Undocumented And Gay
Only Here / July 13, 2020
For years, Beto Soto had two secrets.
And these weren’t small secrets. These were really big secrets. The kind that define who you are.
Soto is openly gay now, but he didn’t come out of the closet until a few years ago. He's also been living without citizenship papers in the United States since his family brought him here when he was 6. He kept his undocumented status quiet until recently, too.
In this episode from our archive, we talk to Soto about being gay and undocumented, and the photographic series he made about the experience. This episode first aired on March 20, 2019.
Hey...so….Only Here is taking a production break for the next few months. We’ve got some really big and exciting things we’re working on...
But in the meantime, we’ll keep the feed alive by bringing back some of our most popular episodes.
First up is a show we wanted to run in light of a recent Supreme Court decision impacting undocumented poeple...
In June….the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration's plan to dismantle Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, ..a federal program that’s protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented people from deportation.
The Supreme Court ruled that Trump couldn’t end DACA in the way he tried to...but that he does have the right to end it through other means.
So, DACA recipients, or DREAMERS as they’re often called, are safe...for now. But Trump has said he’s currently considering his next move..so the program’s still at risk….
And that means the feelings of anxiety and uneasiness in undocumented people is still there...as stong as ever...
By the way..if you’ve got a border story you want to share, call us at (619) 452-0228 anytime and leave a voicemail.
Ok, thanks for listening...enjoy...
For years, Beto Soto had two secrets.
And these weren’t small secrets. These were really big secrets. The kind that define who you are.
Beto is openly gay now, but he didn’t come out of the closet until a few years ago.
Docuqueer Clip 1 [21:49 - 22:16]
Beto on coming out: so it, it all just like came out like vomit and I'm like, oh my God, this, this is not how I pictured my coming out, i wanted a party i wanted cute rainbow flags and, you know what I mean, but it wasn't that way and it had to happen in order to keep me safe, you know, I think if I didn't have, if I wouldn't have done that, I would have probably fallen into a dark place and not followed my, you know, goals and ambitions
Following goals and ambitions, though, was doubly hard for Beto because of his other secret…
Beto’s been living without citizenship papers in the United States since his family brought him here when he was six.
Undocuqueer Clip 2 [14:13 - ]
Beto: we just crossed and we ended up here and honestly, like most of us we have shared that we didn't understand what that meant, you know, like we are understanding what it meant to come to the U.S. and what was that going to look like for us, it’s crucial that people know we didn’t know, we didn’t decide to come here.
I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet.
Today, we talk to Beto Soto about being gay and undocumented, and the photographic series he made about the experience.
Only Here can you find an undocumented San Diego photographer documenting what it’s like to live nearly your whole life in a country without full citizenship.
More after the break.
Beto laughs a lot. And not just about funny stuff. He laughs at really serious stuff, too. It seems like a defense mechanism -- like he’s laughing instead of letting his real emotions show.
The 24-year-old artist has always struggled with anxiety. He says that the anxiety stems from the fact that, for years, he didn’t tell people about two big parts of his personality: He’s gay, and undocumented.
Beto’s been living in the U.S. since his family crossed him from Mexico through the San Ysidro Port of Entry when he was six. Beto’s parents wanted to give their kids more opportunities than they had growing up.
They knew it was illegal, but Beto says at the time it was fairly easy to cross, especially kids at the border, so it was a risk his parents were willing to take.
Undocuqueer Clip 3 [15:24 - 15:46]
Beto: I remember eating Mcdonald's on the way here and saying my first English word, which has “Hi” to the, you know, the border patrol agents and we just passed like nothing. Um, I remember waiting for my mother because it took her awhile to get across. Uh, she, um, she took about a month to get across and we were really like dying because we needed our mom,
His mom did eventually make it through and the family ended up settling in Palm Springs, a desert town just north of San Diego. Beto said the adjustment to a new life in a new country wasn’t easy.
Clip 4 docuqueer [19:34 - 20:24]
It was a little bit difficult because there were some racist people in, in, in Palm Springs. I did experience some classmates who were like very against Mexican people, which was really, really hard, you know, like you were like, wait, why are you so mean to me? Like I just want to share my, like cheezits with you. And it was difficult to, to experience that, you know, like not being able to defend yourself in a way, you know, not being able to clearly tell her like girl stop….
