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Student activism

Weighty immigration issues occupy the minds of those with and without documentation.

Published August 13, 2006

HOMESTEAD — In this town, where hope and fear live side by side, teenage friends are confronting illegal immigration in their own ways.

At a glance, Elizabeth Vasquez and Yaneth Mendez are typical American teenagers who wear jeans and T-shirts and listen to English and Spanish rap.

Born in the U.S., Elizabeth, 16, aspires to be a journalist, a history teacher or the town’s mayor.

But for her childhood schoolmate, Yaneth, the realization has set in this summer that despite having been a high school honors student she won’t be attending Florida International University this fall because she is an illegal immigrant.

“I’ve cried because it really puts me down,’’ said Yaneth, 18, who would like to be a veterinarian. “I’m the type of girl that I love to study.”

Elizabeth is among a rising generation of newly aware and active young Hispanics. In a state without a long history of immigration activism, she organized a walkout of 1,500 students here because her parents had once been illegal immigrants from Honduras and Mexico.

But Elizabeth got additional inspiration to form the fledgling Mexican and Central American Community Improvement Association from friends like Yaneth and Mayra Rubio, who lead lives with far fewer opportunities than she has.

Elizabeth met Mayra at a meeting to plan a student walkout last spring. But they had different reasons for attending.

Mayra, 15, told Elizabeth that although she has been raised in the United States since she was 3 months old, she is here illegally.

“It’s hard to think that this is your life, this is your country, but it’s not,” said Mayra, who would like to own her own business. “It can be taken away just like that.”

When Mayra did not show up for classes at South Dade High School three days straight in April, it was because her parents kept her inside the house with the shades pulled down, fearing immigration raids in the farm worker housing camp where they live. Her mother would not let her be photographed for this story.

“When you meet somebody, you have a stereotype of what a person looks like born in another country,’’ said Elizabeth. “Mayra knows English. She listens to non-Mexican music. I didn’t think she was undocumented.”

Like Elizabeth, many of those who marched in the walkout were young people, a blend of legal and illegal immigrants whose main stake in the immigration debate is the possibility of going to college.

They are coming of age at a time when the contentious national debate has focused attention on their own identities.

As immigration reform threatens to become a long-term fight, activism has taken root among some Hispanic youths who, like Elizabeth and Mayra, are participating in voter registration drives or training to organize future marches.

More than 60 percent of Hispanics believe this spring’s unprecedented nationwide rallies marked the start of a long-lasting movement, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study released this month.

“Clearly both the marches and the immigration debate have made very deep impressions on Latino public opinions,’’ said Roberto Suro, the center’s director. “We can see in the way they talk about ethnic unity. … They see the beginning of a new social movement.’’

Elizabeth is being encouraged to form her group by her mother, Martha Saenz. Saenz said it pains her to see children who grew up with her daughter not be able to go to college.

“There are many students who are carrying the dreams of their parents who sacrificed everything to come here and get them ahead,” said Saenz, 46, a naturalized citizen originally from Honduras who works in a school cafeteria. “But they stay in a dream that doesn’t come true.”

Saenz has in mind Yaneth, a recent high school graduate who she used to drive to school along with Elizabeth when the two girls were little.

Since Elizabeth and Mayra led the walkout, they have developed a budding friendship. Elizabeth lives with her parents and two younger sisters in town, about 3 miles away from Mayra’s farm worker housing.

The girls don’t hang out much because their parents like them to be home. They are more likely to talk on their cell phones, mostly about immigration issues.

“She tells me, 'I used to be quiet. I used to be shy,’ but after this I’m not holding back,’ ’’ Elizabeth says of Mayra. “She used to be calmada — peaceful — but now she’s more into politics.”

There are many Elizabeths, Yaneths and Mayras in Florida, but especially in Homestead. Here, more than half the town’s 44,000 residents are Hispanic. One in three was born abroad.

And unlike in other Florida communities where Puerto Ricans and Cubans predominate, Mexicans and Central Americans are more heavily concentrated here.

Elizabeth said her activism has been inspired by the HBO movie Walkout, about students in East Los Angeles in the 1960s, and by Hispanic rapper Lil’ Rob, who is the son of Mexican immigrants.

“He talks about how if a minority pulls together they can take control of their own fate,’’ Elizabeth said.
During the immigration scares, Mayra said her parents considered sneaking her across the street to the house of her godmother, who is legal.

“They’re scared,’’ Mayra said. “If they were not scared, they would not get locked up in the house when something like that is happening.”

On Sundays she works at her family’s puesto — a fruit and vegetable stand — on the outskirts of Homestead. But if she were legal, she would like to own many stores.

“I see the border as a wall,’’ she said. “Behind the wall, there’s a door, and when we walk through it, there’s many dreams and hopes, many things we can accomplish. But we can’t really do that because once you come here, you live like you’re in prison.’’

On the day of the walkout, Mayra led the students out of South Dade High. They met Elizabeth, who had walked out of Robert Morgan Educational Center, her parents and some middle school students in the front of the school.
In front of city hall, Mayra told her classmates that immigrants are not criminals.

“I wasn’t afraid that day. I was really happy because at least I’m making a difference,’’ she said.

Elizabeth fears that if the law does not change, the puesto might be as good as it gets for Mayra.

“I’ll be able to go to college; she won’t,” said Elizabeth. “She’ll live in fear basically her whole life.”

In a town where some students call illegal immigrants “wetbacks,”  Mayra said she is thankful that Elizabeth has taken up her cause.

“I think she’s a good person,” said Mayra. “There’s not that many people trying to help out the immigrants.”

Jose Cardenas can be reached at or (727) 445-4224.

[Last modified August 13, 2006, 21:28:35]

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