronquillo likens the discovery of his undocumented status in the US to being a mutant in X-Men.
It’s only natural for the filmmaker to use a movie metaphor: like mutants in that fictional world, he thought he was the only one of his kind. He felt alone. Then, he found his community. Through that, he found strength. You can even consider him a superhero, of sorts, as an active leader for the visibility of undocumented youth in California.
Watch Ronquillo’s documentary below:
The keyword here is visibility. Ronquillo is not hiding, like many other immigrants without papers living in the States. You could see him at the front lines of rallies and leading other undocumented youth on campus as co-chair of UCLA’s IDEAs, and you could see him, or rather his work, in the 10-minute documentary short called US. After being heavily involved with organizing undocumented youth, he realized most stories were told from the Latino perspective. He aimed to show diversity.
“US” chronicles the tough realities of his family’s move from the Philippines and stay in the United States. As you watch the film, with its home footage, one on one interviews and old photographs, his family immediately feels like yours. His story feels like one you already know. His family feels like neighbors. You witness his mother tearing up as she reflects on the simple life they’ve lived.
“I never asked my mom how she feels about being undocumented,” he continued, “I thought that camera, that setting of interviewer, interviewee, gave me that license to ask those questions. It gave me that boldness to ask those questions.”
Noticeably absent in interviews is his father, who had to leave the US two years ago. Thinking about the separation was the only thing that made Ronquillo–high-spirited and loquacious–go quiet. “I graduated college twice and for neither one of them my dad was in there,” he said. “Thinking about his loneliness being apart from us, missing birthdays, Father’s Day, is one of the things that I have to wrestle with.”
What was originally a school project–Ronquillo convinced his family to participate by reasoning he needed an A in class–catapulted to a bigger audience than he ever imagined.
“US” collected awards like best 2013 undergraduate documentary at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, is an official selection for The Americas Film Festival of New York, and recently aired on Southern California’s public television station KCET. Clearly, Ronquillo is anything but a “TNT”–tago ng tago–an identification he rejects.
“With hiding, there is shame. The reason why the word “TNT” in the Filipino community is so prevalent and easy is because they know people who are afraid about their stories, who are afraid of undocumentedness. Once we stop hiding, we let go of that shame. An effective way to debunk that myth of the TNT is by sharing our stories.”
Ronquillo always dreamed of being a storyteller. As a child he wanted to be an animator before realizing illustration was not his forté. So, he channeled his creativity through film. If you ask him if he’s ever dreamed of winning Academy Awards or seeing his film titles on marquees, however, he couldn’t tell you. As long as his life is intertwined with policy, Ronquillo doesn’t even know if he can imagine his future five or ten years from now, let alone claim his own “American Dream.”
“Knowing the reality of the lives that undocumented immigrants live, I feel that for me I can’t just think about my dream and not uplift the needs of others in my community,” he said, “They are my dreams. When I think about success I think about the way we are able to touch other people with our stories.” – Rappler.com
Kristina Rodulfo is a NYC writer and editor with a journalist’s curiosity, novelist’s creativity, and tweeter’s perspective. Her number one passion is being a storyteller for the Filipino community. Follow her on Twitter: @KristinaRodulfo.
A Rappler Hangout with immigration activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas produced in collaboration with NextDayBetter and Guerrero Yee LLP will happen next Thursday, July 3 Manila time (July 2 in New York). Full details here.