Emilio Vicente

Basic Interview Metadata

Interview Text and Audio


Emilio Vicente discusses his and his family’s immigration experience as K’iche-speaking Mayans in Guatemala coming to Siler City, North Carolina in 1997. He discusses his early education as the only K’iche speaker in his public schools and feeling different from Spanish-speaking Latinos in his school. He talks about how his family emphasized learning English and Spanish over preserving K’iche, and how he regrets losing his “first culture.” He talks about how his father was paralyzed in a workplace accident which influenced his parents’ decision to return to Guatemala. He discusses his activism to gain greater equality and access to education for undocumented students, like himself. He talks about working on the national United We Dream campaign in Washington, D.C. and bringing the methods he learned there to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus, where he started the One State One Rate campaign, to get in-state tuition for undocumented students, and Students United for Immigrant Equality.



Hannah Gill: OK, well lets’ get started. This is Hannah Gill and I am here interviewing Emilio Vicente. It is June 25th 2014.We are here on campus at UNC-Chapel Hill. Emilio, thank you so much for being here today.
Emilio Vicente: Thanks for having me.
HG: I enjoyed listening to Frank Stasio’s interview back in the spring, and I think that’s a great jumping off point for this interview. I was wondering if maybe you could start by telling me about why your family came to join your father in Siler City, and I think it was in 1992?
EV: ‘97
HG: 1997
HG: Yeah tell me a little about…
EV: Yeah, so my family is-- My dad only got a seventh grade education, and my mom didn’t go to school at all, so when they lived in Guatemala, it was really hard for them to live financially, or they struggled a lot financially because they didn’t have their resources. My dad would travel all over the country in Guatemala, trying to make as much income for our family as possible, and unfortunately it wasn’t enough and so he eventually decided to come to the US in 1992 because he thought he would have a better opportunity of sending money back, you know, provide better for my family. And so, yeah he moved to the US, he moved around. He did a lot of like migrant, agricultural farm-working related jobs, during that time, and so, he eventually settled in Siler City, North Carolina in ‘97 and because of the poultry plants in Siler City. Siler City was a booming town for a poultry plant, and all of these agricultural jobs, and so he eventually decided to send for my mom and I because he wanted, you know, to see mom again. And also I hadn’t seen him since I was, since I was born, and that was like a year after I was born that he had left, so I didn’t know him at all that well. And so, yeah, we moved, we both came to the US. We couldn’t apply for visas because it’s hard to get a visa if you’re poor and you don’t have an education and so, our only option, my dad’s also only option, was crossing the border, and that’s what we did. We crossed the Mexican and the US border, and we eventually came to Siler City and I grew up in Siler City. And I’ve gone through the whole education system from kindergarten through 12th grade.
HG: OK. Now can you tell me about your, I guess your parents’, home town in Guatemala? And where was that? You probably don’t remember much about it. (Laughs)
EV: Not really. (Laughs) It’s a small village; it’s called San Vicente ( ). It’s really small, it’s remote. It’s mainly all indigenous— that’s where they speak K’iche, the language that I grew up speaking, and basically it’s mostly kind of like an agricultural small, town/village and as far as I’m aware there wasn’t much business going on, so yeah you know people are really humble. Education I’d say was a commodity mostly geared towards men or boys. That’s mostly all I have about it ---- I don’t remember that much unfortunately.
HG: So, your grandfathers, and great grandfathers would have worked in agriculture?
EV: Yeah, they would be into farming, you know, growing their own crops and have had animals. We had some animals and crops as well. There wasn’t enough again.
HG: So, how did the Civil War in Guatemala impact your parents’ lives?
EV: So it definitely impacted my family’s life directly, and it was part of the reason that my dad actually came into the US, because he was seeking political asylum. Because my understanding is that my uncle, he was drafted into the army because of the Civil War and so you know, it was like--
HG: --Into the national army?
EV: I believe so. And so you know there was a great danger of other people in my family also being drafted. Where my dad was being there during part of the war, and so it’s likely. I don’t think, as far as I’m aware, no one in my family was most directly affected because of the Civil War. Obviously it impacted all of us, in Guatemala, and it was part of the reason that my dad decided to come to the US.
HG: He sought political asylum, but he was not successful in obtaining that?
EV: Yeah, right.
HG: So, do you have any idea of how he actually heard about Siler City? I mean, why Siler City? Obviously it had the poultry jobs.
EV: Yeah, I should ask. I don’t know. My belief, my uncles part of my-- Some of my other family members, some of my uncles, and cousins lived in Siler City. I believe that’s how he came to Siler City. I’m wondering the same thing. Kind of small town.
HG: So you were really small when you got here. Do you have any memories from Guatemala at all?
EV: I mean, I have images, kind of somewhat remembering what the house we lived in looked like. It was kind of like a brick house. We definitely had crops, I don’t know, we had sheep, and I don’t have unfortunately…
HG: Those are young memories.
