Laura Ornelas

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Laura habla sobre las dificultades de mudarse de Seattle a Chapel Hill cuando tenía nueve años de edad. Ella recuerda que todos sus maestros creían que se había mudado directamente de México porque no hablaba inglés. Ella discute sobre cómo en los Estados Unidos ha aprendido a decir que es mexicana y en México ha aprendido a identificarse como americana. En cada uno de estos países se ha enfrentado a las complejidades de determinar cómo identificarse en una sociedad que quiere asignarle una identidad. Ella habla de cómo sus padres lidiaron con sus propias identidades desde que se mudaron a los Estados Unidos y cómo sus respectivos antecedentes influyeron a su integración en la sociedad americana. Laura también discute sobre la diferencia entre las experiencias migratorias de sus padres y su familia y otras familias latinas y los privilegios que ella ha tenido. Ambos padres recibieron una educación y a lo largo de su vida todos los miembros de su familia han sido documentados. Laura habla de cómo su trabajo con la Iniciativa de Estudiantes Latinos en la Universidad de Carolina del Norte en Chapel Hill la ha hecho pensar en su propia experiencia como inmigrante de segunda generación y lo que ha aprendido trabajando con otros adolescentes que han pasado por el sistema educativo estadounidense. Ella discute sobre la importancia de que familias latinas tengan recursos e información para asegurar que sus hijos puedan continuar con su educación y tener éxito.



ES: I'm Elsa Steiner and I am here at the FedEx Global Education Center with Laura Ornelas and it is April 18th, 2017. Do you want to just introduce yourself and say who you are?
LO: Yeah so my name is Laura Ornelas. I was born in Seattle. I moved to Chapel Hill North Carolina in 2004, so I was nine at the time. I am now a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. First generation college student. Majoring in Spanish linguistics and Latin American studies with a minor in linguistics.
ES: That is so much.
LO: It is. It's a mouthful.
ES: So I guess do you want to give a little bit of your background as an immigrant and also for context, I also interviewed your mom so she will also be in the archive so that is something that people listening can go listen to as well. So do you want to give your version, kind of, of the story?
LO: Yeah sure! So I, in comparison to my parents, have led a very easy and privileged life. I...very typical...I think the most complex thing in my childhood was that I didn't learn English until I was five, so there was definitely a learning curve in trying to accommodate to a new language. Other than that, I mean, from what I remember and from what my parents would tell I used to be a very normal child. (laughs). I mean normal within the constraints of you're a child but I always did pretty well in school, no major behavioral problems that I know of. (laughs). Other than the occasional tantrum you know.
ES: So you were angelic is what you are trying to say? (joking)
LO: Obviously.
ES: Okay.
LO: Pretty much the perfect child. And then some of...I guess some of my hardest times as a child I guess were probably my move from Seattle to here. I do recognize that Chapel Hill is a very different and almost liberal place in comparison to the rest of the South, which I feel very lucky to have moved to in comparison to other regions in North Carolina, but at the same time I think it was still not as accepting or liberal as the state of Washington and Seattle and the way I felt in my first school in comparison to the way I felt when I first moved here. Not only is it kind of difficult to switch schools just for anybody, for any child, it's hard. You leave your entire friend group behind. Granted this was 2004 four so we were nine and we didn't really have cell phones, email wasn't really a thing for us yet, Facebook wasn't a thing for us yet either so there was really no way for me to keep in contact with any of my friends. I think I may have had a couple pen pals for a couple months after my move, but after that you...those things kind of stop and I will say I didn't feel like I belonged in the school system here. At least in elementary school for a while just because it was a new place. There was a weird perception of me I feel like. [00:04:41] I think a lot of administration and a lot of the teachers when I first moved here in the third grade thought that I had recently immigrated from Mexico rather than I was just moving within the country so I remember my first week here a lot of the teachers spoke to me very slowly using very simple language and that is not something you realize as a child. It is something that you kind of remember and in retrospect you realize...wait a second...this was not them talking naturally. This was them trying to accommodate for a child that they thought didn't speak English. I remember a teacher very well too. She is the one that spoke Spanish to me when I first moved here. She told me "if you have any questions just come to me. Don't go to anyone else. Just come to me and you can ask me in Spanish" and this and that and at the time I didn't really think about it. I was just kind of are being nice. Thank you. I remember one day there were a couple of adults...I don't remember who they were but I just remember them being a couple of adults...and they were talking about me maybe a couple of feet behind