Cal Poly is one of 23 California State Universities to change policies surrounding language used to describe undocumented people. The move was prompted by “Change the Subject: A documentary about labels, libraries, and activism” that came to campus Tuesday, Feb. 4. 

After discovering their college library was using the term “illegal alien” to refer to undocumented people, former Dartmouth students Óscar Rubén Cornejo Cásares and Estéfani Marín decided to take it to court.

Marín said she believes using the term “illegal alien” is a tool used to dehumanize a group of people.

“I think that the power of words is extremely important in framing an issue and in considering the humanity or lack of humanity of a subgroup,” Marín said. 

Cásares and Marín enlisted Jill Baron and Sawyer Broadley to direct “Change the Subject.” The documentary covers the journey they took to Congress in an attempt to change the language on campus.

Both Cásares and Marín said they were surprised by the attention they garnered, but even more surprised by the court’s final decision to deny their action. It was the first time Congress has ever intervened over a Library of Congress subject heading change.

“To see the amount of pushback we received in both getting the proposal through to the Library of Congress, and then it being taken up by the House of Representatives and the Senate, really illustrated the level to which language actually does matter,” Marín said.

Although nothing changed on a national level, their story prompted discussion at Cal Poly and the 22 other CSUs. Several representatives brought a proposal to CSU Council of Library Deans to remove the term “illegal alien” from its libraries, which the council voted to accept in December 2019, according to a CSU Libraries press release.

The libraries were unable to remove the term “illegal alien,” because it is a Library of Congress term, according to Art Management and Exhibits Curator Catherine J. Trujillo. However, they were able to augment catalogs to “incorporate more humane language” such as “noncitizen” or “undocumented” in place of “alien,” Trujillo said.

“And that’s what the CSU accomplished together, all 23 campuses, which is phenomenal,” Trujillo said.

The libraries also formed a “culturally responsive cataloging team” to look at terminology and best practices across all platforms so that their work can and will continue after the film, according to Trujillo.

Trujillo works for the Robert E. Kennedy Library’s Creative Works Department and was also a co-founder of Cal Poly’s UndocuAlly Working Group, a group in the Dream Center that works to create a more undocumented-friendly campus. Because Cal Poly is located on California’s Central Coast, Trujillo said it is important for the administration to bring speakers — like Cásares and Marín from “Change The Subject” — to campus.

“Because we are so geographically isolated in a way, putting in that extra work to bring people to campus to boost that momentum actually changes the climate on campus, when we have more public events that address these issues in a positive way, to really be more inclusive,” Trujillo said.

An important moment in the film for Trujillo is when one of the students takes a photo of a plaque in Congress that reads, “Words are also actions and actions are a kind of words.” She said this scene reinforces the idea that words do matter.

“Throughout history, language has adapted and has been introspective about how those terms can damage humanity,” Trujillo said. “That subject term ‘illegal alien’ damages humanity.”

Marín said she hopes her film will make people realize the larger impact words have, and the emotional and psychological implications for not only how those populations see themselves, but then how others get to define who they are.

“Change the Subject” debuted at the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre on Tuesday, Feb. 4, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

This article was updated to reflect that the CSU Council of Library Deans is its correct title, and the council did not deny the proposal to remove the term “illegal alien” from its libraries.

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