I want to tell you about a friend of mine, his name is Thisaphone Sothiphakhak; I more often than not he is called Teace. He went to school kindergarten through high school right here in Minneapolis, till he dropped out in favor of getting his GED. He has been the DJ for almost every project I’ve needed a DJ on since ‘97, and as of right now he’s a man without a country.
Teace’s family moved here when he was two. I can’t say for sure what I was doing when I was two, but I am pretty sure it didn’t involve gunfire. Not so for him; his previous residence was a refugee camp in Thailand. The family moved there after Teace’s father had fought against the Khmer Rouge. Thailand itself was in a near constant cycle of revolution and dictatorship. Had they stayed, this family of four surely would have perished. So in true MN fashion some kindly Lutherans brought the Sothiphakhaks to Minnesota, thusly beginning the strange cultural journey from refugee camps and starvation to church basements and lutefisk.
Now that sounds simple enough, but think about this: one week you’re in a camp, there are guys with guns, you’re worried you might get shot, there is not enough food, people around you are disappearing. Then the next week you’re in a church basement in little Norway. You don’t speak the language, and there isn’t a guidebook, or some sort of Yoda for immigrants. Whatever country you’re in, you have to realize what an enormous leap it is to move countries, especially knowing you can never go back, that is unless you plan on getting killed. Not trying to be melodramatic, just trying to paint a picture that might otherwise get lost.
The family bought a house, the parents worked hard, leaving Teace to raise his siblings, a different task in this country than in their previous home. Still they proceeded to kindergarten and grade school. Thundercats, He-Man and Voltron were watched. His father died when Teace was 11; when I was 11 I got a bike.
Teace gets into punk, gets angry, argues with his family, becomes a typical American teenager. Argues with authority, gets frustrated with school, drops out, but gets a GED. Plays records, does dumb jobs and tries to figure out what the f*ck he’s supposed to do with his life. He starts to become a DJ, and a damn good one. But just like in any movie worth the admission, here comes the plot twist. He helps out an acquaintance–wrong time wrong place–and he is busted for a 5th degree marijuana aiding and abetting. It costs him a month in a county lock up, and serves to scare him straight.
So he goes on with life, he DJs, falls deep in love with Death Metal. (I credit him for my fascination with black metal). He works, gets jobs, eventually settles into the corporate world of Wells Fargo. He gets promoted at the bank—and this is when he discovers that he isn’t actually a citizen. He has a Social Security number, a driver’s license, a voter registration card. But somewhere along the line, his father hadn’t completed the paperwork.
It is here where everything goes sideways. He goes from being a fast rising employee to a possible threat to Homeland Security, subject to ICE lockdowns and threats to deport, to a country that also doesn’t have any records of his existence. As it stands now, he has to call in every week to a number to see if he has to come in to be held in a cell for an undetermined length of time. He can’t legally work, and is even limited to what sort of volunteer opportunities he can apply for (like teaching DJing to troubled youth).
Yesterday he told me, “I am daily reduced to something less than a person, an able bodied man who can’t work, who literally can’t afford to eat and is in near constant danger of losing my place to live, and by live I simply mean exist.” If that doesn’t give you pause you are in serious need of an empathy transfusion. His father risked not only his life but also his family’s for a better life, for all the potential that freedom can offer. Yet 31 years later TS is in the same place as he was when he was two. Not because of dictators or a coup d’état; rather, because of paperwork and a case that doesn’t fit neatly in a slot. Teace is a guy who has paid taxes with no representation.
So while we sit around and complain about the heat, the sucky economy and the state of our relationships. Teace tries to figure out how to eat, how to pay the rent, and keep his cellphone on. You know, all that stuff that most of us take for granted as we wallow in the day-to-dayness of our lives.
His world is turned upside down, having only survived by selling off his extensive and, may I add, extremely awesome record collection. Which is ironically the only way left that he has to earn money: as a DJ. So it’s a self-Gift of the Magi that can’t end any way that’s good.
He is forever waiting on paperwork that seems to be in perpetual review, mostly due to a stupid act that a stupid kid did over 14 years ago. An act that he paid for, and one that has passed its statute of limitations twice over. Yeah, he made a mistake, but he has also paid in full for it. Now he lives by unintentional bureaucratic torture: death by 1000 papercuts, all for the sins of being a being a stupid kid, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Trapped in a system that doesn’t know what to do with him, shuffling him through until he bleeds out.
Thisaphone Sothiphakhak is as American as nachos, chow mein or Metallica. He wasn’t born here, but he was certainly raised here and in turn he became something else–an American. He deserves to stay, and work here, not because he has no other home, but because that’s what this country was based on: immigrants building a new life against oppression.
So what can you do? sign this petitionhttp://www.thepetitionsite.com/614/777/590/save-thisaphone-sothiphakhak-from-deportation/ It’s a way of showing support to a guy the system isn’t supporting and letting some folks know that he is a valued member of our community. If you are so inclined help us by posting the link or sharing this note. Teace is a singular talent and we would all be poorer without him here.