me and they were talking in English and they were like "where did she come from and how is she doing" and they were talking between them and they got where I was coming from wrong. They thought I was coming from Virginia for a second and I turn around and look at them and say "no, I'm from Bothel, Washington. Right near Seattle" and they look at me...I will never forget...It was just utter surprise that I was able to articulate my thoughts in English and I think that was probably the hardest moment for me. Trying to fit in and being put into a box that I hadn't necessarily been put in before because previously to that I had only attended one school so I had kinda come to know the people there and the administration. People know you and you move up through the school and you have your friend group and don't...that swift change and that "oh where does she fit" doesn't happen until you are older and you are able to kind of see but...that was my childhood. Other than that I mean middle school was pretty normal. It was awful but pretty normal. I mean middle school is middle school. High school was normal too. Nothing too exciting. I was kind of always a very goody two shoes child and person. Yeah. I mean education-wise that is kind of my childhood. I have two younger sisters. I forgot to mention...I forget about them often (laughs).
ES: I know that also the idea of where you fit followed you a lot just based on other conversations that we have had through middle and high school between your identity as Mexican and your identity as American and I know that that was something where at least once you got to North Carolina was always complicated. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
LO: Yeah so I think I always...its this weird dichotomy because when you are in the States and people ask you where you are from, or when they ask me where I am from they don't want to hear "oh I am from Seattle, Washington" or "Oh I'm from Chapel Hill." [00:08:50] They want to know what makes you look brown? And for me that is Mexican so I have learned to respond with Mexican. It just made things easier even if I have become a little more rebellious these last couple of years and gave people some hard times, but that is the answer that everyone wanted so that is the answer that I had to give and that is also and answer that I held very close to my heart because I was very privileged and very lucky that throughout my entire life both of my parents have had documentation in the States so visiting Mexico and visiting family on the boarder and being able to move from country to country was never a problem for us. It was never a problem of legality. It was always "Oh do we have enough money? Lets save up for a vacation. Lets save up for a trip" but it was never like "Oh we can't go." My mother also moved quite late in her life in comparison to other people so her ties with Mexico I would say were almost stronger not only because she spent more time there and she did somewhat build a life there, but because also most of her family is still there so I grew up going between both countries. And then in Mexico people will...they ask you "why do you sound the way you do?" because even if you speak Spanish and even if you practice, not being in a country like that for a year even changes the way you sound and you are no longer up to date in slang and that kind of dates you and then people are like "well what’s going on? Where are you from because you are not from here... I can tell." So in Mexico people want to know I was American like "Oh she is the American one" so for me it is almost very interesting just to see how my identity from the outside in is very based on geography and where people are from and where I am in the world and [00:11:03] for me I think it was just a struggle of how American do I want...How much of my American identity do I want to acknowledge? Because I don't think I ever doubted my Mexican side. I was always very connected like all the food growing up in my house was Mexican food for the most part. My entire family speaks Spanish at home. I traveled there all the time so I had very clear that I was Mexican but it was always like "but how American am I?" So I think for me that was probably what I had to decipher and I think there came a point where I really wanted to be American for a time. I really wanted to be able to say that I am from the US and for that to be an acceptable answer and now I understand that it is more complicated and I think I am much more confident about myself and my two identities and that they don't have to exist in separate planes. That they can exist within one person and in one household and that that is completely find but it is kind of a long journey.
ES: to get here...I feel like that is something that in talking to your mom was definitely...for her that was not really an issue of course because she was just like "I am Mexican and I will always be Mexican and I am simply not from here and I never have felt like I am from here even though I have lived here for all these years" so I guess that kind of leads me...and I don't know...I assume that just knowing your dad that he would say something similar but I don't know if you feel like that would differ for them or in general from your perspective as a kid what their experiences were and how you watched both of your parents interact as Mexicans in the United States and interact with that experience?
