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The Making & Unmaking of Common Sense: Undocumented Latino Youth & Political Consciousness


This study is concerned with how marginalized people come to question and challenge societally-accepted injustice and inequality. It asks, how does the discourse and practice of immigration policy shape the political consciousness of undocumented Latino youth in California? To answer this question, this ethnographic study focuses on the experiences of individual activists and members of a college-campus based support group of undocumented students, who are active in the statewide campaign to pass the DREAM Act. The narrative around illegal immigration is widely taken to be common sense, yet little is known about how the identities of undocumented young people are produced in and through this process. Drawing on Antonio Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and common sense, I question how common sense is made and unmade among undocumented immigrant youth.

This study draws from ethnographic data collected at three sites over the course of 18-months. First, I conducted life-history interviews with 50 undocumented Latino youth activists across California. Second, I conducted participant-observation throughout the 2007-2008 school year at a Northern California college-based support/activist group of undocumented students. Third, I monitored the statewide campaign to pass the DREAM Act between February 2007 and October 2008 through interviews, participant- observation with the statewide network, and formal and informal archival research.

The introductory chapter presents the political context surrounding undocumented immigrant youth in California, a literature review of the theoretical trends that seek to explain the experiences of undocumented youth, and a description of my study and methods. Chapter 2 focuses on the individual undocumented youth activist by examining his/her development of oppositional consciousness. I argue that oppositional consciousness is forged out of the dialectic between ideas that are both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic. Chapter 3 focuses on the student group "UPSRG," and looks at collective action, the development of collective political identity, and the tensions and possibilities that come from an organization that has an identity as a support group and an activist group. I argue that undocumented youth experience a unique kind of insider/outsiderness which shapes their political engagement and their personal-political trajectories. Chapter 4 focuses on the statewide campaign to pass the DREAM Act, and takes up questions involving resistance/ accommodation, constructions of citizenship, and the racial state. I argue that mainstream and seemingly "assimilationist" campaigns to access citizenship can play a significant role in shaping a structural, radical political analysis among marginalized people and that through these appeals for citizenship, undocumented youth are actively reconfiguring and renegotiating the institution of citizenship, the idea of belonging, and the role and responsibilities of the racial state. In my conclusion, Chapter 5, I ask how we can utilize the findings from this study to understand how other marginalized groups become engaged in counter-hegemonic social movements.

Social movement literature under-theorizes the role of everyday processes of meaning-making in patterns of political engagement, and literature on undocumented students focuses solely on educational barriers. This results in the near absence of theoretical tools to understand the multiple material and ideological processes that shape the political engagement of undocumented youth. My research addresses these gaps by connecting micro-processes and individual personal histories with macro-processes of displacement, discourse-production, and social movements in order to analyze the ways undocumented youth interact in a public process of political engagement and how they theorize that engagement. Understanding this process enables policy-makers, scholars, activist-intellectuals, and all people engaged in social change efforts to develop a more critical approach to the role ideas, discourses, and the development of consciousness play in the building of social movements.

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