EV: Yeah, yeah, young memories.
HG: What is your first memory from Siler City? From moving to--
EV: Yeah, well I remember that day when my dad, the day we arrived to Siler City, because I was very excited to be seeing my dad for the first time. I saw coming to the US as more--as an adventure because I was going to see my dad—whom I hadn’t seen since I was one. You obviously don’t remember anything when you’re one. So, yeah, it was exciting to see, as we were pulling up. He was outside, where he lived. And then he had on a --it was like a green plaid shirt and he had keys towards his hat and I believe his pants were, I want to say, they might have been green as well but I remember the shirt for sure , and so, yeah, was really exciting to see him for the first time.
HG: What about your first memories, what about growing up in Siler City and, you know, experiences of going to school, what was that like?
EV: Yeah, so I grew up speaking K’iche’ in Guatemala, and so when I came to the US I didn’t know English or Spanish. So I was put in ESL classes. So it was little bit harder, because you know, most ESL classes are for, most of them are Latinos, they speak Spanish, that’s not-- I mean it’s obviously hard adjusting, but it was even harder for me and my mother because she was also in the same position. She didn’t know that much Spanish. To say that the first few months was definitely an adjustment because it was completely different from what I was used to. And luckily we were able to surpass the language barrier, and I mean I’ve enjoyed going to Siler City Elementary. It’s definitely during that time, I believe North Carolina was going through a rapid migrant change, demographic change. You know, it had now crossed the south, especially North Carolina, and I’d say definitely Siler City. So you see a really great an example of what was happening, or has happened since. Because since then a lot of my classmates are more and more, were more majority Latino, you know. Yeah I think overall my experience was great. I was actually back in Siler City back three weeks ago and my niece was graduating from the fifth grade class of Siler City Elementary, so it’s really great to see the changes that have happened since I left Siler City Elementary. Now they have dual language classes where they teach you Spanish and English, like formally. It’s not an ESL, or it’s not Spanish class. It’s like a formal, educational setting where they’re talking in Spanish and English, where they teach you all the formal, you know, everything. So it was great to be there at the graduation ceremony and see little kids speaking in Spanish and English. And even the little white kids they were speaking perfect Spanish and I was blown away, like “Whoa, this is amazing!” So I kind of wish--I was definitely jealous. I wish that was there when I was there. I’ve been able to like overall like learn Spanish but it would have definitely been great. I think it’s a great task for me for what’s been happening in Siler City, for they’ve realized you know, it’s better to be bilingual to be monolingual. I’ve enjoyed that most people in Siler City have embraced the demographic change that has happened during my time there and since I’ve left, and I think it’s definitely an indication of overall where the country is going towards.
HG: Yeah, is so interesting. Where there other K’iche speakers in--apart from your family or at your school? Or did you feel like an outsider within Spanish-speaking communities in which you found yourself.
EV: Yeah, I definitely felt like I was an outsider during the first few years, because I knew other Guatemalans and they also spoke like dialects—no—languages. So I don't recall anyone out in my school who also spoke K’iche’, so it definitely made it harder.
HG: Was your family one the first families that came from your region and others came over? Or were you just--
EV: I would say, I would say I was probably one of the first to go through the education system. Like, overall, there were other families that spoke K’iche’. Again, my dad had family members in Siler City, so he would speak with them in K’iche’. But I’m pretty sure I might have been one of the very first few to have gone through the educational system. And it made it a little bit challenging, but also easier because I was in an educational setting. So it was definitely easier.
HG: OK. Very interesting. To continue talking about your heritage, your Mayan heritage, what is the significance for that in your family?
EV: Right.
HG: You know, now.
EV: Yeah. So I grew up. I don’t speak it anymore because my dad was really adamant about, “You should learn Spanish and English. Those are going to be what is going to make you successful.” And also because I definitely say that there’s a lot of racism in Latin America, maybe even more racism than there is in the US, towards indigenous peoples. So part of not identifying indigenous was because I think it felt shameful for people to say that because it kind of like made you feel less superior because you want to be the mestizo, like, you know, the white person. Overall, you want to have a good complexion, you don’t want to be treated, or judged because of your broken Spanish. I even remember my mom, I mean, she was definitely older when she came, so it was harder for her to learn Spanish, and I’m definitely amazed that she definitely learned it really well, but even then she had an accent, you could tell that she spoke Spanish. She had an accent and it wasn’t her native language, and so I definitely remember people making fun of her, or other Latinos making fun of her, because she couldn't express herself and I was really-- it made me frustrated and mad at people because they were judging me and my family because we couldn’t speak the language. But overall they were in the same position as we were, they were working class. They were--yeah, economically in the same position that we were in. I’m saying--
HG: It’s ironic--
EV: It’s really ironic. Even now, looking back and I don’t think--I think they’re in the same place that they were back as they are now, so.