LO: I would say that my mom definitely has a much more clear cut kind of idea like that just because like I previously said she was late twenties when she moved here. She had a really...she was pretty well on her way to establishing a successful life in Mexico. She just kind of picked everything and left and she was able to develop her identity as a Mexican before being introduced to American culture and that kind of stuck with her throughout the years. For my dad I definitely think it could be different. It is not something I have explicitly asked him either but he moved here when he was eighteen so at this point two thirds of his life have been here in the states rather than in Mexico and [00:14:40] I feel like my dad would almost say why does it matter that I label myself for you. I know what I am and I know what my roots are and I know what this country has given me but why do I have to label myself for you to make you feel comfortable? I feel like that is probably something along the lines my dad would give because even though he has been an American citizen for a while now. Probably like twenty-one years...yeah because he became a citizen after I was born so like twenty-one or twenty two-ish years but he enjoys so much going back. This past year was a little rough for my mom so they had to go back to Mexico a lot because her mother was sick so they took three trips in that year to Mexico and my dad went with her all three times and my mom was like "He is just happy in his rancho just sittin' in the dirt" (laughing) and my mom is like "I don't get it" and I am like "well ma he left when he was really young and he never got to experience his home town the way he wanted to and now he gets to experience it as a grown adult who has resources for himself who is not wandering the streets and he just gets to enjoy himself for awhile and I am like "I totally get why he likes it there. It doesn't mean that YOU have to like it there" I feel like I would be really interested to hear what my dad has to say too because it is not a question that I have necessarily explicitly asked him. I is a little more blurry than my mom even though his initial response I feel like might be well I am Mexican.
ES: Right. Behind the scenes it might be different.
LO: It might take some teeth puling just to be like "tell me!"
ES: [00:16:52] So for you growing up did you notice a difference in your parents' experiences or was that clear to you as a kid or was it it more so now that you think about...kind of just the way that they immigrated to the States and just the way that those experience influenced their time here and their impressions of living here?
LO: Yeah well I think it definitely changes because my mother came over legally in a sense because she had a tourist visa and she was then requested by marriage and she never had to cross the boarder and did multiple times so you kind of grow up hearing some of those stories. My dad also has not been the kind of person who dwells on the past so he'll tell stories here and there but it wasn't until recently, I was maybe coming out of high school when I first heard the original story from my aunt when she was in the kitchen telling people. We were talking and she told the story and that’s when I asked him more specific questions and I said oh hey, Aunt Mary said this, what do you remember about it? What's your version? and he kind of gives you a shorter answer and I am not sure if that is because he didn't like that time period or he doesn't remember or he was busy or...but it kind of comes in tidbits. Not as a full sit down it's story time. But even then just age for my parents and when they decided to start a family has affected me immensely because even though my dad got here when her was really young, I wasn't born until he was thirty-two years old. My mom was twenty eight so I feel like that maturity in them really shaped the way we were raised in comparison to other people and [00:19:90] I was really privileged too that my mom and my dad both had schooling. I mean my mom finished high school and she went on to get technical training. My dad was lucky to finish middle school, which is well above the average for people in...
ES: from his rural community
LO: From his rural community and from his situations. Not just in Guanajuato but in all of Mexico, so that also affected a lot because my parents were able to pull some of their own weight or pull themselves by their bootstraps in the sense like in some instances where other people wouldn't have had straps to pull themselves up from, so I think that also shaped a lot of how I grew up and why I was so stable because I did have a very stable household. Emotionally I can't think of a time when I was like "I hate my family" for more than ten minutes. You know? So I think that also played a big role into how me and my sisters were raised an the outcomes my parents have had with us I guess because it is something I didn't really thing about until I started working with parents and we asked them to fill out a questionnaire and a lot of them didn't want to because they couldn't because they didn't know how to write, because they didn't know how to articulate themselves in written form.
ES: Right
LO: My parents have been able to do that I have been able to rely on my parents for some help academically so I think it also builds on that bond because you realize that even though yeah they have had their sacrifices and their difficulties you also have to take into perspective the privileges that they did have and the privileges that I have because of them so in comparison to other immigrant stories I think it is really important to be able to differentiate the fact that I was privileged in that sense.
