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The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute Blog

Blog Post by Guadalupe Ambrosio (Borough of Manhattan Community College, 2015 Becaria)

The Brown Girl In Me

When people ask me where I am from I usually answer “the South Bronx” without hesitation and sometimes that answer is good enough. Other times folks will repeat the question as to think I misheard it. I change my answer depending on the person and tone of the question when asked. This time my answer is “Mexico City”. We have a saying in Spanish that goes “ Ni de aqui Ni de alla” that embodies the confusion I faced growing up as an undocumented Mexican in the South Bronx.

When I was given the choice in fourth grade to change from a bilingual classroom to a monolingual one my parents allowed me to make the decision. Besides wanting to learn English and “better” myself I was mostly influenced by the amount of harassment I faced in my class due to my background. Being Mexican seemed to be the worst thing, I often have flashbacks on how excluded and ridiculed I was as a child based on being Mexican. It changed how self-aware I had become of my brown skin and my long thick braids and of what it represented in the United States at the time. Not knowing the language, I became obsessed with Britney Spears and Disney Channel and would sit with a dictionary to learn words as I watched or listened. Yet it was never enough to help me grasp the correct pronunciation but enough for people to assume that I was born in New York.

When I was 16 and working I was given the promotion to head hostess because I spoke “well” and could relate to our clientele, which was the upper west side middle class white Americans and international tourist. It didn’t dawn on me how that meant I spoke better than every other Latina and black women working in the establishment. Looking back at that I realized how early on people made assumptions on how smart you are by the way you communicate with white folks. Interesting enough I felt like I got away with it. No one ever heard my accent that I so forcefully trained away. No one was able to see the tears and disconnection I had made with my family in giving up my Spanish language.

So how does this relate to the Beca you may ask yourself?

Well, it relates because this was an opportunity for a Queer brown undocumented Mexican woman to be celebrated as such. Instead of fitting the expectation of a model minority, this scholarship celebrated my culture and helped me embody pride, along with giving me access to meet other Mexican womyn who I call my friends and peers. Womyn who have helped me to reconnect with my history. It has also made me interested in exploring the history of other brave womyn of color who have created safe spaces in literature and art.Womyn who have lead revolutionary movements for me to survive in what I almost saw as my end in America.

This scholarship has also made me realized how being unapologetic can be hard especially when your mental health is triggered. I often say to people there is nothing someone can take away from me, besides my family, which will cause me fear and hurt. I lied, there is and that is my access to higher education. I had become silent when I disagreed or felt unconfutable in fear of losing my scholarship. It took a lot of self-encouragement to speak up and not give up, as I believe this was an opportunity to grow. I want to encourage other students not to fear speaking up, but to lead. This program is designed to help us be leaders and in that comes taking initiative and believing in each other and ourselves. I will be lying again to say this has been an easy journey because it has not. This journey however is not over yet. It has been a great experience that has allowed me to grow into a stronger student and community organizer. As I reflect on my personal definition of success, I can speak on how my story encompasses struggle but it is a beautiful rich history still being written.

Blog Post by David Garcia (Baruch College, 2015 Becario)

To not feel isolated and to not lose sight and the possibility of attending college after graduating from high school, I joined a youth group that were either in college or were working towards it. I was comfortable within the group because all of them were in a similar circumstance that I was in, and seeing some of them not give up and actually be in college made me want to do the same. Hence, I told the person that had introduced me to the youth program that I wanted to apply for college. Although I was comfortable in the youth group sharing my story, I needed to not be shy of sharing my life story outside the group and to not be afraid to ask for help. So I explained my situation to him. He told me that he knew a professor at Lehman College that helped students in my circumstance get into college. He got me in contact with her. I knew, however, that if I wanted to be helped, I had to get out of my comfort zone and not be ashamed I was undocumented like I had done throughout my first three and a half years in high school. We exchanged a couple of emails, but in the end I told her that I was sorry and thankful for her help, but it was best to work full-time. I felt I could not work and go to college at the same time, even though, I really wanted to be in the situation of experiencing college like some of the people in the youth group and friends from high school. I set out a plan: to work full-time and save as much money as possible and in a couple of years apply for college.

Fast forward five years, I was in my second year of college and was seeking scholarships so that the money I had saved would last me throughout college. A person close to the Jaime Lucero Institute of Mexican Studies (which back then it was known as the Mexican Studies Institute) recommended me to apply for the scholarship they were offering. I did. I did again the following year and the year after that. Throughout the first three years I had benefited by the Institute’s help, either by getting the scholarship or finding outside funding for my college tuition, but it never occurred to me that that same person I had send an email explaining how sorry and thankful I was for her help was the same person directing the Institute. I found out about it one day when I was looking for the email of the same person that had gotten me in contact with her.