HG: Who is they?
EV: All the people in Siler City, people in my home town, like other Latinos who were kind of like not that supportive of people who weren’t Spanish, like fully Spanish, speakers. And so, I’m saying all of this because it comes back into to the-- I grew up kind of like under this mindset I have to learn Spanish and English, I shouldn’t speak K’iche’ because it’s worthless, or it’s not going to help me in the future, and so---. It wasn’t until like four or five years ago, I realized that, “Oh wait I should be proud of my heritage because it means a lot and there are great people who, they are great people who are the indigenous and who have done amazing stuff. I think of Rigoberta Menchu, she’s like one of our most prominent indigenous people in the world, and so I shouldn’t be shameful at all of my heritage. So, I feel like, unfortunately, that’s the case. I feel like it might be the case for some, for people. Or other indigenous people, they don’t want to associate themselves that way, because it kind of makes you feel as less potentially. Or people might see you as less. But since I’ve learned to embrace-- One of the things that I really wish, going back, I would have been definitely would have been you know, having learned the language. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it anymore. It’s definitely frustrating so. I have my grandmother, luckily, fortunately, is still alive, but she only speaks K’iche’. She understands Spanish and so whenever I talk to her I’m speaking to her in Spanish and she’s speaking in K’iche’. So it’s kind of a weird dynamic, and I really wish that I could speak it or even write it. Because I think it would be great to emerge myself in my own culture. Because I definitely I don’t know my own culture, my first culture at all.
HG: And, because your parents now live in--they went back to Guatemala-- so it’s not like you have this available resource at your home. You know, you talked about your mother learning Spanish here in North Carolina and she obviously must have put a lot of time and energy into doing that. Why did she put the energy into that, as opposed to English?
EV: Right, well, she is definitely a smart person. I think I get my smarts from here. My dad is smart, but I think my mom is definitely smarter. I often ask, if she was the one that would have gotten an education, I think that my family would definitely be much more well-off. I definitely respect her. She’s really driven and she’s definitely influenced me a lot and ( ) because she comes from a poor family but she can do better math in her head than I can. It’s sad. I’ve gotten an education, and she didn’t get an education, and she can do math. Always I think of what would have happened if she had received a full education? You know, I think that would have been amazing to see. But I think the reason that learned both is that she lived in two worlds, Spanish and English. So, again most people she interacted with were Spanish-speakers. My cousins were mostly of the people she worked with, and in the poultry plants were also Latinos, that’s the only way that they could communicate. When she did come here, she kind of had a basic structure of the language, she didn’t start at zero. But again, it was so hard for her, and so, I think it was easier for her to learn Spanish at the time. And they also went at the community college in Siler City, they also taught English at night and in the evenings, and my mom and dad would go to those classes and so she also learned broken English. She can—like basic—she can count her numbers, she can—even if she can’t understand you fully, even though she can’t give you a full response, she could understand you. And she could answer you in English even if it was like a basic answer you would still know what she was trying to tell you. She definitely learned both, and she tried learning both as much as she could. They also bought at the time this really big program called Inglés sin Barreras—it was really huge and all over Univision--I don’t know if you recall but I’m pretty sure almost every Latino family had this program. We had this program because my parents wanted to learn English. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the time to do that. It’s one thing to try to learn it, but again, they’re working two jobs, and they would come home really exhausted. I definitely commend them, again. They at least tried. It is definitely easier said than done. I know they definitely put a lot of effort into learning and I definitely appreciate that.
HG: It’s extraordinary to try to learn not one, but two new languages while you’re working two jobs, at the same time. It’s pretty extraordinary. Did your family, besides your immediate relatives that lived here, did they ever seek out other folks from their home town? Or in different parts of North Carolina for getting together for holidays or social events?
EV: Not really, our families were just like more on our own.
HG: Pioneers?
EV: Basically. My dad and my mom had family members in other parts of the country. But they were mostly—. They were kind of the first to, along with my cousins and my dad’s brothers, to move into Siler City so there wasn’t much apart from my family. There wasn’t much communication from others outside of our family.
HG: You had mentioned in some of the other interviews how your father was injured in a workplace accident. What was his job that he did and how—. Tell me about that. How has this experience impacted you and your family?
