on December 18, 2014 by in Golden News, Comments Off on Undocumented woman unbowed, unbroken

Undocumented woman unbowed, unbroken

When she was 11 and caring for four younger brothers and sisters in a rural Mexican town, Rocío Méndez looked into her heart for strength.

When she was 15, hiding in a dumpster from immigration officers in Arizona after walking four days through desert and mountains, she looked into her heart for courage.

Last week, when she completed the last exam needed for her college degree, Rocío, now 22, again looked into her heart. This time, she found happiness.

“Education has always been my heart,” she said. “Education has always been my motivation. It has been my life.”

The passion to learn has been the fire that propelled her through unimaginable adversity — drug-war violence, family tragedy, poverty and hunger — and that lifted her when hope threatened to slip from her grasp.

“Her story is nothing less than a miracle,” her high school teacher Lisa Wille-Racine said. “She was relentless. … She is relentless. She didn’t ever lose sight of her dream.”

But the dream isn’t finished: It won’t be until she can live and work here legally.

Hope amid tumult

That goal could become reality under a provision in President Obama’s proposed executive order, which includes revisions to the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as it is known, excluded Rocío because she arrived here in 2008, one year too late. The Nov. 20 proposal, however, expands the cutoff to 2010 and gives those children a three-year reprieve from deportation and the opportunity to apply for the needed permit to work.

Republicans have threatened to block the president’s immigration action when Congress reconvenes in January. But amid the political tumult, Rocío — who has lobbied with fellow students for the still-unpassed DREAM Act in Washington, D.C. — and Wille-Racine stay optimistic.

Regardless of how one feels about Obama, Wille-Racine said, “at least he sees the richness and the powerfulness and the extraordinariness of kids who don’t call their country home any more. These are kids with no country who see the only way to rise above poverty is through education.”

Petite with black hair just beyond her shoulders and a wide but rare smile, Rocío is one of 1.4 million undocumented students in the U.S. brought here by parents who entered illegally. Many, as in Rocío’s case, were searching for a better life. Each year, according to studies, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools. But, impeded by financial hardship and lack of legal documentation, fewer than 10,000 enroll in college.

When Rocío graduated — with honors — from a Castle Rock high school in 2010, Colorado did not offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. So, with Wille-Racine’s help, she enrolled in New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., where she met criteria for in-state tuition offered also to students in her situation.

Today, 18 states allow in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. Fourteen do so through legislation. The first were California and Texas in 2001; New Mexico did so in 2005; Colorado joined the group in 2013.

Rocío, who has always wanted to be a teacher, remembers sitting in the office at Highlands’ School of Education: “The adviser … told me you can get an education, you can study to be a teacher. At the end, you’re not going to be eligible to teach because you have no legal status.”

The words shattered Rocío. She turned to Wille-Racine, tears in her eyes. “There is nothing for me here,” she said.Wille-Racine reassured her there would be something. “Politics are changing quickly,” she said. “In four years, we can decide if it was worth it or not.”

Accident changed all

To fully understand the price of that leap of faith, you have to go back to the beginning of Rocío’s story.

The family lived in a town of fewer than 500 people about two hours southeast of Mexico City. Her father, who finished two years of elementary school, grew flowers to sell in the city. Her mother, who completed sixth grade, cared for the children.

Tragedy struck when Rocío’s 18-month-old sister was critically injured in a car accident. To provide the best medical care, her father borrowed money and sold everything he could, including the land on which he grew his flowers, to send her to a private hospital. Her sister eventually recovered, but her father could no longer earn enough to support the family.

“You have to have money to pay — if you don’t, that person is going to die,” Rocío said. After two months “we didn’t have any money. In Mexico, we couldn’t survive anymore.”Her parents crossed the border in 2001 and ended up in Castle Rock, where he worked construction and landscaping and she cleaned hotels and businesses. The children stayed behind with grandparents, but Rocío — beginning at age 11 — essentially became the mom.

She bought groceries, cooked, got them ready for school, talked to teachers about their progress. Most importantly, she said, she kept them safe, including from drug dealers who wanted payments for security.

All the while, she excelled in her studies, winning top prizes in her classes.

“I was so anxious to learn, to know stuff,” she said. “I was happy because going to school was going to make a difference.”

But when it came time for high school, the family didn’t have the money to pay for the better private education in Mexico. And the culture discouraged girls from continuing school. That included her family.

A teacher recommended Rocío study in the United States. It’s better over there, he said.”Since that day,” she said, “I want to go to school. I want to go to school. I want to go to school … I didn’t know I was going to walk. I didn’t know it was so dangerous. I just knew I wanted to go to school.”

Rocío’s parents had returned to Mexico in 2004 when her grandmother died. A year later, her dad went back to Castle Rock. And in February 2008, her mother decided to rejoin him and bring Rocío and her then-five younger siblings. They tried to get student visas to emigrate legally, Rocío said, but didn’t have enough money. So, with a guide and Rocío’s uncle, they crossed the border on foot.

Rocío and the adults carried the heaviest of six bags, which held tuna, bread, beans and gallons of water — enough, they thought, for four days. They walked mostly at night and slept under bushes during daylight. They crossed deserts, mountains, highways and ranches. They skirted an airport. They ran out of water on the second day. By the third day, the two men gave up their food portions so the children could eat.