Call it coincidence or destiny that it happened to be the same person, but I am lucky and fortunate for the Institute’s help and support these past three years. I was able to not skip any semester for lack of money to pay for school. Without their support, I do not think I would have been graduating in May of this year (2016), and probably would have taken a break from school to go back to work full time and save money, like I had done the first time around.

Back to my first go around attempting to apply for college, there was not a lot of support for undocumented prospective and current college students. Most scholarships required US citizenship or permanent residency. I am forever grateful that my second time around the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute existed, and that they let me be part of their list of students they have helped get into college and stay in college to fulfill their dream of obtaining a higher education and/or to be the first in their family to do so.

Blog Post by Jatziri Gallegos (Queens College, 2015 Becaria)

Since I arrived to New York, I realized there are great organizations and initiatives that provide support to the Mexico community. Throughout my period as a Becari@, I have met many people who are devoted to the community and whose work creates a better place to live.

I was lucky enough to be part of one the greatest educational opportunities initiatives made by the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY, the launching of the web portal nyceducate.org that would provide easy access to educational information for everybody. When the opportunity came, I did not hesitate to choose this opportunity as part of my internship as a Becari@. The Window of Educational Opportunities (WEO) is part of the initiative to advocate for education and provide information to our community. As part of the volunteer staff, I have been very satisfied with the training and support we have received in order to share the information for the people who need it. I have realized through this initiative that there is a lot of information that was not accessible, and most importantly, I realized that just a simple conversation could change somebody’s life.
I always knew that education is the key to success and through education we will create better leaders and a stronger community. This initiative is a great start for something that will positively impact the lives of many people, as it has impacted mine.
I am committed to help the people who need it the most and having such an amazing team makes everything easier. I cannot be happier to have found a place to share what I know in order to help my community. I cannot be thankful enough for such an amazing team who work hard everyday in order to create a better world.
This initiative has change the way I think about the Mexican community and has given me more information than I ever thought possible. But most importantly, it made me aware of where I come from and where I want to be.

Blog Post by Adriana Garcia (Queensborough Community College, 2015 Becaria)

We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.” Elie Wiesel

In 2005 I started a new journey full of accomplishments, challenges and full of great diversity of cultures. Arriving to a new country meant a new beginning and opportunities as my mom constantly reminded me. I started bilingual education in junior high school, I.S 349, where I meet great people that always supported me and continue to do so. I’m really thankful and I feel blessed for having them as my mentors and for believing in my potential. After finishing junior high school, I was really happy and proud of myself for graduating in just a year and a half with honors. In my four years of high school, I confronted many changes in my life and the most challenging was discovering that my mom had cancer. It was quite difficult to deal with her situation because I had to manage my time to be with her at the hospital and complete my education. However, my mom was my priority. Even though I didn’t graduate with honors I felt proud of finishing high school and I still remember the happiness my mom showed at my graduation for the first and last time alive. Being the last of five siblings, I gain a lot of knowledge from my brothers and sisters. And like I have always said, my older sister is my role model because she has always encouraged me to fulfill myself and do what I love. That’s the reason why I decided to continue my education after two years of being out of school. The great support of CUNY Becas means to me a chance to set new goals and help my community as I always wanted. As a recipient of this scholarship, I've been provided with great support from professionals that understand the stress of being a college student. Every recipient of this scholarship has an inspirational story. I considered everyone of them part of my family and role models for other students. Getting to know their stories has made me learn that the greatest battles are for the best warriors. Every single Becari@ has different goals in life but we all share the love of helping others and supporting those who didn’t have the opportunity to have a better level of education back home.

Thank you CUNY BECAS for providing me the opportunity to continue my education and for offering a hand full of love, care and professionalism that has made me feel blessed once again.