ES: So I guess that makes me think about another question that I was thinking about earlier which is that you were talking about filling out questionnaires and getting parents to fill out questionnaires and I know that you work with SLI, the Scholars Latinos Initiative, here at UNC. Do you want to first give a brief summary of what that is and then also, I am curious about kind working through SLI how you feel like your experience compares to the other second generation immigrants that you work with or also just if you are looking at...I know that SLI also works with first generation teenagers as well, so how that has given you a different perspective or added to your feelings about that migration experience?
LO: So SLI stands for Scholars Latino Initiative and we are a high school access program that aims to prepare students that identify as latino/latinx in districts around North Carolina to come and get college prep classes and this helps them in a variety of aspects such as identity, college essay writing, SAT and ACT prep, and then senior year once you’re there it is kind of just like helping you fill out all the forms necessary to help you apply to college and apply to financial aid and we are just kind of there as a support system for these students. I joined as a mentor my sophomore year here at Carolina and my junior and senior year I was co-director of family engagement for NC-SLI, so I was able to pass on all the information that I acquired throughout applying to college to all these parents in a class that was tailored specifically for them and in Spanish so it was even more accessible to them. So it is kind of letting these parents in on all this information that their students need to know. That way even though we don't expect them to become experts in whatever we're teaching them, there's less of a gap between what their student knows and what they know and what they both need to know. That way they can start maybe on a more even playing field when it comes to applying to college and what it means and there is less explanation on the student’s part and more discussion of what is going to happen because that is what we found happened a lot of times is that the parent asks what is the FAFSA and the student has to explain it and by the time they have explained it they are already tired out and they don't fill out the FAFSA because it took so long to explain kind of thing. And for me I think the best part has been able to help these families out and what has been I guess the most daunting...not daunting, but I guess realization out of working with this is, like I have said before, how much privilege I have had growing up with the family that I do with the parents that I have and the situation I was in. A lot of these parents have to deal with documentation and economic problems, literacy problems, education problems, so...not problems but they are not as well equipped in those areas so when it comes to those types of things there are a lot of parents who are illiterate. They can't write, they maybe completed second or third grade if they are lucky so helping their student get to college is this impossible feat for them and for a lot of them it is getting over that mentality that high school is where it all ends because unfortunately you have a high school degree, it no longer means as much. There’s not as many options with just a high school degree so you want to get them regardless of whether a four year institution or community college or something to get the better prepared for the real world. So a lot of these parents come to us and it is amazing how much they want to learn because I feel like a lot of times Latino parents are painted as uninterested and in reality it is not that they are not interest it is that they don’t have the accessibility to the information that is being given. It is not being made user friendly for them in a sense so tailoring a program for them and being a resource for them has been incredible for me to be able to give back to my community because it is my community. The Latino community is my community and being able to provide the information that I've gained through all this experience and also just you know, getting to know all these people because it is a lot of people who a lot of times it's just so's very simple obstacles that can just be blown out of proportion because they don't know the right person to ask or they don't have the right resources to figure it out and I feel like that is a lot of times what happens and how people get stuck and they feel like it is an unattainable goal to get to higher education, so that has been my primary role in SLI and I think has just let me know just how introspectively, just how privileged I have been because I haven’t had to deal with documentation problems. My entire family has always been documented. Economic problems, yes there has been rough times and this and that but I don't think I have ever had to worry about whether I was going to have food on the table. I may have had to worry about there being a hole in my shoe but not necessarily being food on the table. Both of my parents were literate so if I brought a piece of paper home they could read it. They could write. They were older. They were more mature. They were better prepared in the sense to have children and to raise them. They almost did their research on it. They were...even if on paper they don't sound like they had lots of education, those few years I sense do make a difference in the way they execute things. Not in their desires because all parents always have a desire to have their kid be a good kid and do well in school and just be better off than they are. For me that is a very humble dream. I don’t want them to be a millionaire. If they are millionaire than great you know? But that is not the goal for them to be millionaires or doctors or lawyers. I just want them to be better of than I am and if I can help in any of that it is just amazing to me. I love doing the work that I do with SLI. I have had a lot of fun doing it. It is a lot of work, but it is a lot of fun.