Beto’s parents moved to San Diego and ended up separating. The kids stayed with their mom. Because the family was undocumented, they often ended up in precarious living situations, depending on roommates to help them cover rent.
At one point, they lived with a roommate who Beto says attempted to sexually assault him. Without planning on it, he ended up coming out to his mom as gay. It just spilled out of him when he finally decided to tell his mom about the assault.
Undocuqueer Clip 5 [20:30 - 21:28]
CUT OUT MIDDLE.. I remember telling my mom being scared and she kind of didn't believe me in a way, but until I broke down hysterically, it's when she was like, okay, we gotta do something. So we moved away from their Vena single parent's heart too. So the situation, you really have to just sometimes I even thought about just staying quiet because I'm like, I don't want my mom to be struggling through another situation to finding a place to live and, you know, so it was a very hard to come out
Clip 6 docuqueer [21:49 - ]
so it, it all just like came out like vomit and I'm like, oh my God, this, this is not how I pictured my coming out, i wanted a party i wanted cute rainbow flags and, you know what I mean, but it wasn't that way and it had to happen in order to keep me safe, you know, I think if I didn't have, if I wouldn't have done that, I would have probably fallen into a dark place and not followed my, you know, goals and ambitions
Coming out of the closet proved to be life-changing. But at first, it made things worse. His mom took some time to get comfortable with the idea, so Beto ended up homeless for a little while.
He reached out to the local LGBTQ center, but they couldn’t provide much help.
Clip 7 docuqueer [23:29 - 23:62 ]
I did remember them telling me you need a social security number for us to help you with housing and that's beyond, you know, like they can't really do much about that. You not. I understand that, but it didn't really impact me. I'm like, wait, well, like what do I do? Like, you know, I don't know, I don't have anybody, like I don't know where to go,
But then things got better.
Beto found his community. He connected with LGBTQ people and groups in town. A friend gave him a place to stay and the groups gave him access to classes and resources that helped him build on his painting and photography skills.
His happiness level increased, big-time. His anxiety started falling away.
Then Beto found Aja Project, a local nonprofit that provides arts education to underserved youth.
He felt like he found a second home.
Pause - music bump
The organization made him an official member of its youth council. And after awhile, he felt safe enough to tell them about his undocumented status.
Divulging that secret also proved to be life-changing.
[Clip 8 Music]
Time for a break. When we come back, how coming out as undocumented both gave Beto a better chance at a future here, and also made him face the reality of deportation.
Undocuqueer Clip 9 [29:03 - 29:18]
I had no words. I was like, I had a day to myself where I just sat in bed and thought about possibilities and outcomes and you know, nightmares. That can happen as well, you know,
In 2012, former President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
DACA shields people like Beto -- those brought to the United States illegally as children -- from deportation. The program also makes them eligible for a work permit in the U.S.
Aja Project, the nonprofit Beto linked up with, walked him through the process of signing up for DACA. His mentors made sure he filled out every form and made it to every appointment.
Up until then, Beto had been working freelance jobs or getting paid under-the-table at restaurants and cafes. But he wants to be a professional photographer. He just couldn’t see a clear path forward or a real future for himself.
DACA changed that.
Undocuqueer Clip 10 [28:46 - 28:56]
I didn't really think that was going to be possible, you know, until I met people doing this kind of work, like the Aja Project that it made me see like it can be possible.
With the help of Aja Project and another nonprofit, the Open Society Foundations, Beto got to work on a documentary photography project he ended up calling “Undocuqueer: Stories from Bordertown.”
Beto found people like him who were both undocumented and LGBTQ. And over a year and a half he checked in regularly with the people, taking photos of them and asking them to talk about what it was like growing up.
He showed the result of his work, 36 photographs and powerful quotes from his interviews, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park last year.
He also built a website, undocuqueer DOT org. The website includes more photos and the full written interviews with each person. It also asks other undocumented LGBTQ people to share their stories. There’s a form where they can upload ‘em.