Blog Post by Anonymous Becari@

I once had an older brother. I barely remember him. I often wonder if I did have him or if my imagination created him to not be alone. But then I hear my mother’s cries and I remember everything. The memories start to come back, but I do not want to remember. I want to forget him. I wonder if he thinks about us as much as we do. I wonder what it feels to have family reunions. I wish I knew. I see other families and I envy them. Now is only my mom and I, but we are surviving and that is all that matters. We got each other. He was a good person, I can’t remember much though. He left me young. All I remember is the violence around him. I never wanted school to end because I didn’t want to go back home. The violence made me stay in school, although I didn’t feel safe there it was better than my house. The screams and fights between my mother and him were unbearable. I couldn’t stare at my mother’s tire eyes from cleaning houses all day, I couldn’t stare at the agony she felt to see her son engage in self-destruction behavior. I have this memory that seems almost like a dream but when I feel the pain, the memory comes back more clearly than ever. My mother and I were sleeping when we heard a knock on the door. My mother rushed towards the door trying not to wake up my oldest brother, who was sleeping on the couch. As my mother opened the door two white male police officers came inside my house. Alert, I woke up and open the bedroom door, my mother screamed at me to go back inside the room. I was so innocent that I did. I knew what was happening, I always knew it was going to happen. When I heard the door close shut and felt the silence of my house deep in my heart, I ran towards the window. My whole entire existence crushed down on me. The two white male police officers were holding my brother with handcuffs, walking towards their police car. My mother came inside the room and dropped herself on the floor, she started to cry and scream “Por que dios?” I wanted to hug her and tell her that it wasn’t her fault but I was also hurting. I went back to the bed and cried in silence. I regret not hugging her and I want her to know that I did hear and felt her pain and suffering, but I was afraid and uncertain of how to respond, I was only 13 years old. The next day my warrior mother went to work and sent me to school. I know she wanted to go to the precint to see my brother but she couldn’t loose her job, she had to pay rent and had to feed my middle brother and I. At a court room my brother lost his “freedom.” My brother was sentence to 6 years in prison. All I remember was his faceless expression looking back at my mom. I was devastated but my mother was broken. I didn’t know how to help so I just went to school and came back home and acted like nothing happened. I always heard her cry at nights. She still cries but she’s stronger now. She still wonders what she did wrong. I was known in the streets as his sister and that made me afraid. It scared me. I wanted to disappear but I was the sister of a gang member and the streets don’t easily forget. I always got stopped in the streets and got asked, “are you his sister?.” If I answered I would get hit and if I didn’t I would still get hit. I got hit a lot of times for being his sister. I was always afraid in the streets but I learned to fight back, I needed to. When family reunions came I couldn’t bare the questions so I stopped going. My mom hates me for leaving her alone with them, but I needed to protect my emotions. I couldn’t break with her. I needed to be strong for her. I wanted out but I couldn’t. My mother once confessed to me that she wanted to die. I didn’t tell her anything but I used to resent her for thinking that. The visits to the correctionality facility came. She had to wake up at 5 in the morning to take the bus with other mothers who were visiting their sons. All women of color. She would speak to the mothers on the bus, they understood her pain and honestly it made her feel better. It was so powerful to see womyn of color empowing each other. Every time she came back home, I was afraid to ask about him, I didn’t want to make her sad. I only went a few times, I wasn’t as strong as my mother. I do remember that the correctional facility was cold and had a small playground for kids. We could only hug my brother for a few seconds and then we had to let go. We had to sit in a table of 4 and stared at each other for 5 hours straight. I avoided his gazed but my mom would hold on to it as long as she could. When the visitation hours finished it was harsh. There were kids screaming “daddy don’t go.” I will never forget their innocent faces. My mom became used to the environment that over the years it became easier, but not less painful. Now, it is still my mother and I. I am stronger now, my mother taught me to be a warrior. We have learn to respect each others pain in silence because we know that if we speak we will both break. Therefore, I am breaking this silence. It is time to stop hurting. It is time for my mother and I to find resilience together.

Blog Post by Gloria Farciert (Brooklyn College, 2015 Becaria)

I came from a small town in Puebla, Mexico at the age of seven. While I have a vague recollection of how things happened, in the mind of my seven year old self and without a full understanding of what was going on, I perceived it as an adventure. It was just my mom and me traveling across the border to reunite with my dad who was already living in Brooklyn. We were with a group of other adults who also hoped to get to the United States. It took us about a week, going from one hotel in Nogales to another in Arizona and then we took a flight to New York. Attending a new school, having to learn English, it all became things I had to adjust to.  

One day, I was already in fifth grade, when my parents told me that we would be going back to Mexico. I was taken by surprise they had made this decision. I was about to graduate from elementary school and go into middle school. What did they mean that we were going back? I did not have a say over this decision, but nonetheless happy that I would be going to my country of birth, eager to see my sister who had stayed in Mexico, and hug my abuelitos once again. However, things were not all the same. I had outgrown certain things I had left behind the first time and the walls of my house had cracked because no one had lived there for the past few years. My dad was hopeful that it could all be renovated, but without money and a job it was difficult to repair what had been damaged. In that trip to Mexico that I also found myself learning the meaning of “ni de aqui, ni de alla.” There, I was in the country that was supposed to be my country, but at the same time it felt as if I did not belong. In the United States, I had also felt like an outsider because I was not born here.  