ES: Do you feel like the students that go through the SLI program...what do you feel like they see as the how does that story continue for them and where do they feel like their role is then in their relationship with their family but then also just their future here?
LO: Well it's...if they are applying to SLI their freshman year in high school they obviously have some of their own initiative and they are already planning to wanting to pursue a higher education so I think for most of our students that is the goal. However, due to resources, documentation, and other factors, the path isn't always as linear as one would think. Like you go to high school, you go to college, you get a job, you go to grad school, whatever. It is not as linear and there might be some detours along the way and those detours don't really get explained if you don't know about the system. There's usually one option for you and it's college and it is usually a four-year institution. So for a lot of them it is finding what fits best for them and a lot of times that could mean doing community college for a while. Maybe they are not ready to leave their family. Family units in Latino households are very strong. You technically shouldn’t be leaving the household until you are getting married. That's kind of the sentiment behind it. So for some of them maybe they are not ready to leave their household, maybe they are not mature enough to deal with the course work of a four year institution so let me get ready first at a community college or let me work some so that I can raise some funds for my education. So I think a lot of our students have to come to terms with this non-linear path to higher education because there is nothing wrong with it but I feel like it is often stigmatized because [31:37] it's not like you are on a roll, you’ve got this. Just because you take a different pathway there doesn't mean you don't got this. It just means you had different resources and you had different things at your disposal, but I think for a lot of our students it is just a matter of...They want to succeed and they want to get...they want to be better in life and not only for them but for their families. It is not like a selfish desire but it is once one is up there it is easier for everyone to get up there, so I think it is just a matter of finding a fit for everyone. For a lot of our students, like I said, they already had the initiative to go somewhere. It's a matter of where we aim you.

ES: Where do you think...I guess we have also talked a lot about the fact that that is kind of the quote unquote idealistic, typical story, or the dream story with every immigrant family. I am going to come here and then my child is going to go to college and be better than I am and then they will lift us all up and it sounds like in your experience and with a lot of the students you work with that is what's happening and that is incredibly impressive and a feat, but there are so many uphill battles along that path that that's often unrealistic and I know in your own family in've seen that with your cousins and other people that that's not always possible. Where do you feel like the breakdown comes or what do you think some of those uphill battles might be that can make second-generation students or second-generation immigrants not follow that same path even if they might have had the same expectations from the start?
LO: I think it is in all honest resources. Access to resources, not only written and computers. It is to people who know to ask the right questions and to people who are there to tell them that it is okay and to celebrate the small accomplishments because we often forget about graduation high school is a big deal. "Yeah you graduated! This is great!" Going to a community college is not because you didn't get into a four-year institution. It's are getting there. It is know? So I feel like the American education system can seem like such a long road and it is a long road and can be so complicated and can be so technical that I feel especially for those who have the [34:33] initiative from the beginning if they fail it is because they were stuck on something that could have been fixed. And I say that in terms of if they don't accomplish the goal that they had in mind, it is either because the goal changed or because they were stuck on something...I don't want to say trivial because it's not but something that could have been fixed. Something that they did not have the resources to fix a the time and it could have been something as simple as not having a credit card to pay for an SAT score or not having a credit card to pay for an application or not knowing how to fill out the FAFSA or not knowing that if you are a US citizen but your parents aren't you can still apply to the FAFSA and get financial aid because you are a US citizen. So I think it is just being able to kind of spread all this information because information is power and once they have that it is so much easier for them to combat those obstacle once they have those tools and when you don’t have the tools it is really hard because you are just kind of there sitting in for another obstacle not knowing what to do. So in my opinion and in my experience that has probably been the biggest set back. Just not having enough resource, not having enough people [36:02] caring and asking the right questions and guiding people to the right places because the desire is there but sometimes you don't even know where to start.
ES: Right.