EV: Yeah, so he used to work, he did a lot of jobs apart from poultry plants trying to make more of an income for our family. One of those jobs was working at a lumber company outside of Siler City. It was kind of nearby, maybe a 15-20 minute drive, and so he worked there for--I don’t know how long, but then he had an accident in 2001. This machine fell on him, and it broke his spinal cord. He hasn’t been able to walk since then. Obviously it definitely dramatically changed our life because my dad was now in a wheel chair. He was initially in the hospital for two weeks, in intensive care. And because I was the only one in my family to speak English, I was out of school for two weeks, to be with my parents interpreting as much as I could. I was eleven at the time, it was definitely kind of changing for me as well. So that accident was also really complicated because my dad was undocumented, and so it made it much more complicated for him to get workers’ compensation. He was eventually able to get it because we forced them to. They didn’t want to but we forced them to. So it just changed our dynamics again. I never, personally, I never really thought like this, of disabilities, because fortunately I have been very healthy. Everyone in my family was healthy, so no one in my family had any disabilities until my dad’s accident and so it definitely changed my perspective overall on what disabilities mean and just like someone in a wheelchair differently. So I think that in some way I definitely was appreciative of-- telling me something would have never ever experienced. I don’t think you would ever really know what it means until you have someone directly impacted by it--which is kind of like-- Obviously I wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone, but it does change your view on a lot of things. Overall, I would help my mom, when he finally came back to our house, I would help my mom. He couldn’t take a bath by himself anymore. We would have to take him into his wheelchair, from his bed, and to his wheelchair, into the bathroom. It was like a special bathroom that they built and so I would sometimes be up just up at midnight even though I had school the next day. My mom would wake me up because everyone else in my family was working. I was like, you know, the only that could help. She would wake me up whenever she needed help. Again, she’s the strongest person that I know because she was the one that-- she did everything. My brothers were also helping out, but they also had to work and my mom who was basically stopped everything and she somehow got through it. She’s definitely the strongest person who helped us, overall, in adjusting to all this.
HG: So your parents eventually decided to go back to Guatemala, and how did you and your brothers’ lives change after that?
EV: Yeah, so…
HG: How old were you?
EV: I was fifteen when they decided to go back. It’s actually been eight years, it’s been eight years in February. So they decided to go back mainly because of the accident. My dad, he always felt that he was on the verge of death, and so he always thought that maybe he was going to die soon and he wanted to see my grandmother, his mother, who he hadn’t seen in thirteen years at the time. She was also getting older. He said, “I don’t want to regret not seeing my mother”, and the only option he had was going back. There wasn’t any other option. So that and other decisions, other things kind of made it more and more likely for them to go back. So my parents told me, “Do you want to go with us? Or do you want to stay here with your oldest brother?” And on my end it was definitely a hard decision because I’ve always lived with my mom and dad, and so it was just weird thinking, “Whoa, what would I do without them?” But I also talked to my brothers, and my brothers were like, “You know, you have much better future here than you will have over there.” So that helped me, and I was also optimistic that maybe that I could be one of those success stories, like if I tried hard enough, maybe I could go to college. And maybe I could be the first one in my family to achieve that dream of going to college. So it was obviously it was a big gamble because it could have not worked out. So eventually I decided to stay, it obviously completely changed my life because my brothers are not my parents regardless of how supportive they are, it’s not the same thing. So, I was definitely much more independent which was in some way a little bit exciting, but also kind of, again, weird because I was used to seeing my dad and mom every day-- at the time I had a little sister who was like the only US-born person in our family. It was definitely weird adjusting to not seeing my mom, dad, or my little sister since then.
HG: Do you still have responsibilities- family responsibilities now, in addition to the work that you do? I mean, obviously as a college student you have a lot of responsibilities. But, yeah, do you still--
EV: What do you?
HG: Do you have to support your family? Do you feel obligated to stay in touch with them and how do you do that?
EV: Luckily I don’t have to support them financially. And I feel like they also realize that I’m not working at all so it would be kind hard for me to support them. So, in essence, I don’t do that. I’m much more kind of the opposite—most likely they’re going to be the ones supporting me because I’m kind of the broke person here. I use as much help as I can, sometimes. Apart from that, we do stay in touch and we do talk often in order to catch up. I feel like maybe if anything--
HG: By phone or do you use Skype?
EV: We’ve Skyped a couple of times, but it’s kind of hard. We’ve Skyped a couple of times but it’s mostly usually through phone. I feel that my overall responsibilities in my first few years, once I get a job, would be supporting my family financially. Hopefully, I can make it. I would see an income; that is definitely one of my goals. They sustain themselves, because they have a small store in San Vicente. They sell produce and other stuff. I’d love to be in a position where I can economically help them. One of my dreams would be to buy them a house. They already have a house, but—I don’t know. Give them something that I--to thank them for all they’ve done for me.
HG: I want to talk about all the incredible immigrant advocacy that you do outside of class, and I guess I can start by asking, was there a moment that really galvanized you to be so outspoken? It seems like from hearing about your story that you’ve had your consciousness raised your entire life, of a lot of different experiences. Consciousness about the challenges that you or your own family have faced and other immigrants as well. But was there a galvanizing moment? When did you really go into advocacy and become so outspoken?
