I'll never forget Rodrigo.
After seven years of being a classroom teacher, I ended up teaching several hundred students across four schools, three cities, and two separate states. I taught both middle and high school students a variety of topics from social studies to Spanish to health and P.E. to an advisory course. I taught students bound for top-tier colleges and universities and I taught students who would end up dropping out of high school. I taught students from Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Jehovah's Witness, and Atheist backgrounds. I taught straight, gay, and transgender students. I taught students who were on the Honor Roll and I taught students caught up in local gang activity. I taught students from the upper middle class and I taught students whose families were living well below the poverty line.
And I taught several students who were undocumented.
But oddly enough, perhaps the most moving story I have from my teaching experience did not even involve one of my own students, but rather a student who was dating one of my students at the time. You see, in early 2010, I was working as a long-term substitute teacher at a charter school in southern California. This charter school was within an hour from the border and located in a largely Latino area of the city. Because the school had a reputation for being open and accepting, many undocumented students found their way through our doors and into our classrooms. As was legally required, we as classroom teachers were never told of our students' citizenship status. But those of us who made an effort to get to know our students on a personal level were able to build the kind of relationships where we learned of our students' fears and anxieties and we learned just how difficult life was for our students who lived with this terrible secret. Because of this, these students formed a tight-knit community of support where many of them became friends and even more.
It was in this way that I was introduced to Rodrigo. He was dating Marinela, a student in my government and economics class. Each day he would arrive at my door after class to escort Marinela to her next class. Rodrigo was kind, always saying hello and smiling. His teachers would speak highly of him and his work ethic, despite having only arrived in the country a few months prior. He was known to the administration for his pleasant demeanor. He had found steady employment at a local car repair shop after school and would occasionally wear his uniform to school on days in which he would head directly there after school. During the times he wasn't working, he and Marinela were inseparable. They did everything together. During the late winter, Marinela shyly stayed behind after my class one day with Rodrigo to ask my permission to miss the next day's class to attend a cultural festival where both of them were scheduled to perform a dance together. I nodded and gave them both my blessing and their smiles lit up the room. How could I say no to young love?
Nearly two months later, I came across Marinela before school sitting at a table and crying and several friends around her. I did not want to interrupt but I was concerned. Marinela's friend, Lupe, who was also in my class saw my concern and came over to me.
"It's Rodrigo," she said with tears in her eyes. "They caught him fishing with his uncle over the weekend. He was...he was...deported yesterday."
My heart dropped. Rodrigo was a sixteen-year-old kid who came here for a better life. He was doing everything right. Good grades. Model student. Contributing member of society. He was even using part of his salary to send home to his family. He was no criminal and yet here he was, being caught in a system where he was seen as a threat even though he was a peaceful, kind-hearted kid. It was wrong and I was angry.
I wasn't the only one who felt this way. As news spread throughout the day, all of Marinela's teachers would pull her aside and offer her a hug and words of encouragement. Her friends did their best to cheer her up. Word even spread to the school administration, the overwhelming majority of whom saw the complete absurdity of the situation. Over the next three days, Marinela, thanks largely to her peers, would gradually cheer up. Her friends were her rocks, telling jokes and making her smile. Rodrigo's friends, too, proved to be strong allies and they too moved into Marinela's corner, offering her kind words of support. Like any tragedy, it seemed as if sheer will and determination would help our school community get through this terrible event.
On day four, that all changed.
Because about ten minutes before classes were scheduled to begin, there was a large crowd gathered outside the front door of the school. All of a sudden, we heard a loud cry go up. The school resource officer left her post to see what was occurring and made her way through a crowd of Latino students. As she parted the crowd, a team of concerned teachers left our classrooms and made our way outside, also concerned about what may be occurring. Much to our surprise, we saw the school resource officer clapping her hands and jumping up and down and she turned back toward the school. It was then that we saw what she saw: Rodrigo had returned and he and Marinela were sharing a long, heartfelt embrace. As word rapidly spread, Rodrigo's friends, his teachers, and a team of administrators emerged to embrace him and welcome him back.
We never learned how Rodrigo made it back. There was talk to the hiring of a 'coyote,' a Mexican smuggler who would take people over the border for a costly sum. There were even rumors that our very own school administration had helped procure the funds needed for such an expensive endeavor. As teachers, we never learned what happened and to be honest, we didn't care. All we knew was that all was right in Marinela's, Rodrigo's, and our school community's world. Rodrigo was one of us and we wanted him home.
I tell Rodrigo's story not because it is unique, especially around border towns, but rather because stories like his don't get told enough. As our nation faces the most openly xenophobic administration since Andrew Jackson, it is important that those of us with privilege use our privilege to counter the poisonous narrative that all undocumented immigrants are criminals and thieves. There are children like Rodrigo currently being detained in internment camps at our southern border. Like him, they came for a better life, and in many cases, as asylum seekers, they have done nothing wrong. Even those who are undocumented have come to this country because they have nowhere else to turn. You don't leave your home, your family, and everything you've ever known unless you know you are completely out of options. Crossing the southern border is a life-changing decision and one that is made out of sheer desperation.
Those attempting to justify the administration's current policies have never met anyone like Rodrigo or Marinela. In fact, many of them have probably never even met any Latino immigrant. They honestly believe that our southern border is being overrun by MS-13, an assertion that is blatantly false and one created to dehumanize those like Rodrigo who are risking everything to come to this country. These folks are unreachable as it has always been their racism and xenophobia that has driven their support for this administration rather than any sort of economic anxiety. They may claim economic anxiety fears, but what they really fear is a country where they are in the minority. Because they know just how terribly those in the minority have been treated throughout our nation's history.
And what they don't see is what I saw. That there is a community behind those who are undocumented. Many don't even know who is undocumented in their communities but they are there among us, contributing day in and day out. They are students in schools and universities. They are working hard jobs, those that everyday Americans are simply unwilling to do. They are skilled day-laborers, domestic servants, and backroom employees. Employers willingly hire them because they know how important having a job is for them. Because of this, they are often exploited and have no legal recourse if they are mistreated or abused. But these immigrants do find these jobs, often after a long and perilous journey, and continue to send back money to their families and loved ones despite having a portion of their paychecks go into a social security system that they will never be able to access themselves.. Ironically, they often work harder and smarter than the vast majority of those who accuse them of being 'lazy' and 'uneducated.'
For those that have worked with the undocumented, now is the time to share our stories for those who cannot. We need to be allies for those like Rodrigo, who live in the shadows but who are just American as you or me in every way but the possession of papers. We cannot allow those in power to continue to dehumanize them in an effort to justify their heinous and racist policies built on White supremacy. Because we know they will try. They will try to portray these people as less than human. Historically, we've seen what happens when one group is scapegoated and seen as inferior based on physical appearance alone. We cannot let that happen here. Eleven million of our brothers and sisters are depending on us.
And they need us to tell their stories.
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