Three months later, my parents told me we would be returning to Brooklyn. Life in Mexico was still full of struggles, the lack of jobs and money pushed us again to search for a better life. When it came to crossing the border it was certainly not as easy as it had been the first time. I no longer took it as an adventure and was cognizant of what was happening. My mom, dad and I were sent to walk up a hill into Arizona. At the house where we stayed we had to sleep on the floor on top of cardboard without a blanket for the night. When we were transported from one house to another it was through a car where the seats had been placed down and we were stacked one person on top of the other. This was what we had to endure when chasing after the “American Dream.” I look back on these moments with great nostalgia. I am still caught in between two worlds. No one in my family was able to travel to Mexico when my grandma passed away in 2009. I now have a niece I have not met. I hope to someday be able to travel to Mexico.                    

Blog Post by Zuleyma Dominguez (Borough of Manhattan Community College, 2015 Becaria)

I was born in Puebla, Mexico. My parents migrated to the United States hoping to achieve the American Dream. Nine months, later they decided to bring my brother and I to this country for a better future and to obtain a higher education. I was very happy to see my parents again.  

At the same time, since my arrival in the United States I have tried to be a good student, I’ve always been involved in school activities and in my community. During High school I had two secrets, one was my immigration status, nobody knew in school that I was undocumented, and my sexual orientation, that my parents didn’t know. It was like living in two different closets. It was not until my junior year that I had to disclose my immigration status to the college advisor. She was so close to me that when I told her she was surprised and felt sorry for me. I remember telling her that I was going to pursuit my dreams no matter the obstacles. She helped me with my college application. I decided to attend to a community college because it was a little bit cheaper than a 4 years college. After graduating from high school, I started working at a restaurant and at a gym. I saved money and in 2012 I started attending to Borough of Manhattan Community College.  

The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY awarded me one of their scholarships this year and I’m so thankful for that. The scholarship allows me to not stress about financing my education and to be enrolled full-time. Thanks to the Institute I will be graduating next semester from BMCC after almost 4 years. In addition, thanks to the Institute I am able to do an internship at Make the Road New York. 

I decided to do my internship at Make The Road New York (MRNY), a non-profit organization led by undocumented youth and amazing people who embraced me and encourage me to not fear my status. I had already volunteered there fighting for equal access to education for all regardless of their immigration status and for respect and dignity for the 11 million of undocumented people that still live in the shadows like my parents with fear of deportation. We will keep fighting until we get an immigration reform.             

The Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY has given me a place where I am surrounded with individuals like myself, a network of people who want to be successful and dreamers that that dream of a better future not just for ourselves, but for our entire community. I thank the Institute for the support and encouragement.

Blog Post by Antonio Alarcon(La Guardia Community College, 2015 Becario)

I remember that one warm evening when we started walking across the border. The silence of the desert warned us of the danger we faced, and we knew we had to be very careful. My parents advised me not to stray away from them. The minutes passed like hours and we didn't seem to be getting anywhere.

We quickly ran out of water and food. The only thing we found was an irrigation canal in the middle of the desert. We could hear barking dogs and the mooing of cows, as if there was a farm nearby. Everybody started to fill his or her bottles with water from that river. Our only filter was a piece of cloth that my dad ripped off from his shirt. When we were drinking it, we could feel and taste the earth. We did not care though; all we wanted was to quench our thirst.

Three days later, we finally arrived in Arizona. By the time we arrived, many of us had our feet full of sores, and many of us were also dehydrated. From Arizona, we traveled to Los Angeles by car—nine people squeezed into a car meant for four. Upon arriving to Los Angeles, we caught a flight to New York, which became my new home.

My arrival in New York City was a dream come true. It was like being in a world for giants. There were skyscrapers everywhere, but I was always afraid of what could happen next. Here, I had to learn a new language and adapt to a different culture. The saddest thing, however, was living without my grandparents and brother.

School for me was an obstacle! My parents didn’t want to send me to school because they were full of fear and lacked information about our right to a K-12 education. They thought that undocumented immigrants were not allowed in schools; it took more than a year before I finally began my studies in this country.

While I went to school, I watched my parents work seven days a week in order to provide everything for us at home. They gave me the strength I needed to overcome any barriers, and I dedicated all my academic achievements to them. A grade of 90 in any subject or test was not enough for me, because I knew they were doing everything they could so that I could study. Because of them, I never felt like I was lacking anything.

