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The Leadership and Resilience of Our Immigrant Network
As tensions in the national debate over immigration and the welfare of undocumented children continue to rise, so do the voices of our country's many immigrants, many of whom describe themselves as undocumented and unafraid. These leaders are working across sectors to expand educational opportunity and embody the hopes and dreams of the immigrant students in their community.
A Yale-educated community organizer, Juan Carlos Cerda is an advocate for Dreamers and the immigrant community. Through his work at the Texas Organizing Project, a non-profit grassroots organization, he educates immigrants about their civil rights at schools, churches, and community centers. A former kindergarten teacher in Dallas, Cerda organized several initiatives to help end a controversial policy that allowed the Dallas Independent School District Police Department to inquire about students’ immigration status. Cerda is also one of several Dreamers who lost his teaching position when his work permit expired in 2016. He continues to speak out and write about his experiences.
“As a teacher, organizer, and activist, I work to bring people together to change local, statewide, and national immigration policies. I believe that people of different nationalities and racial identities can create unity when we tell our stories and realize that we share a similar history and fate. I hope to one day publish my experiences from my time in my classroom and the community.”
Despite the many setbacks and roadblocks Nancy Adossi faced due to her immigration status as an undocumented person, she persevered, earning her doctorate in education from the University of Houston at age 26. Hailing from Togo in West Africa, Nancy is not only serving her community as a teacher and migration studies expert, but is also an entrepreneur who founded Adossi Consulting Firm, a global company whose clients include governments, major businesses, local nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations.
“Being an undocumented immigrant has never stopped me from achieving my dreams. It has only spurred me onward in the pursuit of every goal I’ve ever wanted. Every day that I wake up, I am proof that the impossible can be done, that an undocumented immigrant can be successful. And with this in mind, there is no force bold enough to stop me. I am the flower, which dared to bloom in the desert. And I refuse to wither.”
For bilingual educator Emmanuel Tecuatl-Lee—or, “Mr. Manny,” as he is known—one of the first rights of children should be their language and their culture. As an educator and leader of his school's dual language department, which serves over 180 students, Tecuatl-Lee is passionate about bilingualism, biliteracy, and working with both parents and teachers to find creative, culturally responsive, and fun ways to engage both English and Spanish learners.
“Often I think that coming out as gay to my conservative and vehemently religious Latino parents was a lot easier than outing myself as being in the United States beyond my visa. As a teacher, I know that these kids look up to me. When they come and hug you, you know they appreciate you for all that you bring to the classroom. Even when they get sick, fussy, or don’t feel like participating in school, they always manage to bring out the little papá, or tío in me. It makes me chuckle to know our culture and ‘ways of being’ are being passed on.”
When Yanicka Peter immigrated from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia to join her mother and father in the United States, it wasn't easy. Thanks to the love and care Yanicka received from her teachers, she succeeded in every way. Today, Yanicka seeks to give back the same nurturing education she received and works as a DACAmented fourth-grade teacher at a charter school in the heart of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn—home to one of largest Caribbean and West Indian populations in New York City. As a result, Yanicka prides herself in creating a safe and supportive classroom environment where students feel empowered to grow, share their stories, and learn.
“Throughout education, teachers are always asked, ‘why?’ Why do we do this work? My ‘why’ is to provide an outlet of comfort and openness to students—to ensure that students know that someone outside of their home is in their corner. In many ways, I have been lucky enough to share a similar cultural background with my students. Some have even immigrated to the United States at the same age as I did, and it’s beautiful to share a similar story.”
Born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, Sebastian Pazmino came to the United States at the age of 18 to pursue a college education. Despite having to learn a new language, culture, and education system, he graduated with honors from the University of Florida, where he realized the importance of elevating the voice of underrepresented societies. After earning his master’s degree in nonprofit leadership from the University of Florida in 2014, Sebastian joined the corps, teaching elementary school in Miami. Today, Sebastian serves on the recruitment team at Teach For America, where he works to bring awareness to, and ensure the equal representation of, immigrants, refugees, and their allies.
"My 'why' is to make sure everyone realizes that immigration is also an identity lever and to ensure that the leaders in our classrooms empathize with our diverse students, immigrants, refugees, and children of all ages. My why is rooted in my own convictions to bridge resources, and make our immigrant voices heard because we deserve the same platform, respect, and integrity. I am proud to be an immigrant with an accent, and I will continue to strive to make sure every immigrant and refugee child is represented.”
Kathrin Palma was 10 when her family moved from the Philippines to the United States in hopes of a more stable life. Kathrin was about to enter college at UCLA when she first learned of her undocumented status and the perils that came with it. Much to her relief, however, DACA's legal protections were enacted during her third year. After graduating, Kathrin joined the corps in Denver, Colorado, where she's now is about to enter her third year in teaching at an elementary school serving mostly low-income and minority students. Kathrin hopes her narrative and journey to the classroom serve as affirmations of what's possible. Amid the uncertainty with DACA, it's a story she plans to share, continuously and unapologetically, to her students and community in hopes to inspire equity for all children.
“‘I am proud to be a woman of color. I am proud to be an immigrant. I am proud of my parents’ sacrifices. I am proud to be a DACAmented educator. I have a deep connection to my roots and I am conscious of my realities. I am enough. I am resilient. I have survived before, I will survive now.’ These are the daily affirmations I recite that keeps me going on good days and especially during tougher days.”
Minerva Inigo came from the Philippines to the United States at the age of 10. During the next 15 years, Minerva lived as an undocumented immigrant, during which time she grappled with identity, loss of self, and the many anxieties that come with trying to adapt to a place where you often feel unsafe.
Today, Minerva serves as manager of learning and development on the Information Technology team at Teach For America, where she is responsible for IT’s learning and development program. As an adult learning practitioner and a leader on TFA's national Asian American & Pacific Islander Resource Group, Minerva strives to create an environment where all people feel valued as they are, and she commits her time and energy to advocating for immigrant and AAPI students and participating in the development of emerging leaders in education.
“Reflecting on my past, I’ve come to believe that having a teacher who shared my identity or had a greater understanding of it, would have made a difference in my life. My teachers, as well-meaning as many of them were, were not equipped to see past the attitude of indifference I adopted to mask what was happening beneath the surface. Some of my teachers even referred to people like myself as illegal aliens; not fully understanding the mental and emotional impact of those words on a person.”