On the fourth day, as the group walked along train tracks near a factory in Arizona, a man saw them and began talking on his phone.

“Ya nos echaron la migra — they’ve called immigration,” her uncle yelled. “Scatter and run!”

Her uncle covered Rocío’s mother, two sisters and a brother with sand in a nearby dry creek bed. Another brother climbed up a tree. Rocío jumped into a dumpster filled with trash. She heard dogs barking and police talking. She stayed there for hours, until her uncle came for her.

“It was something I hope I never have to live again,” she said.

That evening, they reached a hotel in a town called Guadalupe, south of Phoenix where her father — who in 2010 received a work permit — picked them up. He took them to Walmart to buy food and clothes.

“Oh, my God,” Rocío said, as she wandered through the store. “This is amazing.”

Strange new world

In Castle Rock, Rocío entered school in March as a sophomore — 14 credits transferred from her high school in Mexico.

“The first day I was so scared, I didn’t talk to anyone,” she said. “The only thing I knew how to say was `Hi.’ I was happy to be able to continue my education. I was eating lunch and I told myself, `You have to work hard — this isn’t going to be easy.'”

It wasn’t.

Many days, the frustration of being unable to communicate in English, the struggle academically, the isolation socially, left her in tears. That’s how Wille-Racine met her, crying, huddled in a corner behind a teacher’s desk.

“I saw those little eyes looking at me and I said, `Well, hello,'” Wille-Racine said. “That moment changed the rest of my life.”

That moment threw Wille-Racine, a Spanish and English as a Second Language teacher and mother of 15-year-old twins, into an unfamiliar world she would come to know intimately — the limbo and uncharted territory of undocumented students. And Rocío’s determination to succeed in school, despite the unceasing obstacles, moved her deeply.”She was fierce,” Wille-Racine said. “So I decided to be fierce right along her side.”

When it came time for college, the teacher and the student figured it out as they went: whom to call, where to go, what to do.

On her end, Rocío scrambled to find ways to pay for the education she so desperately wanted. She worked two jobs during summers, including cleaning hotels. She borrowed money from friends, which she later repaid. She won a $ 6,000 scholarship. She cleaned and cooked in return for room and food. At times, she gave up food money for tuition money.

Teachers and friends of Wille-Racine also helped by contributing money, clothes, transportation and, sometimes, simply a helping hand.

Whenever an obstacle appeared, Wille-Racine would take a deep breath and wait until, she said, God would work some magic.

“I always felt responsible to make something happen,” Wille-Racine said. “She was just looking to me for all the answers, and half the time I didn’t have them.”Said Rocío: “Lisa, she always, always had hope.”

Blossoming in college

College changed everything for Rocío.

In high school, she’d often felt alone, invisible. At Highlands, she realized there were many people like her — undocumented, fighting to attend college, working two or three jobs just to be able to go to school.

“I found a family,” she said.

That newfound community helped her gain confidence, to believe she could make a difference and give back to a society that had given her so much.

She joined student organizations that worked with immigration issues at local, state and national levels. They trained administrators about immigration laws, provided legal help to students applying for deferred status, protested and lobbied for change, traveled to conferences to educate themselves about undocumented issues in other states.

In November 2013, Rocío traveled to Washington, D.C., with a student organization to lobby for immigration reform. The group staged a mock Thanksgiving dinner in the early morning hours in front of House Speaker John Boehner’s house to show how the holiday would be sad for children separated from families because of deportation. Then students headed to the Capitol to talk to senators and protest for immigration change.

“I’ve become an activist,” Rocío said. “I’ve become a fighter for my undocumented community. I’ve become a person unafraid …”

The opportunities that college has provided her, Rocío said, solidified her willingness to step into the open despite possible legal consequences.

“I’m still insecure in this country,” she said. “They can deport me any time. But we have to make a difference. If we are afraid, nothing is going to happen and we will be the same — invisible people living here. If we the students don’t make the change, nobody is going to make it for us.”

She is proud of what she’s accomplished, particularly that she’s set a path for others to follow. Two brothers, also undocumented, are also at Highlands.

“I don’t know how to describe how I feel,” Rocío said. “I just feel special, lucky to go to college, to be the first person in my family to finish high school, to finish college. It makes me feel I should work even more.”

Last spring, her sister Miriam, who graduates from high school in May, wrote this for her high school publication:

“My sister, Rocío, is my hero, because when my parents had to come to the United States to work to be able to … buy what we needed, she was 15 years old. She took care of me, my sister and two brothers, and she had to go to school, too … When we moved here … a lot of people would tell her she wouldn’t go further in school because she didn’t understand English. But … she never gives up. Now, she is almost done with college.”

On Dec. 12, Rocío received her degree in Spanish with a minor in Native American-Hispano studies. She would like to pursue a master’s in education in curriculum and instruction.

She would like to teach.

But she can’t — she doesn’t have a Social Security number or a work permit.So she waits. And hopes.

And continues to look into her heart for the truth she has carried with her always: “Education is the only key to success.”

Ann Macari Healey’s column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.

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