Illustrated portrait of Dean Dean Santos
Bicycle enthusiast, outdoor buff, miniature painter, tech aficionado

Cover illustration for "The Future is Unthinkable".

Growing up, I didn’t quite know who I was because I didn’t know how to process being undocumented. Living in this country with the limited options that I had, it was hard to think of the future. It’s hard even now, as a DACA recipient. But at the time of my deportation proceedings, I was just living day to day.

I was picked up by ICE and sent to a detention facility in Arizona. It was a miserable place, owned by a private corporation. I didn’t know what to do so I just started reaching out to folks I knew who might be able to help. Eventually I got in touch with someone from E4FC (now Immigrants Rising) and from there I got referred to the Asian Law Caucus. Someone took my case and I ended up being granted prosecutorial discretion. Basically, they closed my case administratively.

Dean's Quote: “Living in this country with the limited options that I had, it was hard to think of the future. It’s hard even now, as a DACA recipient.”

After that experience, becoming involved in undocumented youth organizing really opened my eyes to what the possibilities were. I was at the gathering of undocumented youth groups in California where the idea of DACA was first proposed. It was like, hey, we can stop the deportation of dreamers. We can get work permits. Personally, I was coming from the mindset of sure, that would be nice, but I don’t see it happening. I couldn’t see how we could demand something that seemed so mind blowing to me at the time.

I grew up in a low income household and I think not asking for stuff was one of the things that I was just used to. I knew If I asked for something I probably wouldn’t get it or that my parents wouldn’t have the money. Now that I’m an adult, I buy things like this little squirrel that you put on your hand like finger puppets, see? I know, it’s ridiculous. I get targeted ads for the stupidest things. But, whatever, it makes me happy! So does my outdoor furniture set and my home office set up. All these things that may seem little but they were just…they were unthinkable to me growing up.

Illustration of bike decorated with fur textured seat cover and mudguard, front-side basket and other decorations.

I didn’t think college was an option for me. I remember my mom telling me not to tell anyone about my status and to be very careful because I could get in trouble or get deported if I did. And because of that fear, I never really reached out or asked questions about school. And then one day when I was a high school senior my counselor asked me, hey, do you want to go to community college? I was like, oh, yea, let’s do it. And then she asked, what’s your social security number? I didn’t know what to tell her. She got the hint though because then she said, if you don’t have one, don’t worry about it. There’s this thing called AB 540.

When I met my partner, one of the first things that came up was her saying: oh my god, you’re so American. And I’m like, what are you talking about? What does that mean? And she said, it’s the way you speak, the way you talk about things. She’s Canadian, so for her it’s the mannerisms, the slang. And I thought, oh wow, I’ve never thought of myself as American. At least not in the traditional way.

Dean's Quote: “Experiencing a super hippie culture like Burning Man, coming from an immigrant background, it’s unthinkable.”

Being undocumented is part of me. I don’t think I’d trade it for anything else because it’s part of my core identity growing up as an immigrant in the Bay Area. So who am I outside of that? I guess a person who likes mountain biking and going to Burning Man.

Biking is a big part of me. Recently, this guy was giving away an old bike from the 80s that was super dirty but was still good and had all its original parts. I cleaned it up, did the maintenance on it, and basically transformed it from this thing sitting in a garage to something really pretty. It was such a nice bike and it had a lot of history in it, a lot of what was groundbreaking technology at the time.

I got into the bike world when I was in high school. I worked at a shop where I learned how to repair bikes and basically build them from parts from start to finish. I even got to try out new products that were not on the market yet. It’s kind of funny because there’s this one product where I’m the person in the catalog photo holding the thing up, and it’s been printed and sold all over the world. I guess that kind of makes me famous?

What I like about Burning Man is the freedom. One of the ten principles is radical self expression and you can really be your truest self there. You can walk around naked and not worry about what people think of you. Not that I do that, but still. A different version of me comes out when I’m there. Carefree Dean. Party Dean.

My closest undocumented friends go with me there. I remember there was this special moment once when we were all sitting on top of a box truck watching the sunset, looking out at the whole playa. And suddenly someone said, dude, did you ever in your life think we’d end up here? And we were like, no way. Never. I saw other folks I organized with there too. It was so weird because the last time I’d seen them was at an action against Trump in Orange County. We were all like, what the heck are you doing here? Experiencing a super hippie culture like Burning Man, coming from an immigrant background, it’s unthinkable. My parents are never exposed to anything like that. No one in my family is.

Dean's Quote: “Suddenly someone said, dude, did you ever in your life think we’d end up here? And we were like, no way. Never.”

Like I said, thinking about the future is hard, but in an ideal world, I just keep going back to that fantasy of having a plot of land in the middle of nowhere that’s self-sustaining. Somewhere with a lot of open space where I could ride my bike and I could grow mushrooms or something. I have been reading a lot about psychedelics and apparently they really have this power to heal people, you know? It’s going to get legalized eventually and when it does I could be a kind of pastor. I could lead people through their journeys seeing through the veil of multiple universes. I could be there while they’re in it, you know, breaking through the threads of our dimension and into the possibilities beyond.

About the Storyteller: Born in the Philippines and now living in the Bay Area, Dean is Immigrants Rising’s Technology & Operations Director. Read Dean’s self-described “bike nerd blog” about building a Soma Grand Randonneur from scratch!

Read more stories from The Future is Undocumented series.

Founded in 2006, Immigrants Rising transforms individuals and fuels broader changes. With resources and support, undocumented people are able to get an education, pursue careers, and build a brighter future for themselves and their community.

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