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From 'Dreamer' to living the American dream

It was still dark on that fateful December morning in San Ildefonso, El Salvador. Too early for shots to be firing, bombs to be dropping. With his belongings stuffed into a duffel bag, he stepped outside into the warm, damp air.

Laz Ayala was 14 and running for his life.

That was in 1980. Twenty-one years before the Dream Act was introduced in Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youths brought to the United States as children. Thirty-two years before the Obama administration announced the temporary protection of the DACA program when Congress failed to pass the Dream Act. And 37 years before the Trump administration rescinded DACA.

Ayala escaped his war-torn homeland, went to school, learned English, worked hard, became a citizen, and now leads a Rogue Valley real estate development company, KDA Homes of Ashland.

He went from “Dreamer” to living the American dream as a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and — of late — filmmaker and author.

That journey is chronicled in “Illegal,” a documentary that premiered at the Winter Film Awards ninth annual International Film Festival in New York City in February. And now “Illegal,” the book, is being published. It will be available as an e-book on Amazon and other digital platforms July 21, with the hardcover edition set for release Aug. 14.

Part memoir and part advocacy for immigration reform, “Illegal” is a book Ayala hopes will help change the narrative in which undocumented immigrants are criminalized and dehumanized. He hopes it will lead to legislation that benefits both immigrants and employers.

“I hope to get the book in the hands of as many people as possible,” Ayala said, “in an effort to educate and raise public consciousness around the issue. I want to engage the general public in an effort to promote common sense immigration policies.”

When the hardcover edition comes out, it will be available from online booksellers and at brick-and-mortar stores. Copies will be available at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.

Ayala says he hopes to work with local book vendors for sales and book signings, and will be available to speak to groups about the book.

It was his decision to talk publicly three years ago about his experience as a once-undocumented immigrant that led to the idea of writing “Illegal.”

“The support and encouragement I received from my Rotary Club where I first presented on the topic empowered me to present at other clubs and organizations,” he said.

“Seeing the level of interest in immigration issues was a confirmation to me that the public was hungry to hear the immigrant’s perspective.”

He started thinking about ways he could have a national reach in the conversation, deciding to write a book with the hope of using it as a platform.

A few weeks after deciding to pursue writing the book, he attended a motivational conference featuring Tony Robbins and other presenters. Among them was Gerry Roberts, founder of Black Card Publishing, a company focused on helping first-time authors get published.

“Although I didn’t use Black Card to publish the book, the session helped me realize it was possible for me to do this,” Ayala said.

He chose BookBaby, a book publishing service for self-published authors. It offers a mix of services, ranging from design and editing to marketing, social media promotion and world-wide distribution. Now located in New Jersey, it was founded in 2011 in Portland.

The process was not without its challenges. A big hurdle was doing the research to substantiate his views. He also found organizing his thoughts and staying focused difficult.

“The editing was another challenging piece,” he said, “as well as getting the book published. But I was able to meet people with the right skills and experience at the right time to help me get through each obstacle. I’m very grateful for the support of those individuals.”

He wrote some op-ed pieces for the Mail Tribune and Ashland Tidings. “The feedback I got from those and from every presentation I did has been very positive and encouraging. That’s what kept me going,” he said.

He found that writing the book was a healing process — not only in terms of facing the experiences he had as a boy in a country at war, but also in dealing with the wounds of the dehumanizing rhetoric about undocumented immigrants.

“The greatest satisfaction is in telling my story and the story of others who don’t have a voice,” he said. “There is empowerment that comes from not sitting quiet while my president attempts to define me and other immigrants in a way that is inconsistent with our story.

Ayala is not trying to market the book by himself. In addition to using BookBaby’s services, he has retained Smith Publicity of New York to assist in promoting the book.

“They are running a campaign in advance of the book’s release,” Ayala said. “They are targeting national media outlets, including print, radio, TV and online platforms. Requests for copies of the book and interviews are already starting to come in, and we are very excited about sharing the book with a national audience.”

About a year and a half ago, when he was going through the first round of edits, he met local filmmaker Nickolas Alexander, who recorded one of his presentations. Alexander brought up the idea of doing a documentary.

“After thinking about the idea for a couple months, I temporarily shelved the book and embarked on the film project,” Ayala said. The book manuscript provided the outline and script for the film.

Today the film has been submitted to over 300 film festivals in the United States and a handful of international festivals.

“To date we have been accepted by 24 film festivals and have been approached by film distributors interested in licensing rights,” Ayala said.

Minds and policies may not be changed by a single film or book, but Ayala has high hopes.

“I don’t care if they make any money. I just want to give immigrants a voice and help build a better understanding between people. I want to make a difference,” he said.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Las Ayala, a Rogue Valley developer, announces the publication of a memoir, "Illegal," the story of a boy's journey 40 years ago to the United States as an undocumented immigrant, today living the American dream. Jim Flint photo.