EV: Right, definitely for sure it’s just my own personal immigrant story and that of my family’s that influenced me to be more active. I know that-- It might have been in 9th grade, I saw a segment the Primer Impacto which is Univision. It’s kind of like your regular big segment. Noticiero Univision was kind of like an hour long, also kind of program news of what’s happening across the Latino speaking world basically. I know that I remember that this segment they did on this little girl whose mother was deported. Her mother was deported and her dad wasn’t, and it kind of really struck me. It was around the time that parents first decided to go back, and it really struck me, “Oh my gosh, that could be me, that could be my little sister.” I never want that to happen to anyone, luckily I kind of know what it feels like, but also not really what it feels like, because it also not really what it feels like because it was like a more voluntary thing. It wasn’t by force. My parents were not taken away by force, which is, you know, it’s better. I prefer it that way. And it just made me realize how messed up the immigration system is, that we are separating a young child-- she was like maybe five. Seeing her cry on the TV was heartbreaking. It made me feel like, “Stop, examine, evaluate and reflect on what you have.” It just made me much more mad and frustrated at the broken immigration system and so that definitely helped me and my family story, my struggles, it helped me be much more active in immigration. And slowly made me realize that if you want something you have to be one of those people advocating for it. It can’t just be someone else speaking for you. And so in 9th grade, I started a petition at my school ( ) I think one of the biggest things was like, we wish had driver’s licenses. In North Carolina, I believe that maybe three years before that, they had revoked driver’s licenses for undocumented people, so I missed the cutoff date by two years to get my permit. I was obviously really kind of disappointed, when I tried to get into Drivers Ed, and before 9th grade, and I couldn’t because I’m undocumented.
HG: Who told you that?
EV: The Drivers, the Driving instructor. He was like “I can’t do anything, you don’t have a social.” So I can’t do anything at all. And basically, I think he implied also, “He’s a Hispanic, why would you make me go through all of this and can’t get a license at all.” And so that year, I really wanted a license because it’s unfair. It’s a rite of passage for a lot of students to get their driver’s license and makes you ( ) more like a full person. And so I didn’t have that piece of paper, or that card, a driver’s license. So in 9th grade, I was really frustrated and I wanted to do something about that. So I started a petition, getting students at UNC--not UNC-- Jordan Mathews, to sign this petition, we should get driver’s licenses. And the plan was we were going to give it to the mayor and the sheriff, and other people in city council. And so we had a good number, and then eventually, I know that I talked to some teachers and they were a little bit scared. They were like, “You know, this is a great initiative, but it’s also is really controversial, and we don’t want you to get in trouble.” And so we never turned them in because they were like, you know, “We support you but this is kind of dangerous for you.” Kind of since then, more and more, I gradually realized that other students across the country were also being more vocal about their status, and nothing was happening. Or it was obviously kind of, at the time, groundbreaking, because no one in 2007--I’m pretty sure you probably wouldn't have met that many students who would say they were was publicly undocumented, because they were scared. But around that same time, those people who were like the ones leading the charge were like, “You should be vocal about your immigration status, for helping students like myself, just kind of embrace our identities, and part of who we are.” I eventually publicly came out in 2010, and that was definitely a really empowering moment. I openly said, “I am undocumented and I’m not afraid of being undocumented anymore.” It was like-- I can’t really explain, it was kind of like I just told a really big secret, but it felt really relieving. Obviously I was in SLI [Scholars Latino Initiative] but I was graduating that year, so people in SLI knew that I was undocumented. Some my teachers knew that I was undocumented ( ) I knew it was a safe place to tell them. But just like, publicly saying that to people I didn’t know but publicly was obviously kind of a scary moment. But it was also a very empowering moment.
HG: So, what do you think is the significance of the DREAM Act for your generation?
EM: It has great implications; I think that the Dream Act, it’s not a perfect bill. I think in my ideal world, you shouldn’t have to go serve in the military for two years just to prove that you’re worthy of this country. A lot of people in this country are never forced to prove that they’re citizens of this country. I think it’s unfair that you have to go above and beyond just to get that piece of paper that says, “You’re a US citizen.” Because, again, I think a lot of people who are against immigration, can’t even answer—don’t even know the history of this country. And it’s so disappointing that they of all people sometimes, very anti-immigrant, or have really anti- immigrant sentiments, don’t know the history of this country. For like a bill I guess—Part of the DREAM Act is part of the bigger solution towards fixing immigration.
HG: What is the significance? Why is it so critical for students like you and for your generation?
