Photo and article by Hallie Richwine
From left are Lydia Huerta, Grecia Rivas, Stephanie Dayana Baez Mendez, Marco Ravelo, and Matthew Lara, DACA Forum panelists.
The Celebrating DACA Forum happened October 4, 2017 at the Miller Library on the Western New Mexico University campus. The Office of Student Life, WNMU Miller Library, and WNMU MEChA Club sponsored the event.
Director of Communications Abe Villarreal opened the evening by going over ground rules and introducing the panel of speakers. DACA students Stephanie Dayana Baez Mendez, Grecia Rivas, and Marco Ravelo spoke to the crowd along with Lydia Huerta from the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies and Matthew Lara, Director of Undergraduate Admission and Recruitment.
Rivas thanked everyone for attending the event and for taking the time to hear their stories. She arrived in the United States at the age of three. She attended school alongside the other students and always knew she was different. She knew she was undocumented but reality, as she said, did not set in until 2010 when she was looking at colleges. She talked to her counselors and found that it would be very difficult for her to attend any of them. Rivas felt she should give up and took a year off of school after her senior year. Deep down she knew she could go to college and so she contacted a nonprofit in Tucson, AZ called Scholarships A-Z. They provided many resources and ultimately a pathway to attend college. She cherished that support and found her own love for advocacy. She also learned the stories of other students and realized she was not alone.
Rivas went to Pima Community College and got her Associates degree in 2014 before coming to WNMU. She believes it was one of the best decisions she has ever made. She received her Fine Arts degree in the spring of 2017 and continues to think WNMU has opened a lot of doors for her. To quote Rivas, “The journey has been tough, but every day we keep fighting.”
Mendez was next to speak, and she both thanked the audience and Rivas, about whom she said her story was similar. She came to the United States when she was eight years old and thought the family was just visiting her father, who had crossed the border previously for work. She, too, was faced with the decision to go to college, and like Rivas was eligible but unaware of how to execute that choice. When the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals policy passed, Mendez decided she first wanted to make sure she could work to help her family so she filled out the paperwork to obtain a work visa. She and her family felt this would provide some safety for staying in the country. By her senior year she wanted to attend college but knew she would not be able to get scholarships. She ended up visiting Silver City, NM and decided she liked the town. Her parents were afraid because they were three hours away, and “anything can happen in three hours.” Mendez said the transition from High School to college was difficult because at this point in her academic career, people may not know she is a DACA student unless she tells them. She believes that if people know that about her, something changes.
Mendez has found Silver City and WNMU to be a very welcoming environment and she has been able to go to school and work. She has met people that have helped her grow as a person and made her proud to be a Mexican student living in the United States.
Mendez also said that when President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA policy, she avoided her family because she felt that everything they worked so hard for was going away. Her goal is to help people become educated because undocumented students are unable to vote on the very things that affect them the most.
Ravelo was the last of the students to speak, also thanking everyone who attended the forum. He came to the United States when he was only two years old after his grandfather found work. The family moved to Mexico again but returned to Grant County when he was five. Ravelo once visited Mexico with his mother as a child and was unable to return to the United States. Eight months later they returned to the area. He was profoundly affected by his immigration status again in eighth grade when his mother was detained and deported. He has yet to see his mother’s face in person again—and while technology keeps them in contact, he said, “technology isn’t the same as face to face communication and you can actually hug them.” He said that in High School he was able to cope with this loss because he was able to joke about what made him uncomfortable. As graduation got closer, he, like Rivas and Mendez, knew his choice would be more difficult than those his classmates faced. He did not even apply for DACA status until a couple of months ago. Even amidst the challenges and family fear, Ravelo decided to either make a big decision to either hide or better himself.
Ravelo met people that had already gone through the process, which made it easier for him. He is also thankful for WNMU because it was not only close to home, but welcoming.
Lara gave the staff view of the DACA students. He explained that WNMU is an open enrollment university that is here to serve people no matter where they are from. He said he likes being part of an institution that welcomes people. He also said he believes these students ought to have the opportunity to educate themselves because in the long run they give back tremendously. “The idea of shutting the doors to students like these...it just flies in the face of what I was raised to think of as being a United States citizen, an American; we are a country of immigrants, and we need to stand up for these people.”
Huerta spoke as the faculty member on the panel. As a professor she said she finds it heartbreaking to see students face the fear of deportation. She urged the group to remember that rescinding DACA is not just about the relationship with Mexico. Huerta read from Luisa Moreno’s presentation to the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. Moreno is quoted as saying, “These people are not aliens. They have contributed their endurance, sacrifices, youth and labor to the Southwest. Indirectly, they have paid more taxes than all the stockholders of California's industrialized agriculture, the sugar companies and the large cotton interests, that operate or have operated with the labor of Mexican workers.” Huerta shared this quote and reiterated that the changes "we are seeking now in 2017 started in 1940." Huerta said transforming the social fabric and not saying that people seeking citizenship are “the others” is not an issue of now—it has been an issue for a long time—and "we need to be the ones that make the changes."
The Center for Gender Equity, WNMU, and Grecia Rivas have partnered to open a scholarship through the Foundation for financial help for DACA and undocumented students. Rivas is selling artwork to help fund the scholarship.
Villarreal opened the floor to the public for questions. Dennis Martin asked what we can do in the community to help this cause. Rivas said contributing to the scholarship fund and writing and calling representatives in local and national government to tell them why DACA is important - that they do not just want DACA reinstated, but a pathway to citizenship.
Many people asked how to talk to people who say negative things about DACA. The panel agreed that we need to explain to people that these families made sacrifices to have their children receive higher education. Many put themselves at risk, and Mendez mentioned that “it’s a weird gap to have between these two cultures, being too Mexican for the U.S. and too American for Mexico.”
Lara said the hard part for these students is not getting into college, but paying for it. Even a DACA student or a person with a green card does not have state residency, so they are paying nearly twice as much for tuition as a New Mexico state resident.
Hispanic Heritage Month continues Thursday, October 21 when the Chicano Street Fest happens from 5pm to 7pm at Old James Stadium. Live music, food vendors, family games, and community organizations will be present at this fundraiser for the WNMU MEChA Club.