In Arizona, we got in a bus full of people, and the driver gave us $20 each for food for the stops. We ate from the $1 menu at McDonald’s for two days, and I still remember the first real meal we had when we finally came to DC and Adams Morgan!
It took us four months to get enrolled in school because there was no one to help us. We went through a confusing and frustrating maze of public offices, test taking, and school officials without being able to speak English. We eventually went to Wilson High School. My first job was as a dishwasher at a restaurant downtown. I worked making pizzas, as a barback, and I was in school the whole time. In my sophomore year, I was so tired, working, paying rent, and the first two periods were so difficult because we were so tired. We eventually met other students who were working and supporting their families. Through them, I got to know Brenda Perez and MLOV’s Youth Action Team (YAT) — Brenda is now my co-worker!
After a while, the YAT team members and the YAT organizer kept asking me to come every Wednesday, and I started coming regularly. MLOV felt like a second home for me because the meetings were bilingual. YAT and MLOV became my family because it was a safe space to challenge myself, speak English, get politicized, and think beyond my jobs and high school. We were immigrants with different languages and ethnicities but we faced the same struggles.
In my junior year of high school, we went to testify many times for the need for language access in the schools. We were the youngest Latinx organizers who led the March in 2007 on May Day where thousands of people marched on the White House. When Trump was elected, many of my young Latina friends who had children didn’t come to school. Eight- and nine-year-olds were asking me if I could take care of them if Trump took their parents, but I didn’t have my papers myself. It broke my heart to hear that. I support these young people in every way I can, and they are not babies anymore — in fact, several of them are involved in MLOV’s Youth Action Team.
Just recently, I became the Membership Coordinator after taking time off to focus on school. I joined the MLOV Board and eventually transitioned to staff. As Membership coordinator, I do all the data management for MLOV and am frequently the first person people talk to when they come into the office, as a trusted community leader. I’m now helping a fifteen-year-old named Francis who just came to DC. I went with him to Deal Middle School, so that he wouldn’t have to navigate the enrollment process on his own--it is scary and frustrating and I know what it is like to struggle through it alone. For example, in the process for taking the exam for Language Acquisition, the people who work there are sometimes intimidating and condescending. It can be a humiliating experience. I intervene and support the youth to be treated with dignity and respect during this difficult process of building an entire new life in the district.
The youth who come are coming from the border right now are carrying a huge burden of with emotional trauma and physical trauma, yet they are so relieved to be reunited with their families. When I ask them, “How do you imagine going to school here?” they imagine a seamless and easy process. But they are confronted with a humiliating and disempowering reality, not just integrating into schools but the society here in general. So I make sure they have the tools to defend themselves.
It feels really nice to come full circle. For example Francis feels more empowered, that there is someone close to his age who can be with him as he navigates a confusing and disempowering system. The youth at MLOV see me as a friend and mentor and it makes me so happy that they can plan and dream with me. Summer is coming and gang activity is heating up in the neighborhood. YAT and our Summer Institute for Student Organizing (now going on it’s 9th year!), become a really important spaces that youth can come to all year long, to experience family, be safe, be part of the community, and contribute, as change the oppressive systems we confront daily.