Teacher leaning over desk to help student

A DACAmented Teacher Sees Himself in His Students and Their Families

Cristian Aguilar (Bay Area '14) has returned to San Jose to teach in the same neighborhood where he grew up undocumented—and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Friday, July 1, 2016

The high-pitched ring of the bell prompts Cristian Aguilar to put on his best teacher face and stride to the schoolyard so he can pick up his students for the start of their day.

As his fourth graders line up in front of Escuela Popular Dual Language Academy in the Alum Rock neighborhood of San Jose, California, he matches them smile for smile. And when he greets them eye to eye before they pass through the door and find their desks, you can’t help but wonder if he’s having flashbacks; Cristian and his family immigrated from Michoacan, Mexico, to Alum Rock when he was around the same age as his students are now. “What I remember most was that I didn’t speak a word of English,” he says.

Cristian gradually vanquished the language barrier, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley. But as someone who grew up undocumented, he’ll be the first to tell you that his journey to one of the top colleges in the nation was far from easy.

“I feel such a connection with my students and their families,” he says. “I’m from Alum Rock. The school where I teach is 98 percent Latino, like me. The majority of my students are from ‘mixed’ families, where some family members are undocumented, and it’s likely some families could be all undocumented.

Students in hallway

“When the topic comes up, some say ‘like my mom’ or ‘like my dad,’” he notes, “but a lot of them at this age still don’t know what that fully means. I want to prepare them for when they do.”

For Cristian, that time came during his sophomore year of high school. “My friends started applying for financial aid and driver’s licenses, and I began to run into the same barriers a lot of my students will eventually face if they want to go to college,” he recalls.

Two years later, Cristian’s classmates were moving on to the same universities where he was accepted but couldn’t afford to attend. As a result, he enrolled at De Anza, a local junior college, with the mindset that it would be the last stop in his educational journey. Much to his surprise, he was wrong.

“My sister enrolled me in a program at De Anza where I learned about educational equity from professors who were people of color, and that inspired me,” he says. “I realized that just because I’m undocumented, I can’t get a high-quality education.”

Teacher sitting in garden

Motivated to be part of changing that reality, Cristian worked his way to UC Berkeley and, with the help of some Berkeley Law students, got his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) application approved. When he learned about Teach For America, he became determined to join the corps after his senior year. Unfortunately, another roadblock appeared: at the time, only U.S. citizens were eligible to apply to TFA. “I thought my dreams to teach were crushed,” he says.

But in 2013, TFA began recruiting DACAmented teachers, and Cristian jumped at the chance. “I saw an opportunity to change the system,” he says. “Now there were going to be undocumented people in the classroom. I wanted to be a part of that.”

After graduating, Cristian joined the 2014 corps, and recently completed his second year at Escuela Popular, a bilingual school. As he seamlessly transitions from English to Spanish and back again with his students, he’s learned that there’s much more to being an educator than lectures and grades.

“I feel that teaching goes beyond the content learned,” he says, “and before we can teach any of this content, we have to meet students’ basic needs. There are a lot of them who were coming to school hungry. I had a student last year who was homeless. There are students who aren’t with their parents right now because of the immigration system.

Mock flowers with portraits of students

“I feel like that’s why I’m in the classroom. That’s why I’m with my kids, because I feel like they need one person in their lives who believes in them, who knows where they’re coming from, and knows what they’re going through.”

While he has talked with his students about the situation facing undocumented people in California and nationwide, Cristian waited until a language arts lesson at the end of the year before sharing his own status.

“We read Cajas de Carton, the Spanish translation of The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez,” he says. “It’s about the journey going from Mexico to the United States and crossing the border. I incorporated the story of being undocumented so people can understand the hardships and barriers that they face.

“That’s where I came out to my students. I wanted to get across that this is why I want them to be aware, socially and politically, so they can understand and connect with other people who are similar to them in some ways, but not in others because of their status. It’s great to be able to do that.”

Teacher in front of class

When asked if he would suggest that other college students in his position follow him into the DACAmented program, Cristian’s reply is unequivocal.

“I definitely say that if you’ve got your DACA and are thinking about joining Teach For America, you should apply,” he says. “We need a lot of people who are aware of the issues that involve a lot of our communities.

“As a teacher, you’ve been through high school and college, and so it’s important for our students and families to see that they can do it and make it through high school and college. You can be that role model for them in the classroom.”



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