EV: Yeah, I mean, I think that immigrants are part of the future of this country. I think it would be a really stupid for someone like myself who has been educated in the system from K -12 to be denied an education even though I really want an education. And because of that, I’m going to maybe have to work in a McDonalds, which, I totally respect anyone who does that. You know, we all have our own personal struggles. But if someone wants to get an education, economically it doesn’t make any sense at all that you invest so much in a person's education. What's the cost? I’m pretty sure the benefits outweigh the costs, of educating them for four more years. Let them get a degree, and if anything, it translates into more taxes that the state and country can generate from these people who are getting an education. And so, I don’t know, it doesn’t make any sense at all, we are part of our communities. We’re active in our communities, the only thing that we are lacking is a piece of paper that says, “You’re a US citizen, or a legal resident.” And so I think that it has a definitely big implications. If the Dream Act, it doesn’t pass in the next 10 years, you’re creating a system where students ( ). Again, I’m one of the really fortunate DREAMers to be going to college, but that’s not the case for most students. Most students are not in school right now and again, it just doesn't make sense. I think that my story--if education was accessible for undocumented students, for five years, or six years to go, I wouldn’t have made the New York Times or any of these news resources because my story wouldn’t have been unique at all. I’m pretty sure that one of the main reasons that I made some headlines because I was kind of like the really dramatically different person who’s not really talked about. But yet it shouldn't be that way. A lot of us want to get an education. I know that the estimate’s like over one million people--of students—( ) It may be upwards to 2 million people who could potentially benefit from the DREAM Act. Imagine two million people across the country getting an education at UNC. It’s a really small number at UNC and, again, it shouldn’t be that way. Anyone who wants an education should get an education. Education is a human right. Even for someone who is totally against immigration ( ) hopefully they will realize that it just makes the country better. There’s nothing negative about having a well-educated population. It’s just like--I really can’t wrap my head around that. People are like, “No, this is bad for the country.” Why would it be bad? And like and again, I say that the Dream Act is part of a bigger solution because so again I realize how fortunate and privileged I am. I am an undocumented student and I know what it feels to be marginalized but I also benefit a lot from ( ). I don’t know. We have this image and who an immigrant should be, and I think DREAMers used as perfect image---and kind of contrast us against our families, you know that are older—our brothers and sisters, mother and father. It’s just really bad because I’m pretty sure if they had the same opportunities that I have right now they would probably be taking these opportunities. The only difference is that they have to work to make, to provide for me to not have not to suffer as much as they do. And so the DREAM Act is a stepping-stone to fix the bigger, broader, broken immigration system in the US because I don’t just want legalization for myself, I want it for my family. Because they are, I would argue, having a much bigger impact in the economy that most DREAM--than most students, I’d say. They’re the ones working all these odd jobs, really low-wage jobs, and that translates to cheap products that all of us benefit from. So I think they’re the ones. They’re like the original DREAMers, and they’re the ones, that if anything, they should be the ones benefiting and reaping what this country is getting from them.
HG: That’s very interesting. Your insight about how DREAMers are portrayed as sort of the ideal immigrant, you know, high achieving, when in reality there are so many people behind them that are working to give them that opportunity to be able to study and not necessarily to go work, to get those grades, that is some interesting insight. This is very interesting. You had mentioned earlier about-- You mentioned something about being in touch with some national leaders youth, in the youth leader movement that have, in the beginning, when they were starting to come out. And how did you get in touch with them, and is that where you kind of received that inspiration, to come out of yourself as undocumented?
EV: Yeah for sure, I first heard of these pioneer DREAMers, through the news, specifically Univision. They were the ones doing a lot of the immigration coverage. I learned more about these people, looked at them online, and then in 2009, towards the end of 2009, there was like a big convening kind of activist across the country through the organization “Reform Immigration for America” or RIFA. It was a really big campaign. The focus was like, “We’re going to pass comprehensive immigration in 2010.” And so, I was invited to be part of this training—training the trainers, kind of like. Activists, local activists across the country came together. They were trained by really, really, kind of like the most accomplished organizers in the country, on how to effectively tell your story, how to engage people, and how to mobilize people, and so the aim was, through these trainings--you would--. There had to be a huge convening at the beginning of May of 2010, and there was this huge convening at DC and it was like 200,000 people came together in 2010. I don’t know if you recall this. It was basically the week leading up to that, that all of us--there were like five key states, North Carolina was one of them, because they identified us as rapidly growing. So we had like ten main organizers in the state. I was one of them; this was my senior year of high school. We got these trainings and we brought together 100 people from across the state, and then we organized few to put even more of people to come to this big rally. And so, at this training I met one of those, like, really well-known, activists of the time through the organization United We Dream. So I was really captivated that they were really the ones being really vocal about the status and nothing was happening to them.
HG: Which was a North Carolina based organization?
