Karen Zapien is the Chief Policy Analyst for DREAM Team Los Angeles. She was invited to speak at the DREAMer graduation commencement at California State University Fullerton where she graduated this year with a BA in Business Administration Accounting. These are her reflections.
I think about the traditional American university graduation ceremonies, the usual speeches, that I am beyond honored and genuinely happy to be part of such a strong, educated, and caring college community. That my education has opened doors I didn’t even know existed, and helped me view the world with a different perspective, and has given me the tools needed to excel. If I were “just” American my speech would be similar to that. But I am more than just American. I am an undocumented student Dreamer and my perspective, my experiences, are broader than the majority of my college peers.
As I look back, I realize that college, and life has been a really rough ride. A ride for me that began as a one-year-old in a car seat crossing the border with people who were not my parents. They would arrive later.
A rough college ride because of the financial burdens of our studies and supporting our families. We worked multiple jobs while being in school. And for us getting jobs meant going from door-to-door asking for work and being afraid to be asked for a green card.
We can all agree that nothing is attainable without a support system. For us that is our families. The study, the work, the exhaustion, the sleepless nights – a sleep deprived by the worry; will my parents be home when I return from school? My parents migrated to the USA in search for a better future for their children, just like everyone else. They didn’t want their children to work at the age of 6 or 7 like they did. I say it because day and night we still work twice as hard as anyone else.
I am currently protected a little by the Obama-era DACA program, but who knows what will happen with this. I have my permit to work, I am able to legally drive, and I am deferred against deportation. However, there is so much uncertainty with this current administration. I am in a limbo. I am ok. But I am not.
Whether you see your diploma as a ticket for financial success for your family or as kindling to burn down the system to replace it with something better, history will regard us as the generation who worked hard for full legalization of our parents.
My goal is always to contribute as much as I can to this country because I am very thankful to it for my education. I always thank my parents and this country. Pursuing my higher education has been the most extraordinary experiences of my entire life, as it must be for all graduating Dreamers. We defeated the odds. We broke stereotypes and barriers. I commend you all for being the change needed.
I have noticed a lot more graduates with extremely powerful messages about who they are, where they come from and much more. I think this has everything to do with the current stigma against Latinos in general. Messages on our graduation caps send a powerful message. For me “I am strong, I am able, I am Mexican”.
And we must all be strong because still more change is needed. Our college success is not only due to our parents but to systems put in place by the generation of undocumented students who came before us. The original DREAMers.
We are the first graduates who benefited from the fully implemented California Dream Act to provide financial aid for college. We are the first to have all University of California and California State University campuses have Dreamer Resource Centers. We are DACA graduates who can use our diplomas and enter the job market. Benefits we did not directly advocate for, benefits we did not take to the streets to risk our deportations for, but we are the generation of undocumented between decades of nothing for the immigrants before us and full immigration reform to come.
Let us remember that the financial aid we receive in California is not a substitute for economic justice in a nationwide system that profits from our labor and also profits from our incarceration. That the reality for our brother and sister graduates is very different outside of our state and we must work for them too.
I, with all of you, watched in terror when a DACAmented Dreamer was deported because he didn’t have his wallet on him. And I think to myself, I am surviving. I am alive. And being alive is just fine because it means that our graduation is not the finish line but the starting gun. To face an uncertain future in a nation that calls us criminals. To walk a path whose outcome we cannot see.
Whether you see your diploma as a ticket for financial success for your family or as kindling to burn down the system to replace it with something better, history will regard us as the generation who worked hard for full legalization of our parents. To continue the journey they handed to us who wanted something better for us. They wanted the American Dream.
I will remain optimistic and I will continue to work hard in anything I do. I have a lot of faith that great things are coming my way. Sooner or later they will realize that I am simple woman with NO criminal record that has only had straight A’s and contributes to this country.
Take all your fear as empowerment to stand against the stigma of our birth, remembering our fundamental values (respect, hard work, and family); the values that our abuelos and abuelas taught. Although there might be so much despair and uncertainty with the current administration, we need to remember that above all we are good hard working people.
To my fellow graduates of the class of 2017, I say this; do not give up, continue being a guerrero/guerrera. We are beautiful strong brown people with great work ethics and dedication. Continue to dream and to give back, you belong here, and you absolutely matter! Stay strong, keep moving forward, and work hard because like Emiliano Zapata once said, the soil, la tierra, belongs to those who work it.