Student wants to redefine ‘American’


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Kim Hiltabidle

ISU sophomore Alicia Huerta is shedding a light on immigration, identity and what it means to be an American.

Huerta is beginning the process to have a chapter of Define American on campus for students who are interested in informing themselves about the lives of others and the hardships those who are living with an undocumented status have faced here in America.

Huerta first learned about Define American back in December when founder Jose Antonio Vargas announced that the organization was bringing its first ever film festival to Des Moines.

Over the weekend of Jan. 21 to 23, Huerta and a friend attended the film festival, which showcased six feature-length films about what life is like for immigrants from a variety of cultures.

One documentary, titled “Don’t Tell Anyone (No La Digas a Nadie)” followed the journey of one woman, immigration activist Angy Rivera, and her life-long struggle speaking out about her undocumented status. The film also shows how she received her citizenship through an unjust system after surviving sexual abuse.

“These people can’t be proud of their heritage because they are afraid,” Huerta said. 

Define American wants to give these undocumented people a voice and a platform because we were all once immigrants.

Huerta, who was born and raised in Texas, is a ninth-generation Hispanic citizen on her father’s side and a second-generation Hispanic citizen on her mother’s side.

“I want to bring Define American here because I want to have that conversation with the person next to me and ask them, ‘Why are you here? Tell me your story,’” Huerta said.

Like the name implies, Define American places an emphasis on an people’s views on what being an American means to them and how that differs from that of their peers.

Huerta had her own personal views on what it means to be an American.

“It’s a broad spectrum,” Huerta said. “Specifically, within this group, calling yourself an American is being able to call yourself someone who’s trying to fight for your freedom and become an independent individual who’s able to think on your own terms.”

Define American launched its first college chapter in October 2015 at Texas Tech University.

“Students from more than 34 colleges have already signed up to start a Define American college chapter,” according to its Facebook page.

Huerta said her adviser, Jessica Padilla, graduate assistant in programming for the office of Multicultural Student Affairs, was the one who reached out about establishing a chapter.

“We’re still in our initial stages,” Padilla said. “I know [Alicia] definitely wants to get a variety of people on the table to create conversation about this topic [immigration] and create awareness about what it means to be an American.”

To bring a chapter to Iowa State, Huerta needs at least five students to express interest in this organization.

Meetings will focus on open-minded and open-ended discussions and conversations between peers about their take on what being an American truly is and their own personal stories. Documentary and feature films will also play a role, along with a panel for discussion.

The possibilities for this kind of organization are endless.

“I think Define American’s purpose is to educate someone about something that they don’t completely understand,” Huerta said. “You have to be able to adjust yourself and to not close off on someone because you don’t understand their story and where they come from.”

Huerta believes it brings empathy to the community.

“You never know who’s all having this struggle within their lives,” Huerta said. “Sometimes you have to bring up that conversation and that’s why I want to start Define American.”