EV: It was a national. And so I talked to Carlos who was the director at the time. And I was also contemplating taking a year off from UNC, or before starting to UNC, kind of just wanted to focus on immigration. It felt like 2010 was really the year to pass the immigration reform. I really want to go all out and, you know, help as much as I can. I felt that the only way that I could do that was taking the year off, and not having to worry about academics and being active in the community. And so, yeah, I eventually got permission from UNC to defer my admission from one year, and so right after graduation, like a week later, I moved to DC, started working for United We Dream. That’s when I really became really, really immersed in the national immigration movement. Where I met other ( ) leaders from across the country, who were vocal about their status, doing a lot of peaceful demonstrations, kind of aiming--. Our big goal was comprehensive immigration reform, and then we realized it’s not. It’s dead by now, it’s not going to happen at all. And so then our focus shifted to passing the DREAM Act because we thought that was the most tangible thing that could happen in 2010. We kind of went all out. We did as many events as we could across the country. It then kind of all culminated at the end in 2010, when the DREAM Act came out for a vote. It kind of passed through the House; it was historic, it never happened before. And then it died in the Senate. It was also very frustrating because ( ) Yeah, one of them was, like it taught me a lot it was I realized like how everything political everything is. We were all used as political talking points from the very beginning. I felt I hadn’t really realized until ( ). A lot of us were kind of disappointed, disheartened—that it hadn’t passed.
HG: And so since then, you’ve taken a lot of those strategies and activities back here to the UNC campus in North Carolina through working Students United for Immigrant Equality and the One State One Rate campaign? Can you talk about that campaign here? You know, where it’s at now, where is it now.
EV: Yeah, when I came back to UNC part of the reason I took my gap year, I wanted to learn new strategies and bringing them back to campus. One of my main goals coming to UNC, starting at UNC, I wanted to change the way that immigrants are viewed across North Carolina. I want to say, probably, I was, I’m pretty sure I’m like the first, really open undocumented at UNC’s campus, currently at UNC. And so I definitely shared my story a lot and a lot of the students were kind of taken aback. It was like, “I’ve never met anyone who’s been undocumented. What are you doing here?” I think they also kind of realized, “You’re just like me. Er, kind of like me, trying to get an education.” So. It felt great that through Students United for Immigrant Equality we kind of were challenging what immigrants look like. Yeah, what immigrants look like. And so, we did a lot of events kind of informing students, one of our biggest goals was that we want to inform student and let them know what, who immigrants are and why they’re here to begin with, and so I heavily did that my first few years at UNC having rallies and trying to engage other students and there are a couple of undocumented students and luckily, some of them, some of them came up to me, some of them mostly privately those who were undocumented, would be like, “This is great, thank you for doing this, I can’t show my story right now but I want to let you know that I’m also undocumented.” So I was like, really great to hear that from other students, some who I’ve never expected they were undocumented….they were telling me that they were undocumented, and I was like” what?” It was really great it motivated me to continue this because it kind of made me realize, that we were having an impact you know, sharing our stories and then last year, one of the things we wanted to do was bring race awareness in disparities on access on education for undocumented students. Policy for North Carolina is that if you’re undocumented you don’t qualify for instate tuition regardless of how long you’ve lived here. In my case, I’ve lived here for over seventeen years and regardless I’m still considered an international student, and so you know, it’s really unfair because I know I’ve heard of students, students have told me that they’ve lived here for two years and they’ve now been considered instate students, so that’s really disappointing, really unfair, we want to share that awareness and we started one state “One Rate Campaign” basically asking the UNC system to change their practice of charging instate tuition to undocumented students and instead charge them in state tuition if they met the requirements that they were probably going to set out, you know, if you met these requirements you get in-state tuition students and so we knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy battle. Obviously North Carolina has also become radically left,
HG: You mean, right?
EV: Right, right! I mean--I wish I was fluent. Radically left? Politically, dramatically right. (Laughs) So, it was going to be a hard battle, but we still tried. We got over 1000 signatures within, like, a week of the Campaign going live from UNC students, for ( ) faculty, the alumni. It was great to hear from the alumni. From the class of ‘eighty-three, with some of them saying, “This is great, I support this and I can’t believe we haven’t done this yet.” So it was really great. You know really, really, a diverse college of people who support this. And our goal was to present it to the Chancellor, hearing her thoughts on this. At the time I was on her Student Advisory Committee so I saw her like once a month. So there wasn’t an excuse that I couldn’t ask her in person, in front of other people, what her thoughts were, and begin. The first time that I asked for this, her excuse was that, “I’m new to this position. I know what the Dream Act is, but I’m transitioning from a private university that gives scholarships to undocumented students as a department, to UNC, which is a public university. I know it’s tricky. It’s tricky to do that. I can’t give an answer right now because I want to learn more about the issue.” I somewhat understood where she was coming from. She’s new, she’s learning the system, she also has probably a lot of other demands, other people are also pushing her to do a lot of other things at once. We were kind of--she’s at least seemed receptive listening, which was great. I can’t say that for Chancellor Thorp. I also knew Chancellor Thorp and we also tried to get him to publicly support this issue as he was leaving UNC and he was really not--. He didn’t want to do anything. And that’s, again, in my opinion, was really disappointing because he’s a university leader and that’s just--I definitely would say that I’m OK. I was really disappointed by the way that he said “I’m not going to do anything on this issue. I know where you’re coming from, but I’m not going to support this issue.” I think it’s disappointing especially from an educator who should, out of all people should know, that education is a right. Through this campaign, later in the semester we had a call-in-day to the chancellor’s office, which was met with great success. And a lot of people called her office, because her chancellor’s assistant and the chancellor herself told me that they received a lot of calls that they kind of--good thing. And then like later on we were able to get Faculty Council to pass a resolution in support of in-state tuition for undocumented students. It was great. The Chancellor was actually there the day that we debated this. ( ) The chancellor was there, the Provost was there, other like top officials from UNC were there, and. But overall the reception was really, really positive. Some--one of them were like “You know, I can’t believe this. We weren’t aware of this or that.” Again, really supportive and unanimously passed, so it was great. That’s the first time that anything like that’s ever happened, at least definitely in the state, in a public university in the state. And we also got the Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper, as well as the Campus Y and Student Congress to also pass resolutions in support. So it was great to see the support from across campus.