A few years went by, and in 2011, the news that I hoped to never hear arrived: my grandfather had died. I knew that I could not go back to Mexico and say a last goodbye to the person who raised me due to my immigration status. The most painful thing was seeing my father collapse and cry. Even worse, while not yet having recovered from the loss of my grandfather, my father found out that my grandmother had cancer. On January 1, 2012, we received word that my grandmother had died.

After my grandmother's death, my parents made the hardest decision of their life: they decided to return to Mexico to take care of my younger brother. Once again, my family was separated. My mother knew that I could have a better education and work opportunities in the U.S., so I decided to stay.

It is 3 years since they left, 3 years since I made a promise to my mom. The promise to graduate from College. I am traveling to Mexico this December, I will be spending Christmas with her and her present will be my College Diploma. My dream and her dream is possible thanks to the generosity of people who believe in CUNY Becas, without the support of CUNY Becas I am pretty sure wouldn't be graduating and transferring to a four year college in January. Yes, I will be a Queens College student in January thanks to CUNY Becas.

Don’t forget to add me on: Twitter: @antonioalarconc 

Instagram: antonioalarconc  www.indivisiblefilm.com 

Blog Post by Jazmin Cruz (John Jay College, 2015 Becaria)

Working at my old high school over for the past two summers, has taught me two things; one is that everyone deserves an opportunity to attend college, and second, even if you help one student with the college matriculation, you are helping an entire community. I was a junior in high school when I was given the opportunity to help the seniors begin their college journey. My high school in Bushwick is composed of mainly black and latino youth. There is gang influence and sometimes school is not taken seriously but as a youth leader and as their peer I was always encouraging them to attend college, or to at least fill out their CUNY application in case they changed their mind about attending college at the end of their senior year. The value of education has been instilled in me by my father, and while I was helping them I tried to reiterate my father’s teachings. One of the reasons we moved from Puebla to New York City was because my father wanted to further my education.

In many  neighborhoods throughout New York City, schools are underfunded and schools do not have the capacity to have both a college counselor and a guidance counselor. In many instances while I was still in highschool, students would feel overwhelmed when a teacher or any adult brought up the conversation about enrolling in college. The students who saw college as a step right after highschool would be excited and ready to go through everything at the beginning of the school year. The students who were unsure about enrolling in a college would often wait till the last minute to apply, sometimes even till August. This past summer I had a student who did just that, this student was applying for a seat in college in early August, and she came for help. Of course, I helped her because there was that drive and determination to attend college. She was pushing for an opportunity to further her studies, and take this meaningful step in her life. The same goes for undocumented students, we may not have an equal shot when it comes to paying for college since we can not apply for federal or state aid, but do not push us aside when we ask about college. Rather, use your expertise and connections to refer them to someone that can help them reach their dream, especially our Black and Latino youth who too often get left behind.

When you help one student or one adult you are helping a family, and in turn helping a community. The more people that are educated the more richer the community, and it's always better if you grew up with them or if you saw them grow. Push them to pursue a college career because of the benefits and the perks of being a student in a city like New York.

I have lived in New York City for fifteen years, and John Jay College feels like my second home. Here I have met wonderful people who like me, fight for social and political change. I have had the chance to learn new things and apply them to my day to day life. Attending college has not only benefit me, but the people that have helped and have pushed me a bit further to walk across the graduating floor come 2017. I want more people to experience this, I want to see more people strive for education and have a hunger for it. Times are tough in college but I’ll end the post with a quote that has helped me get through hard days and long nights.

“You’ll get through it and when you do, you’ll wonder why you ever doubted yourself”

Blog Post by Luis Marcial (The New York City College of Technology, 2015 Becario)

As always, difficult challenges offer big rewards but they require a great deal of strength and motivation. However, at the end everything is possible. As Walt Disney has always reminded me "All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them." Looking back 10 years ago, coming to NYC at the age of 16 to support my parents was not easy, but the situation required it. My story begins in Toluca, Mexico. When I was just a teenager I used to love airplanes. I always thought of them as something magical and I wanted to learn more. As I was learning about airplanes, I developed a strong interest for computers and I wanted to create my own websites and applications but my father became sick and was scheduled for a series of head surgeries. This situation forced me to come to the U.S to work with my uncle.

I worked in several industries to support my family. As the years passed my father recovered and my family was able to open a small business, I felt very happy! But I also felt the need to make some changes in my life because as Steve Jobs says “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” Obviously, I didn’t like my job because I had not passion for it and offered very little pay and required brutal hours of work.

