Alberto Ledesma had a secret that he hid from others for most of his life. A secret that his parents had kept from him for years—his parents brought him to America illegally when he was a small child. As a teen, Alberto worried that he would be found out and sent back to a country he couldn’t remember. So he worked hard and excelled, thinking that high achievement would make him worthy of staying. He eventually earned a PhD, became a university professor, and a legal resident. In Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer, Ledesma reminisces about this journey in diary form, accompanied by many drawings that he has done over the years.
While there are drawings and short comics in this memoir, this book is not, strictly speaking, a graphic novel or a graphic memoir. The artwork doesn’t tell a story; it is not sequential art. The pictures are snapshots of Ledesma’s life, much like you would find in a diary. The book is a thoughtful, moving memoir and rumination on what it means to be an undocumented child and adult in the United States. The shame and emotions on display are palpable and the book makes it easy to identify with Ledesma’s plight. Having to tell his daughter that he was once undocumented is a particularly riveting tale.This is a story that needs to be told and one that is relevant to our current situation in the US.
Though the story is important, the book itself is strange and hard to categorize. The format is unusual in that it is slightly oversized, bigger than an average book, yet not quite the size of a typical coffee-table book. The font is unusual and somewhat difficult to read. Some of the drawings have different fonts in them which is distracting as well. The artwork is raw and inexpert, but the ideas conveyed are occasionally powerful and illuminating, like the Statue of Liberty dressed in Day of the Dead garb or migrant workers with mechanical limbs to indicate their true value as machines in the US. While not sequential, chapter 7 is entirely made up of drawings depicting different letters of the alphabet and the words that impact undocumented peoples like “Back Pay”, “Coyote” and “Deportation”. In general, I found it to be a powerful book.
However, as this site focuses on reviewing graphic novels, I would like to note that I did not put this book in my library’s graphic novel collection. I put in with young adult nonfiction, but it might find more of an audience in a public library’s adult nonfiction section. Ledesma seems to be writing for college students here, not high school students. There are many academic terms and I could see it being used in a college classroom. This book is a part of a new project out of Ohio State called Latinographix: the Latinx comics series. It is heartening to think that there might be more works about the Latinx experience coming. I look forward to a completely sequential story about the Latinx experience that I can add to our graphic novel collection.
Diary of a Reluctant Dreamer: Undocumented Vignettes from a Pre-American Life
by Alberto Ledesma
Art by Alberto Ledesma
Latinographix – Mad Creek Books, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: ((OT 16+))