HG: So where are we at right now?
EV: So, there hasn’t been activity this semester, mainly because I stepped down because I was running my own campaign.
HG: For Student Body President
EV: For Student Body President. So it would have been a little overwhelming. But I do think that obviously my Student Body President campaign and this in-state tuition campaign were not coordinated or related at all. They were like--it was like the One State One Rate, and it was kind of a super late, last minute campaign that me and some other people talked about. But I do think had I been in office, I think it would’ve shown the general assembly and other people in the state that undocumented students are involved in our campus and are just like any other student and the only thing lacking is a piece of paper. We could have been good example, of students are involved. A lot of us are using the opportunities that we’ve been given. We’re positively making good impact on our schools and the state, so.
HG: No, that’s really, that’s really interesting-- Reflections on where things are at right now with respect to all of these issues that are in flux. I should probably wind down our interview just because you’ve been so generous with your time. I wonder, are you planning to be more-- Are you going to be starting up this campaign again in the fall? What’s sort of the next-- Where are you looking now? You’ve had some time to reflect upon your student body president campaign, but sort of, where do you see things headed right now?
EV: Yeah, so I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, I have had a lot of time to think about all the things, but I don’t know what I’m doing-- what I’m doing yet. Which is kind of exciting and scary at the same time. I don’t know. The great-- one of the great things that I’ve realized is that more and more students across the state are also stepping up and sharing their stories which is amazing. I think it’s great that it’s not just me or, like a handful of people. It’s a good number of people. More and more wanting to share our stories, wanting to explore themselves. One of my goals would be to see those students also be spear-heading this initiative. Honestly, in-state tuition doesn’t really affect me anymore. I have one more year left at UNC. If I really wanted to really, don’t have to be involved anymore because, and I honestly didn’t—Honestly I didn’t have to be involved from the beginning, because I didn’t have in-state tuition, but I had a scholarship that pays for my education. I did this because I wanted-- I didn’t want other students to have to do what I had to go through: the uncertainty, the anxiety, of not knowing what your future holds. And so, definitely, I’m still planning to be involved but I think it’s time for more, new leaders to step up and change this issue. Help change this issue. So I think one other thing that I would love to see is giving them a platform. Be the ones leading the conversation, like in-state tuition, or immigration, at UNC and in the state. Because, you know, we need more fresh blood, as the saying goes – to change our conversation. This can’t be like, you now, people like myself anymore.
HG: I mean, that’s funny because you’re already viewing yourself as someone who is aging out of-- or maybe someone who’s had the opportunity to have a platform, and you’re interested in others coming along.
EV: Yeah, and also I don’t know what—where—I’ll be a year from now. I don’t think in-state tuition is going to pass in this year for sure. I’m hoping maybe next year. I think some people are looking at maybe next year. I’m hoping that next year, but it may be longer than that. I also don’t know what I’ll be doing in a year from now, after I graduate. I might leave the state. You know ( ) if I’m not going to be around. If I can do anything, it should be like helping build new leaders and stepping up. Those of us who are graduating like you know, like Pía, who’s graduated, and other people. Who’s going to take over for us at UNC or just, yeah, and leading the conversation. I would love to if situation is really important, but I think there are bigger pictures, immigration reform. I think if immigration reform would happen, it would help in alleviate a lot of these concerns. And so that’s something that’s I’m obviously interested and. Yeah. I think it’s time for other people to lead. So that’s definitely one of my goals this year incoming that I plan to not be as active anymore because I also want to enjoy my senior year and chill during my senior year. (Laughs)
HG: Oh, wow. (Laughs). Emilio thank you so much for sharing all of this, I really appreciate it, so.
EV: Thanks for interviewing.
HG: Thank you.