I started to attend ESL classes whenever I could and learning became a habit. The turn of events of my life did not change my passion for computers. I decided to begin a new journey, I enrolled in the GED program at City College but my lack of financial support forced me to drop out. I returned to work double shifts, saved money and came back to City College. This time not only did I pass the GED test but I was nominated for the Peter Jennings scholarship and accepted to The New York City College of Technology. Finally, in June 2015 I received my Associate Degree in Computer Systems Technology and graduated with honors.

I was pretty scared when I first started but my passion for computers kept me going. Of course working and studying at the same time is hard but it will not stop me from continuing with my Bachelors. Today, this dream is more tangible with the financial support of CUNY Becas. I am in my third year of Computer System Program, I have been nominated twice for the National Honor Society, I am on the Dean’s list, I am a member of the Honors Program at NYCCT, and I am active member of the computer club.

CUNY Becas has opened many doors. Becoming a Becario has been an exciting experience especially when meeting people and students with many common interests such as culture, language, goals, education and history. All of this has allowed me to understand others and myself a little bit better. The best part is the inspiration that I get from listening and meeting many extraordinary students who share their successful stories, struggles and accomplishments. I feel lucky to be part of this group!!

Blog Post by Lorena Cariño (Queens College, 2015 Becaria)

After realizing graduation from high school was approaching, fear, anxiety and confusion began to grow. I wasn’t sure what my plans would be once I received my diploma. Although I was receiving acceptances from many colleges, my financial need brought questions about whether college was a good option for me. When finally making a decision to attend school, I chose the one that tuition seem to be easier to pay at the time, Queens College. At first I wasn’t too happy with my choice, but soon I learned that my transition into college sparked an interest and many questions about my status.

Dealing with my immigration status in my freshman year led me to search for answers. It was then that I learned about the Queens College Dream Team. This was the space where eventually my fears became empowerment. My passion to help my community grew. I started to become involved not just in the Dream Team but also in the New York State Youth Leadership Council helping immigrant youth. Little by little I noticed how strong each of our voices were to create changes in our communities. Those stories and voices reassured me that I wasn’t the only one having to worry about tuition every semester.

While becoming involved, I was introduced to many scholarship opportunities; one of these was the CUNY Becas Scholarship. After being awarded the scholarship on my second time applying, I was given the push I needed to end my senior year without tuition worries. However, soon I found that this opportunity not only help me financially but also allowed to reconnect with my culture. I came into the United States from Mexico when I was eight-years-old.  Although, my family and the community I help are from my country, there were parts I was unaware were missing. After spending a weekend with the Becari@s, I noticed that they brought out a part of me I was losing when dealing with my status. There was a connection with the language, culture, education and history that I didn’t have with any of my friends in a long time. I was discovering a part of me that reminded me of my background. There was a long time in my life in the US that I felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t think that I was from either here or Mexico. Making these friendships created a new interest in embracing my culture more than what I thought I was doing before. The CUNY Becas did not only give me an opportunity to financial, professional and educational help but also to reconnect with a big part of me I needed back in my life.

Blog Post by Jesus Barrios (Hunter College, 2015 Becario)

Queer Public Health & Immigration Detention

Over the past twenty years the United States’ response to the mass migration of individuals seeking to establish a new life within its borders, has failed in allowing them to fully integrate into U.S. society. By prioritizing border militarization, implementing xenophobic laws targeting immigrants, and structuring a legal system, which only those with most privilege successfully navigate, immigrant health becomes a significant public policy discussion. In addition, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants are left vulnerable to be funneled into the U.S.’ draconian immigration detention system, pertinent issues in health care are even more critical to study given the repeated human rights violations occurring inside these centers. However, due to limited detention center oversight of centers located in remote areas, detainees endure conditions that compromise their physical health and mental health. Lacking support of both congressional parties, immigration detention poses a great public health concern, but more specifically there is a narrative that has yet to garner significant exposure and that is the narrative of LGBT detained immigrants.

