When the call first came, Cristina Jiménez Moreta didn’t pick up. She was working from her apartment in Queens, another busy day in a busy month, and didn’t recognize the number.
But then came a text message from a representative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She took notice: As the co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, a Washington-based advocacy group that helped put the cause of young undocumented immigrants on the national radar, Jiménez Moreta was eager to take what just might be a we want to help call.
And it was. Just not in the way she expected.
She soon learned that she was among the 24 winners of 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellowships — a recognition widely known as the “genius grants,” that comes with a no-strings-attached award of $625,000.
“I felt like it just took me a few minutes to believe — is this really happening?” Jiménez Moreta, 33, said. “For me, this recognition is a recognition of the lives of undocumented people, of the work that we have been doing to advocate and create change.”
Shrouded in mystery, the annual awards are legendary for casting a spotlight upon relatively obscure academics, activists and artists. The prize isn't limited to unknowns; this year's cohort includes a trio of writers who have already achieved mainstream success — author Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel "The Sympathizer"; playwright Annie Baker, 36, who won acclaim for several off-Broadway productions and the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for "The Flick"; and novelist Jesmyn Ward, 40, who won the 2011 National Book Award for "Salvage the Bones."
The new class also includes a striking number of fellows whose work is tied to themes of global migration, the experiences of marginalized people and cultural drift across borders.
In addition to Jiménez Moreta, grants were awarded to Jason De León, 40, a University of Michigan anthropologist who uses forensic science and archaeological methods to study the journeys of migrants from Latin America to the United States; Sunil Amrith, 38, a Harvard historian studying migration and the consequences of colonization in South and Southeast Asia; and Greg Asbed, 54, of Florida, who has worked to improve working conditions for migrant farmhands.
Others include Rhiannon Giddens, 40, a North Carolina singer-songwriter and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who highlights African American influences in folk and country music; and Rami Nashashibi, 45, recognized for his work as co-founder of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network on Chicago's South Side. Nguyen, the novelist, came to the United States from Vietnam as a child after the fall of Saigon, and has made the refugee experience central to his writing.
The foundation says fellows are selected for their work, not their political views. But the recognition is nonetheless particularly welcome for recipients immersed in timely social issues. Nashashibi, a Palestinian American Muslim lauded for helping build partnerships across racial, religious and socioeconomic divides in Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods, said there is a “fierce urgency” to the current political climate.
“Muslims in America are still subjected to a more intense antagonism than they’ve ever been,” he said. “So although the mission of our work did not necessarily emerge to speak to that, it is still one of the more significant indirect outcomes — we’re able to lift up another illustration of who the American Muslim is.”
The prizes have a special mystique because of the way they are announced — via out-of-the-blue phone calls to recipients who had no idea they were in the running.
"I was a little at a loss for words, which is rare for me," said De León. "You spend the rest of the day wondering if you really just had that conversation."
There is no application process; instead, leaders across a wide range of fields are invited to submit nominations that are evaluated by an anonymous selection committee. Once fellows are called, they are allowed to share the news with only one other person until the announcement is made public weeks later.
Keeping that secret is “unbelievably difficult,” De León said. “This is going to impact everybody who works on this project in a lot of really important and wonderful ways. It’s so hard not to tell them.”
The stipend, paid in installments over five years, can be used however a fellow sees fit. Since 1981, the foundation has recognized 965 fellows with only one stated expectation: that the acclaim and financial boost might help them continue to improve human society.
Even for fellows who have already spent time in the public eye, the honor can be daunting.
Before Nguyen’s novel debuted to widespread praise, “I was working for 20 years in obscurity, so the pressure was being applied to me by myself, and now the pressure is more from the outside,” he said. “And so I know that’s going to transform the creative and intellectual process in some way, but I’m not sure yet how.”
De León said he is eager to lead more archaeological expeditions and build a research station along the Arizona border. And “I can pay off my student loans!” he laughed. Nashashibi wants to grow an endowment to further his group’s work; he also hopes, for the first time, to join the Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
As for Jiménez Moreta, she said she has been too focused on the lives of others — and the uncertainty surrounding the fate of young immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents, now that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is in jeopardy — to think much about how the grant might change her own.
But “I have a vision,” she said, “of building a generation of young people of color, immigrants and others who are working to transform communities at the local level and the national level, to work for justice and the pursuit of happiness,” she said. “I know that this award will support me in this vision.”
Other winners of the 2017 MacArthur Fellowship:
●Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, a painter from Los Angeles.
●Regina Barzilay, 46, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
●Dawoud Bey, 63, a photographer and educator at Columbia College in Chicago.
●Emmanuel Candès, 47, a mathematician and statistician at Stanford University.
●Nikole Hannah-Jones, 41, a journalist with the New York Times Magazine.
●Taylor Mac, 44, a theater artist from New York.
●Kate Orff, 45, a landscape architect and associate professor at Columbia University.
●Trevor Paglen, 43, an artist and geographer working in Berlin.
●Betsy Levy Paluck, 39, a psychologist at Princeton University.
●Derek Peterson, 46, a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
●Damon Rich, 42, a designer and urban planner in Newark.
●Stefan Savage, 48, a computer scientist at the University of California at San Diego.
●Yuval Sharon, 37, an opera director and producer in Los Angeles.
●Tyshawn Sorey, 37, a composer and musician at Wesleyan University.
●Gabriel Victora, 40, an immunologist at Rockefeller University.