Here are some bits of the interviews Beto did with Daniel U, Dayamis G and Jesus M., all undocumented LGBTQ people who live in San Diego.
Clips from interviews
At our interview with Beto at an outdoor cafe in South Park, he pulled out his computer and brought up photos of Dayamis, a transgender woman who performs as a drag queen in hillcrest and north park.
Undocuqueer clip 11 [06:15 - 6:24]
Beto: So this is one of the participants. It's a set of 20 photos, but we're showcasing 10 to eight in each person. Let me open this.
Her story, like other stories in Beto’s project, includes lots of confusion about identity, struggles with poverty and trying to fit in.
Beto’s photos aren’t perfect. In fact, they’re not photoshopped at all. They’re pretty raw. And many of them capture intimate moments that offer a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of undocumented LGBTQ people.
For example, He included photos of the transgendered woman performing as a drag queen, but also took pictures of her sitting on her couch at home with her husband and two chihuahuas.
Beto says he just wanted to show their humanity, tell their stories. Try to make people understand why this group of people want to stay in the U.S. to continue living the lives they’ve worked so hard to build here.
Undocuqueer Clip 12 [06:43 - 7:16]
Beto: I'm trying to convey, most mainly like to humanize our stories to showcase that we’re regular human beings that we're doing regular things going to work or to school, persevering a career, you know, I'm just trying to get by sometimes to, some participants have shared that they had to stop going to school because of, you know, having to work full time to be able to afford living in San Diego as well. So it's all these. It's just to convey that we're human,
In 2017, the Trump Administration announced plans to to phase out DACA. Those plans are on hold and various courts have said it’s not legal to end it.
But it’s still not clear what’s going to happen.
When that first DACA announcement was made, a few of the undocumented people Beto was following for his project dropped out. They told him they didn’t want their faces and their first names out in the public like that anymore. They were scared.
The uncertainty was scary for Beto, too. The future he pictured for himself was starting to fall apart.
Undocuqueer Clip 13 [30:50 - 31:26]
Beto: every day is a roller coaster, to be honest. Every day I check into the groups that are created for documented people who are just sharing daca news and experiences and I hope every morning that I don't see something negative that's going to happen to Daca. And it's a constant. It's a constant, um, trauma, you know, like I, I wake up every morning, I do what I love right now and tomorrow I can't, I won't be able to do that. You know, like it's, it's. So I always take each day, like as it's as if it's my last, you know,
[Emo music clip]
But being out as undocumented and gay has opened up worlds for Beto. It connected him to his community. It inspired him to create an art project that helps other people like him tell their story, too.
Through his art project, he’s also become an advocate for the rights of undocumented people. To anyone who’ll listen, he’ll tell them why they should care about undocumented people, too.
Undocuqueer Clip 14 [35:09 - 35:25]
put yourself in my shoes. You know? Imagine if you had no, no documentation. What would you do? You know, how would you get along? How would you go by? What'd you also want to be kicked out of the country you were raised in?
Undocuqueer Clip 15 [35:31 - 35:56]
Beto: It wasn't our choice, like it wasn't my choice. It wasn't any of our choices to come here who are six years old says, oh, I'm going to go to America tonight. You know, like that doesn't happen, you know, and it's, this is why these kinds of projects are important, you know, to, to, to tell these stories, to be able to, for people to understand that, you know, we were kids when we were brought here, you know, we are working hard to make this country better as well.
The other day as Beto was crossing the street, he says someone yelled out a car window at him “you’re gonna get deported!”
It’s hard. He says every day is hard. Beto can’t bring himself to plan for what he’d do if he did actually get deported -- sent back to a country he doesn't remember. Instead, he’s trying to focus on getting into college.
Beto’s out from the shadows of his two big secrets, and things are okay at the moment. But with DACA still a big, hazy question mark, he’s feeling like he’s back in the dark again.
Next episode teaser
Next time on the podcast, a new classical music composition that explores what immigration feels like for kids.
Only here is the symphony bringing together a composer and a poet to make music about a kid crossing the border.
Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the technical producer. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Sarah Anderson is our student assistant. For info about the music you heard in the podcast, go to kpbs.org slash podcasts and click on “Only Here.”
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“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.