Immigration detention centers were less of a priority in past U.S. history: in the 1890's, Ellis Island served as a public health hospital to monitor and evaluate the health of immigrants deemed eligible to enter. Over the years, policy implementation such as the Immigration Nationality Act in 1952 had an impact on the closure of many detention centers. The effect of multiple closures caused a shift in who became a priority for prosecution from individuals who historically were part of U.S. waves of migration to those whom now posed a high risk to U.S. society. However, as migration into the U.S. increased in the 1980s and 1990s, new policies were implemented to respond to the high influx of individuals entering the U.S. In 1996 the implementation of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), broadened criteria for non-citizens to be targeted, detained and deported, which meant having unlawful presence in the U.S. was enough to trigger a deportation proceeding. The effects of the implementation of IIRIRA are catastrophic. For example, the daily number of detained individuals increased from 19,000 in 2001 to 33,000 in 2010. Approximately 91,000 individuals were detained in 2001 and by 2010 the number of annual individuals detained increased to 390,000. In previous years leaked documents showed, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE - branch of Department of Homeland Security) stated that its goal each year is to deport 400,000 individuals. ICE’s ambitious goal has been measured in the two million individuals who have been deported from the U.S. since 2008 many whom live with chronic illnesses, have escaped persecution in their country of origin, have significant familial ties in the U.S., and far too often are non-criminal. One may only imagine the human rights violations that have occurred in order to meet such a quota.

Gaining access to immigration detention facilities to document human rights violations is one of the many obstacles community members, activists, and researchers face. However, radical approaches have been taken in order to document the narratives of detained immigrants. In 2011, two activists infiltrated the Broward Transitional Center in Florida, and spent over 20 days in the facility before being forced out. However, it was enough time to capture data regarding the abuse experienced by detainees which include: excessive length of stay, poor medical access, sexual violence, lack of legal access, pressure to voluntarily deport, mental health trauma, mental health trauma experienced by the children of detainees, and detention of non-criminals.

In recent years, alarming facts have emerged regarding the specific treatment of LGBT individuals. One of the most high profile cases is that of Olga Arellano, a transgendered woman, who was processed into detention after coming in contact with local enforcement during a traffic violation. Olga died in 2007 due to lack of HIV care, while detained for two months in San Pedro, CA. Most recently, the story of Marichuy Leal Gamino parallels similar trauma as that of Arellano. Marichuy is a transgender woman who spent two years detained in Arizona. At first Marichuy was being held in a cell pod with all men, but after she reported being raped, bullied, and threatened, she was placed in solitary confinement – a common practice by ICE to address the concerns of transgender women.
The stories of Olga and Marichuy mirror national data collected by the Center for American Progress (CAP). In 2013, CAP released its findings of what LGBT individuals experienced while in detention. Complaints filed by detainees include cases of sexual assault by guards and detainees, inadequate medical treatment, verbal harassment and humiliation by guards and detainees, and use of solitary confinement based solely on detainee’s gender identity and sexual orientation. There is also a disparity between the length of stay in detention from 30 days for the average detained immigrant to those seeking asylum, which is 102.4 days. This is critical because a significant amount of asylum cases are made up of LGBT detained immigrants, which in turn makes them vulnerable to deal with the complaints stated above for a longer period of time. The conditions and treatment that all detained immigrants live through are unjustifiable, but when you intersect homophobia, transphobia, and patriarchy, LGBT detained immigrants become susceptible to a culture of violence.

As a queer immigrant who has been detained in Alabama and California the plight of LGBT detained immigrants is personal to me. I have dedicated the past 7 years to organizing at these intersections and I am fully committed to assisting in advancing the lives of my fellow brothers and sisters. In particular health is one of my areas of interest. A year ago, I was accepted into the Masters of Public Health program at the CUNY School of Public Health, Hunter College. This year the school’s division of public health practice and community engagement awarded me an opportunity to implement an independent project. My goal is to spend the next year understanding the medical practice inside immigration detention through the lens of LGBT detained immigrants, as well as understanding how LGBT undocumented immigrants navigate U.S. health systems. Finally, I see the work I engage in as part of the process in changing systems to fully promote the lives of the marginalized and underserved, and allow them and myself to live our full potential. None of this is possible without the support of generous foundations like my program’s division and my recent award by the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY. Their assistance helps people in the struggle for justice and myself to dedicate our time to the work that has given our life purpose and meaning.

Blog Post by Luz Aguirre (LaGuardia Community College, 2015 Becaria)

The Undocumented Pursuit for Higher Education

I recently came back from Exploring Transfer, a five-week, six-credit program at the prestigious Vassar College. I knew about the program through my mentor, pay-it-forward and CUNY Becas recipient Amalia Rojas. The program touched relevant issues such as bioethics, economics of poverty, politics of imprisonment and race in the United States. I got a lot more out of the program than an intellect boost. I am majoring in Philosophy at LaGuardia Community College and need to make a decision about where to transfer. I am not your typical college student. I am a 36-year-old undocumented single mother of a 14-year-old. It took me a while to get to college because it was impossible, for a long time, to come up with the money to start college. I wanted to have enough to at least cover my initial year.

