Person holding a passport | Aegus Dietrich / Unsplash


10 Things to Consider About Citizenship

As part of UCLA’s centennial celebration, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture is holding a series of conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening for ten weeks, experts from diverse disciplines have gathered to explore answers to some of life’s biggest questions, including “What Is Knowledge?,” “What Is Nature?,” and “What Is Creativity?” The final talk in the series, “What Matters?” will be held Tuesday, December 3, at Kaufman Hall on UCLA’s campus, and it’s free to the public with RSVP. Can’t attend? We’ll be sharing weekly highlights.


On Tuesday, November 26, Victoria Marks, professor of choreography and associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of Art and Architecture, moderated a discussion around the question “What is citizenship?” It featured Leisy Abrego, immigration rights movement scholar; Marike Splint, theater artist and educator; and Hiroshi Motomura, scholar and teacher of immigration and citizenship law. Here are ten things we learned along the way.

1. Immigration often stems from personal trauma or safety concerns. Victoria Marks read an excerpt from British Somali poet Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” which begins:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

Immigration 101: Refugees, Migrants, Asylum Seekers - What's the Difference?

2. Citizenship affects people’s lived experiences, and mixed-status families — families in which at least one parent is undocumented — face special challenges. Abrego offered the example of children who have citizenship starting to drive at age 13. She said, “They know that if the police stops one of their parents while driving, that parent might be detained and deported.” But if the 13-year-old driver is stopped, they’ll get a ticket, and not have to separate from their family.

After years of living in the United States illegally for 19 years, Martha and Juan Manuel Morales were arrested and deported to Mexico by immigration authorities in 2008. They left behind three sons, two of whom are U.S. citizens. | SoCal Connected

3. Transnational families — families in which two or more core members live across borders — may not be capable of engaging as citizens of either country. Abrego shared that her grandmother moved to the United States in the 1960s in order to provide for her children, who were back in El Salvador. Abrego said, “It took a very long, expensive, and bureaucratic process for this family to be reunited again. And in the meantime, as a working class migrant, my grandmother did not participate in the promises of citizenship. She was busy working, and all that citizenship meant for her was the chance to be able to reunite with her children. Meanwhile, my mom and my aunt, who were legal citizens of El Salvador, had access to limited schooling and all of the limited rights that are guaranteed by a rather politically unstable nation state, but they were constantly missing their mother and only thinking about a future in which they could be together, which prevented them from participating in the society that they lived in.”

4. Families separated by borders may never fully recover from the separation. Fourteen years had already passed between the time Abrego’s grandmother left El Salvador and the time that her kids could join her in the United States. Abrego said, “Four decades later, my mother, who very recently turned 60, still can't talk about her childhood without crying.” Abrego’s mother taught herself to paint 15 years ago, and Abrego asked her to reflect on her experiences as a child in a transnational family. This is what she painted:

A painting of a woman crying over a landscape of home painted by Leisy Abrego's mother to reflect her feelings over missing a mother throughout much of her childhood | Courtesy of Leisy Abrego
Courtesy of Leisy Abrego

5. People who are not citizens can — and do — organize to demand better treatment. Abrego said, “Political activism and civic engagement give people a voice even when legally they are not allowed to participate in the promises of citizenship.” She talked about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and how these undocumented youth “have frequently over the last decade raised their voices and exerted political agency to change the direction of public policy and to demand human rights.”

Students at the Milwaukee May Day March for Immigrants, Students and Workers, 2016 | Joe Brusky/Flickr/Creative Commons License

6. For some families, citizenship and national identity is quite complex. Marike Splint is a citizen of the Netherlands and a resident of the United States. Her theatrical work focuses on the relationships between people, place, identity and notions of belonging, and she asked herself, “How has my family's complex relationship to the notion of citizenship informed my creative practice as an artist?” Descended from Jews that had been ordered to leave Spain during the Inquisition, Splint’s mother was born in Tunisia, which was then a French protectorate. After Tunisia became independent, a rise in anti-Semitism made it less safe for her Jewish family, so they moved to France. When Splint’s mother was 18, she moved to Israel and took on Israeli citizenship — but later fled to avoid the mandatory military service. After another eight years, she married a Dutch citizen and moved to the Netherlands. Marike was born there, but discovered as an adult that her birth certificate lists her nationality as Israeli.

Splint said, “In an ideal world, citizenship can be seen as a lofty ideal that involves active participation in democracy and casting votes and being recognized as a citizen and carrying shared responsibility for a country. But in real life, the question of citizenship is more messy and muddy and often has another side to it. Which papers do you have, and are they the right ones?”

Ten years ago "Steven" came to Britain seeking asylum. He was refused and told to return to his country. But he can’t because that country doesn’t recognize him. With no nationality, he has no rights to the basics most people take for granted: healthcare, education, and employment. | Trust Docs

7. Citizenship includes and excludes at the same time.  Hiroshi Motomura explored this idea through the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Motomura was born in Japan, and his family moved to San Francisco when he was very young. He was stateless as a child, and when he first heard “This Land Is Your Land?” he wondered, “Is this song about me? Is this my land?” As an immigrant kid, he felt like an outsider, so he wasn’t sure. He said he’s always been conscious that there are people who would feel excluded by the song, like Native Americans. Motomura said, “In some sense, this is kind of a settler colonial song.”

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8. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” was originally more focused on social justice. Motomura picked up his guitar and sang a few of Guthrie’s early verses. They offer a different take on citizenship, which is to really question it. As an example, he sang:

As I went walking I saw a sign there,
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing.
That side was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie Drawing Banner
READ: Woody Guthrie and Skid Row in Los Angeles | Image: From the book "Woody Guthrie L.A. 1937 to 1941" by Darryl Holter and William Deverell, published by Angel City Press.

9. Citizenship involves caring about others. Motomura talked about collective wealth and collective prosperity — “really taking part and sharing what you have with others.”  He sang another often-overlooked verse from Guthrie’s song that addresses this idea:

In the square of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I see my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

10. Citizens have a responsibility to be engaged. Responding to a question from the audience, Motomura said, “There's some sense of responsibility to participate and to work for the collective good… It can be done in everything from voting to jury service and really just being informed.” He also said that citizens should understand, and try to be receptive, to the idea that “citizenship evolves and the country to which you belong evolves.”

Community activists and residents gathered outside of a 7-Eleven in Koreatown after rumors surfaced that agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, would be conducting legal employment verifications of the staff. READ MORE | SoCal Connected

Top Image: Person holding a passport | Aegus Dietrich / Unsplash

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