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the story behind the book

Roberto Gonzales on ‘Lives in Limbo’

Roberto Gonzalesdavid wilson for the boston globe

Before attending graduate school to train as a sociologist, Roberto Gonzales worked for a decade as a youth organizer in a largely immigrant neighborhood in Chicago.

“Living and working in that community, I got to know kids and families really well,” Gonzales said. He began to notice that some kids, once they hit 15 or 16, “when their friends started getting driver’s licenses, first jobs, thinking about college — this is a time when many of them had really uncomfortable conversations with their parents. For many of them, they really didn’t know a lot about their immigration status.”

Some learned they were undocumented; brought to the United States as babies, they’d grown up in a fully American setting. “They grow up on Barney and Power Rangers,” Gonzales said, and they attend public schools “side by side with American-born peers, [where] they pledge allegiance to the flag.” Learning they’re not citizens, Gonzales said, is “traumatizing; it’s debilitating; it’s frustrating; it’s depressing.” For those who were raised to believe that “if you work hard enough, play by the rules, dream boldly, you can have something, you can be successful,” facing the limitations of their immigration status — no drivers license, no student loans — is a painful blow.

In “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America,” Gonzales chronicles what happened to 150 such young adults, the result of 12 years of research. The book recounts their individual struggles, but Gonzales wants readers to see the big picture as well. “For these young people, without a pathway to legalization, they are the embodiment of Langston Hughes’s dream deferred,” he said. “It’s been 15 years since the Dream Act was proposed. Policy makers like to say that change takes time. But these ideas don’t square with the everyday lives of young people who have to help to take care of their families, who are going to school without knowing what their future will be, who find themselves outside of the circle looking in.”


Gonzales will read at 3 p.m. Friday at Harvard Book Store.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.