President Obama instituted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, A two-year work permit and exemption from deportation for certain young people. Now renamed Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You have to give credit to the Department of Homeland Security for the name, it knows how to intimidate. In these three years, a lot of scholarships for DACA students have been springing up. It is astounding to see how much DACAmented students are soaring. In December of 2014, Obama announced the expansion of DACA for those of us who were too old to fall under regular DACA (the cut-off age is thirty-one). In February 18, 2015, just as it was going to be implemented, a judge in Texas issued an order that blocked it. As much as I wanted it, I was not surprised. As an immigrant, I felt the backlash after 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, it was likely that a path to status adjustment was opening for the undocumented. American politics changed and started criminalizing immigrants with a vengeance, legal and undocumented. The Department of Homeland Security is the one that manages terrorism and immigration. As a consequence immigration has become a synonym of terrorism.

I am considered an out-of-state student, even though I have lived in New York most of my life. Within the City University of New York (CUNY) system, undocumented people are automatically considered out-of-state if it takes them more than five years after high school to seek higher education—not so DACA holders. For a typical student, tuition for a year at a CUNY college is about $5,000. My first year was around $14,000. Undocumented students cannot fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) profile blocking them from financial aid. DACA students can only fill it out to get their Student Aid Report (SAR), which determines eligibility for non-federal financial aid. I am often on the lookout for scholarships, but the pool is miniscule and competitive. I have begun to diversify my chances by looking out for funded credit programs, such as the before mentioned, Exploring Transfer program. Tuition, room, and board were fully funded. I saved about $2,000 on tuition and books and a month's worth of rent and food. I almost cried when I got it. Getting and holding a job that pays a fair wage is hard, and doing it while undocumented is almost impossible. We live in a world where everything that can be used against you to exploit you is fair game, all in the name of capitalism.

As I weight my options for a four-year college, I thought I had to stay within the CUNY system since private colleges are more expensive than what I am paying now. I have also come to love the LaGuardia community. State University of New York (SUNY) is another option. As long as you can prove you attended two years and graduated from a New York high school, you are eligible for in-state-tuition. Many private colleges and universities have need-blind aid. Meaning, they have private money and do not care if you are undocumented. If you are bright, they will try to get you. As long as a college has a College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile, it is likely that they do not care about your status. A CSS profile is like FAFSA, but unlike FAFSA it awards financial aid from sources outside of the federal government.

As my search deepens, I also have to take into account my nontraditional student situation. Many colleges have nontraditional student programs. These programs are design for older adults who manage many responsibilities. Some of these programs are The School of General Studies of Columbia University, The NYU School of Professional Studies Paul McGhee Division, Frances Perkins program at Mount Holyoke, and the Ada Comstock Scholars Program at Smith College. Mount Holyoke College and Smith College, both in Massachusetts, have the added feature of being all women colleges. I would love to be in an environment that fosters women's voices.

NYU recently launched a financial aid program to help undocumented students. Mount Holyoke College considers undocumented and DACA students for both merit scholarships and need-based financial aid. Brown University in Rhode Island accepts undocumented students, and these must indicate their interest in financial aid as part of their admission's application. Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University and Yale University have some of the biggest endowments and are open to undocumented students. A problem with private colleges is that they cater to students with money. I have heard from many low-income people who suffer a type of dislocation at these schools. Another problem is that we are not taught to aim that high. High schools for people of color in New York are run like jails. We are treated like criminals in a system that constantly tell us that we are not good enough to aim for these colleges or go for top degrees. I once came out screaming of a parent association meeting at my daughter's middle school. We were being encouraged to send them to the graduation ceremony and prom because "it might be the last one they attend”. Implying that the kids might not graduate from high school. We were also encouraged to start looking into the process of enrollment for technical schools. Losing my composure is the least of my problems, sometimes I feel like I am losing my mind the way this system treats people of color.

The immigration landscape is changing. Once upon a time, there was no support for undocumented people going into higher education. Even now, there is still a lot of misinformation. When I was applying to LaGuardia Community College in the summer of 2014, everything seemed to play against me. I made many lines, repeatedly filled forms and was sent all over the place. Nobody knew what to do with me. It was so stressful I broke down. I refused to state my case one more time to another uninformed person. I demanded a supervisor and an immigration lawyer, which I knew they must have in staff. It is not easy, but nothing of worth is easy. For my part, I will keep researching and reaching out to admissions people to assess my chances. Everyone’s story is different and it reflects different in different environments. Luck plays a part in your future, but so does actively seeking opportunities.


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