LO: And a lot of time can get wasted figuring out where to start and by the time you figure out where you are supposed to start you realize that you were supposed to start a year ago at this spot and then you are already a year behind and then you get discouraged. So I think it's really just resources and I say that with...just information. Just giving information out to communities that need it. And I am sure that there is more problems and more issues, but in my experience working with SLI and working with parents it is just a matter of getting that information out there so that they are asked the right questions and they can start asking the right questions too. But yeah that is what I aim to do too after graduation.
ES: Yeah that will be so cool.
LO: I am super excited.
ES: Do you feel like...well this is kind of a big don't have to answer it exactly the way that I am going to phrase it but do you feel like...yeah what do you see your role being going forward and in that work you see that being an area that you want to pursue long-term? I know that you are going to be a college...what is the official title?
LO: I am a college advisor.
ES: Yeah, be part of the college advising corps at Carolina for the next year or two. Do you feel like...where do you see that leading you in your continued path?
LO: Well I think we have to kinda go back a little and say that for a lot of Latino households it is really hard to imagine a career outside of teaching, doctor, lawyer, engineer. Those are like the four main career options and it is really hard to wrap your head around something that is not so [38:20] clear-cut. There are so many career options and so many jobs out there once you have a degree and once you are prepared that don't necessarily have a specific general overarching title. So for me that was an obstacle I had to overcome at the beginning of my college career because my mom was like "what are you going to do? You should be a doctor. You should be a nurse." Like do something that they could comprehend. And when I chose to major in Spanish linguistics and Latin American Studies my dad was like "well what are you going to do with that? What is there to do?" and I'm like "well I can do lots of things! It is not like just one thing." Because I don't know in other countries but in Mexico you chose a career option like at the beginning of university you are like "oh you are doing this career" and people know exactly what you are training for. And that is part of the information we have to tell parents and part of the information that we as students also have to come about to because it is not always as clear what you cant do. I went through a plethora of different majors and combinations of things I wanted to do and things I thought would be good and things I could explain to other people. I wanted to go to PT school at one point. I was going to major in biology at one point. I thought I was going to major in...what was don't even know! There was just so many things that went through my mind. I want to do this...I want to do health policy. Health policy and management at some point. I was just all over the place. [39:59] But I found myself coming back to all the same classes and all the same topics which is why I ended up with Latin American Studies and Hispanic linguistics because I liked Latin America and I like studying Spanish and working with SLI I think it really fed my need to be up in front of people and telling people kind of like what to do and I don't know if that has to do with me liking to be in charge (laughs) but I felt really good trying to help people and letting them know this is what happened to me and this is my experience and it is okay you don't have to have the cookie cutter experience going into higher education and I felt like Carolina College Advising Corps was really where I could continue doing the type of work that I like doing and that I think I am good at. I think in general tends I think I am pretty good at what I am going to be doing based on what I have been doing now so I think I definitely what to continue pursuing a career in education and higher education. I don't know exactly what that looks like right now but I know I am not going to be a doctor (laughs). My poor mother is probably like "I wanted someone to work in a hospital."
ES: She has two more chances! You have younger siblings. It could still happen!
LO: It could...maybe...we don't know. We are trying to condition her to have some...oh my god...just kind of like get over it and go with the flow. I don't think any of us are going to be doctors.
ES: I think you will all probably be fine.
LO: I think we will all probably be fine but it''ll take some coaxing of my mother just because I think she is starting to get there where she is like...okay you don't have to...not everything is clear-cut. But at the same time it is like, "well it's not clear-cut. Are you going to be okay? I want you to be okay? You are doing this to be okay." is always interesting with trying to explain to her. There are times where she totally gets it and she is like oh that makes total sense and I am like "Oh! I came in here with a whole spiel. I'm like okay scratch that idea. No need to know. But I think I am excited to start my new job. So excited to graduate.
ES: I know! I am so excited for you!
LO: It is so fun!
ES: It's going to be great.
LO: I mean the next couple of weeks are going to be a little rough…senioritis hit hard (laughs). After I got the call to offer me the job I was literally holding a textbook and books and I was like "A call? No more work! There is not need to do this anymore."
ES: That's funny.
LO: But yeah...
ES: Well thank you! I appreciate it!
LO: No thank you for allowing me to tell my story. (laughs)
ES: (laughs) No problem.