I was thirteen years old when I first saw hundreds of brown bodies march through the city of Phoenix in the scorching heat, demanding that the nation recognize it would not survive “a day without a Mexican.” My surroundings quickly taught me that my identity as an undocumented Mexican immigrant was undervalued.
I was born to farmworkers in Chihuahua, Mexico at a time when the only way to escape poverty and reach an education higher than elementary school was to travel to “the other side.” Thus, my parents and I came to the United States with a tourist visa when I was almost six years old. It was much too early an age to handle the language barrier and cultural shock that quickly consumed me in the public school system.
High school was a façade of the American girl I could have been - active in my community and academically achieving. However, being brown is not something I had the privilege of rejecting, nor was my immigration status something I could deny. It is difficult to plan one’s future when deportation, family separation, and uncertainty are right around the corner every day. I was told college was out of my reach, and my backup plan was community college, if that. But with the undying support and guidance of my teachers and family I was lucky enough to persevere until my acceptance at the University of Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia welcomed me with open arms: Dream Activist PA, a grassroots organization, empowered me to accept my undocumented status, and the people of the City of Brotherly Love enabled me to embrace the Mexican identity I had learned to shun. I soon became Tania Chairez, Undocumented and Unafraid, something altogether more meaningful than I expected.
Ironically, affirming my identity meant that after being able to study and work under the government's deferred deportation program and graduating from the Wharton School of Business, I knew my duty was to return to my hometown in Phoenix. I am using my privilege to be a 2014 Teach for America corps member, and I will work alongside many others to empower the youth of South Phoenix and the greater Maricopa County. My mere presence in Arizona is validation of what the immigrant community can accomplish.
This does not mean it won't be difficult to come back. After experiencing how welcoming a city can be it is difficult to return to a place that holds very negative memories for me, especially anti-immigrant sentiment. But that is precisely why I am returning. I need to do my part to ensure other students in Phoenix can associate their hometown with positive experiences and can go on to be successful.
I also recognize my privilege to choose to go back. It is both challenging and exhilarating to return to a place that can hold so much oppression yet hold so much potential in its people. To quote Maya Angelou, “my mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”
"It is both challenging and exhilarating to return to a place that can hold so much oppression yet hold so much potential in its people."
Alongside families, teachers, and communities in the Valley of the Sun, I will advocate for undocumented students’ success. We will ensure that the support I received in high school is given to the next generation. I want to make sure every single child, citizen or not, has the ability to dream big and plan for tomorrow regardless of the obstacles, and that every student feels like an essential part of society with talents to contribute.