Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Tereza Lee, An Original DREAMer

Tereza Lee speaking at the KRCC DREAM scholarship ceremony in Chicago on July 25, 2012. Photo credit: Author’s own.

On a blazing afternoon in July, the Korean American Resource & Cultural Center (KRCC) in Chicago celebrated the presentation of DREAM scholarships to local Asian American student leaders (full disclosure: the author was a member of the selection committee). These scholarships were awarded in conjunction with the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC) and its affiliates, who subsidized the awards through community donations and the avid fundraising efforts of Asian American youth groups.

The excitement at the KRCC awards ceremony was especially palpable, following closely on the heels of the Obama administration’s historic June announcement that deportations of undocumented youth would immediately be halted, and that qualified DREAMers would be able to apply for two-year work permits (for recent Hyphen posts on deferred action, see here, here, and here).

But as President Obama himself emphasized, the reprieve is only “a temporary stop gap measure.” Thus, in an emotional speech at the KRCC event, guest speaker Tereza Lee repeatedly drew attention to the inadequacies of deferred action. “The fight isn’t over until the federal DREAM Act is passed,” Lee stressed.

While many may be aware of the DREAM Act’s legislative origins back in 2001, fewer are familiar with Tereza Lee, who was one of the earliest inspirations for the Act. Her official bio reads like an Asian American immigrant dream come true: the daughter of South Korean natives, Lee was born in São Paulo, Brazil and emigrated with her family to Chicago at age two. A classical piano prodigy, Lee honed her skills on a piano donated by a member of her father’s church. At age 16, Lee was awarded a scholarship to Chicago’s Merit School of Music; a year later, she won first prize in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerto Competition and was a featured soloist with the CSO. Since graduating from college, Lee has become a US citizen, made her debut at Carnegie Hall, and is now pursuing her doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music.

But this dazzling narrative, while true, obscures the darker tragedies of Lee’s life. Part of the massive post-Korean War immigration wave to the Americas, her parents began a small clothing business in Brazil, but lost everything to identity theft. Lee’s mother was forced to sell her wedding ring to buy visas and plane tickets for the family’s move to the States. Settling down in the diverse, working-class Albany Park neighborhood in northwest Chicago, Lee and her family tried to start over once again. Lee recalled a spartan existence in their basement apartment on Drake Avenue -- lacking beds, she huddled with her brothers in a hammock, gritting their teeth through the brutal winters without heat or hot water. During this period, Lee’s mother took a job as a dry cleaner while her father attended a theological school in Chicago. His plan was to change his immigrant status to that of a religious worker, but he was unable to gather the minimum number of members to start a congregation. Before long, his status -- and those of the rest of his family -- quietly elapsed.

For Lee, the signs started in seventh grade. A stellar student, she was urged by her teachers to skip eighth grade. To her surprise, her father was reluctant to fill out the paperwork that would allow her to do so. Then, a distracted driver on her cell phone collided into Lee’s brother on the street. While the impact didn’t kill him, it kept him in the hospital with life-threatening injuries. Despite this, their father refused to file a police report against the driver. Over the next few years, the family nearly went bankrupt trying to pay hospital bills.

Once Lee realized that she was undocumented, she decided -- in an act of wild hope and desperation -- that she would save her family from deportation by becoming an accomplished pianist. “It was the only chance I had,” she told the audience softly.

As far-fetched as it might have seemed at the time, however, it was indeed Lee’s musical career that helped galvanize the DREAM Act. When her instructors at the Merit School of Music began prodding her to look at colleges, Lee finally admitted that she was undocumented. Fired up by the revelation and by her pupil’s enormous talent, Lee’s mentor Ann Monaco, the Merit’s Artistic Director, contacted Senator Dick Durbin to tell him Lee’s story and ask if there was any legal remedy. Immediately, Senator Durbin and other legislators began to develop what would become the DREAM Act. As more and more stories of undocumented students came to light, Durbin realized the urgency of the Act and, together with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, introduced the bill to the Senate on August 1, 2001.

The Senate hearing of the DREAM Act was scheduled for September 12, 2001. Lee and several others were eagerly waiting to board the plane to Washington, DC, on September 11 to present their stories and make their case for the bill before the Senate.

Then, 9/11 happened.

All flights were immediately cancelled, the Senate hearing indefinitely postponed. And, as everyone knows, the plight of “illegals” was quickly reshuffled to the bottom of the nation’s priorities for the next decade.

Nevertheless, Lee insisted, things have definitely changed for the better. While she was in college, the DREAMer movement was nonexistent. She felt ashamed and alienated, plagued by nightmares of authorities bursting through the doors. Then, more personal tragedy struck: in 2002, less than a year after the DREAM Act died on the Senate floor, Lee’s beloved mentor, Ann Monaco, was killed by a drunk driver while jogging. Remembering this, Lee suddenly fell silent, tears filling her eyes. In the depths of her grief, Lee considered deporting herself to Brazil. “I was depressed, even suicidal,” she said.

But the loneliness of her own experience strengthened Lee’s resolve to share her story and urge others to come out of the shadows. Now, eleven years after the DREAM Act was first proposed in the Senate, the DREAMer movement has achieved national visibility and support. In an address to the Center for American Progress this summer, Senator Durbin expressed his full confidence that “some day, in the not-too-distant future, the DREAM Act is going to be the law of the land.” The most important test, as Lee reminded the KRCC audience, is coming up this November.

Of course, if the DREAM Act finally passes, the spotlight on DREAMers will be harsher and more critical than ever before. Addressing this in a recent interview, Lee encouraged her fellow DREAMers to persevere. “Stay positive,” she urged. “Being caught between the cracks of the immigration system for years can be enormously frustrating and debilitating…[but] when we bring our message to the public, anger won’t work. We need to focus on the benefits that America will receive from allowing all of these talented people to contribute, and then, once the DREAM Act passes, go out and prove it!”


Tereza Lee will be in Chicago on October 12 to receive the Standing Up for Justice Award at the 17th annual KRCC fundraiser.

About The Author

Jenny Lee

Jenny Lee lives and works in the Chicago area. She can be contacted here.

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