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Often described as the “original DREAMer,” Tereza Lee is an activist and musician who bravely stepped out of the shadows to share her story as a young undocumented immigrant in the United States. Although the U.S. Congress has yet to pass the DREAM Act, which would offer protections for undocumented youth, Tereza’s decision to tell the world her story helped build a national movement for undocumented youth—and launched Tereza into a life of activism that continues to this day.
Get to know Laurene Powell-Jobs who read the story of Tereza Lee. Laurene Powell Jobs is the founder and president of Emerson Collective. Emerson’s mission centers on advancing immigration policies, preserving the environment, re-envisioning the future of high school, and ending gun violence in Chicago.
LAURENE POWELL JOBS Once upon a time, there was a girl who inspired millions of immigrants to march out of the shadows. Her name was Tereza.
POWELL JOBS Tereza grew up in northwest Chicago, where she lived in a basement apartment with her mom, dad, and two brothers. She loved her family, but life wasn’t easy.
Tereza’s parents, who were from South Korea, had lost everything in the aftermath of the Korean War. They had fled to Brazil, where Tereza was born, and started a successful clothing business. However, one day, a family member stole all their money. Left with nothing and no one to turn to, Tereza’s parents decided to move to the United States. Tereza’s mom sold her most prized possession, her wedding ring, and used the money to buy plane tickets.
In 1985, when Tereza was two years old, her parents took her on a plane bound for the U.S., where they believed they could create a better life for their family. But in Chicago, that “better life” seemed out of reach. The family’s apartment had no furniture, no heat, and no hot water. Tereza shivered through the cold winters, and at other times, hunger gnawed at her belly.
Then, one day, when Tereza was around seven years old, her family received an incredible gift. Tereza’s father was a minister, and when one parishioner saw how they were living, she filled their apartment with furniture—including an upright piano.
Tereza was drawn to the instrument immediately. She’d tinkered on the piano at church before, and when her fingertips glided across the cool keys, her troubles always melted away.
Tereza practiced on her new piano for hours and hours. The better she became, the more her mind filled with images of her on a stage, playing to crowds, and becoming a successful musician.
A bold vision grew in her head: Tereza would help her family escape poverty. She would help them stay safe. And the piano would help her do it.
POWELL JOBS I’m Laurene Powell Jobs. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Tereza Lee.
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POWELL JOBS By the time Tereza was nine, she’d memorized almost 500 hymns and had become the pianist at her church.
But when she wasn’t at the piano, Tereza was determined to attract as little attention as possible. From the outside, she just looked shy. She didn’t have lots of friends, and she didn’t whisper secrets on the playground.
Yet, this was actually because her family had a very big secret. A scary secret. One that, if someone found out, could break her family apart.
She had found out about it when she was just seven years old. Her father once called Tereza and her brothers into the living room for a family meeting.
“We are undocumented,” he’d said, his voice grave. “We don’t have this paper that says we’re allowed to live here. There’s this thing called a green card and a citizenship, and we have neither.”
Tereza’s father said that if the U.S. government found out, their family would be separated. Tereza and her older brother would be sent to Brazil. Her parents would be sent to Korea. And her younger brother, who was born in the U.S., would go into the foster care system.
Fear shot through Tereza’s body like lightning. What if she lost her family? Or was sent to a country she didn’t even remember?
She promised her dad she wouldn’t tell anyone, ever.
POWELL JOBS From then on, Tereza was haunted by nightmares. In her dreams, police knocked down their door, stormed into their apartment, and tore her family apart. Often, she woke up drenched in cold sweat.
Tereza withdrew from friends and avoided authority figures, like teachers and police. She wanted to be like the other kids in her class, but her immigration status was a constant barrier.
For example, when Tereza was in seventh grade, she was so smart, her teachers said she should go straight to high school. But when she brought the paperwork home to her father, he tore it to pieces.
“You’re undocumented,” he said. “You can’t stick out.”
Tereza was devastated.
And then, a more serious injustice happened. One winter, when Tereza was 14, her younger brother was hit by a car. At the hospital, her father told the police it was her brother’s fault—even though it wasn’t. He didn’t want to press charges against the driver or go to court because, if he did, the police would find out they were undocumented. So instead, he lied.
Tereza’s brother recovered, but because of that lie, Tereza’s family nearly went bankrupt trying to pay for his medical bills.
Something felt terribly wrong about this, and Tereza longed to do something. But she had no idea what that something was.
POWELL JOBS Tereza had taught herself piano, but as she got older, she wanted a teacher. So at 16 years old, Tereza applied to the Merit School of Music. She received a full scholarship and studied with world-class musicians. Her skills improved, and after winning an important piano competition, she got to perform the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
It was a big deal.
Soon after Tereza’s win, one of her mentors and teachers, Ann Monaco, called Tereza into her office.
“What colleges are you planning on applying to?” she asked.
“I’m not going to college,” Tereza said sheepishly.
Tereza looked at her hands. She wanted to tell Ann the real reason why she wasn’t filling out applications. Since Tereza was undocumented, some universities wouldn’t accept her. And for those that would, it would be nearly impossible to get a scholarship.
But then, she remembered her father’s words—and the danger that awaited them if anyone found out.
So, Tereza remained silent. Meanwhile, Ann printed off 10 college applications.
“Fill these out and bring them back to me tomorrow,” she said.
Tereza took the stack of papers home and filled them out. The next day, she handed them to Ann.
POWELL JOBS As Ann reviewed the applications, she saw a specific answer was blank on each one—Tereza’s Social Security Number, a number the government gives to citizens and documented immigrants. She told Tereza to go home and ask her parents for it.
Again, Tereza took the stack of papers home. But she didn’t show them to her parents. She knew she didn’t have that number.
The next day, Tereza simply took the stack of papers back to Ann.
“Why is this empty?” Ann asked again.
Tereza’s eyes filled with tears. She felt like the walls were closing in.
As Ann looked on, confused, Tereza told her their secret: She was undocumented.
“Please don’t report me to the police,” Tereza said.
Ann promised not to tell the police. And then she promised Tereza something else: Together, they’d do something about this problem.
POWELL JOBS Ann thought hard about how she could help Tereza. Eventually, she started calling and writing letters to Dick Durbin, a U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Moved by Tereza’s story, Senator Durbin decided to write a private bill on Tereza’s behalf that would offer her legal residency. But once word got out about this bill, an unexpected thing happened: Young people from all over started contacting Senator Durbin. Sometimes by phone or by letter. At other times, they’d covertly seek him out in the parking lot after he finished work.
They told him their stories: They were immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, too. Could he help them?
Senator Durbin quickly realized that this issue went way beyond Tereza’s case. Inspired by these youths’ stories, he collaborated with Senator Orrin Hatch and other allies to develop The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act. The 2001 DREAM Act, as it was called, was legislation that would offer permanent residency to qualifying immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
The DREAM Act gained massive support from both Democrats and Republicans. President George W. Bush also supported immigration reform. He joined the then president of Mexico in early September of 2001 to announce a new policy.
After so many years of living in the shadows, hope and support for undocumented immigrant youth like Tereza was just a vote away.
POWELL JOBS The Senate was scheduled to vote on the DREAM Act on September 12, 2001. Tereza was planning to play a short piano concert for the Senators, and then she would testify about the bill.
At that time, Tereza was living in New York City. Anticipating that the DREAM Act would pass, the Manhattan School of Music had admitted Tereza on a full scholarship.
On the morning of September 11, Tereza tried to catch a taxi to go to the airport. But there were no taxis to be found. Soon after, she discovered that her flight was canceled.
In fact, all flights were canceled.
Something terrible had happened. Two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. The news was calling it a “terrorist attack.” Many people died.
Like so many Americans, Tereza was horrified. Who would do such a thing? she wondered.
As Congress responded to this crisis, the DREAM Act was hastily pushed aside.
POWELL JOBS At the same time, another terrible thing happened: Suddenly, people were afraid of “outsiders,” including immigrants of color. Across the country, states passed laws making life even harder for undocumented immigrants. Raids on immigrant communities increased, and undocumented immigrants were deported from the country in large numbers.
Just like in Tereza’s nightmares, families were torn apart, and immigrant communities were left missing loved ones and friends.
POWELL JOBS As if that wasn’t hard enough, more loss followed. In 2002, Tereza’s mentor Ann Monaco was killed by a drunk driver. Tereza’s heart ached with grief.
She wondered how she could go on. How she could survive in a country that didn’t want her. She even considered deporting herself to Brazil.
As she dwelt on her pain and losses, though, Tereza came to a realization.
When she had told Senator Durbin her story, she’d thought she was alone. In fact, she had thought her family was the only undocumented family in the United States.
But she was mistaken. She remembered the students who’d approached Senator Durbin in parking lots, who whispered their stories. And she remembered the people who, on hearing her situation, wanted to help her find a path to legal residency.
I have to keep sharing my story, she realized. Because there are others out there like me. Because we deserve to come out of the shadows.
And so, she did.
POWELL JOBS This young woman who’d grown up trying to make herself as quiet as possible began to speak out. Tereza spoke at demonstrations, shared her story on the news, and shouted for justice and immigration reform at rallies.
Thousands joined her, and then millions. These undocumented youth, who called themselves “DREAMers” after the DREAM act, bravely came out and built what would become a national movement. Soon the plight of the DREAMers was at the forefront of local and national conversations about immigration.
But more than that, these DREAMers, who’d so long been trapped in silence, realized they were not alone. And they never would be again.
POWELL JOBS The DREAM Act has been reintroduced in Congress several times since 2001, but it has yet to pass.
In 2012, President Obama signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which offers temporary protection from deportation for qualified undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Although this was a victory for many immigrant youth, DACA continues to be challenged by its political opponents.
Yet, thanks to the hard work of DREAMers like Tereza, public support for undocumented youth has grown: Today, almost 75% of Americans support letting DREAMers stay in the U.S.
POWELL JOBS Tereza became a U.S. citizen in 2010 after marrying American jazz trombonist Danny Kirkhum. When she finally held the piece of paper in her hand that said she was a citizen, she cried for hours.
Now a professional pianist and teacher, Tereza can still be found behind a piano, her fingers weaving notes together into beautiful melodies and harmonies.
When she’s not performing, teaching, or raising her three kids, Tereza continues to fight for her DREAMer siblings and other undocumented immigrants by demonstrating, advocating for immigration reform, and sharing her story.
As Tereza said in one speech, “Telling the stories of real people is what will inspire others to take action and eventually bring down the injustice in the system.”
Today’s episode was hosted by Laurene Powell Jobs. Laurene is a businesswoman, executive and the founder of Emerson Collective. Get to know Laurene in our interview episode, available now.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.
Our Executive Producer is Elena Favilli, Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Maithy Vu. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi who has also sound designed this episode. Mattia Marcelli was the sound mixer.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!