I often think about how I phrase my opinion so as to not put down others. It took me years to learn how to process unique situations and be more mindful with my words. Words matter; they matter a lot.
When I was an undocumented student at Arlington High School in St. Paul in the late 2000s, I got involved in trying to pass a law that would allow a kid like me to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities because I was treated as an out-of-state student even though I was educated and lived in Minnesota.
I got to speak at a hearing on the proposed law. I sat next to a U.S. citizen student who was supporting the law. I can’t remember my exact words, but I remember saying that he could take for granted going to college and I could not. I did not think much of it at the time.
But as I moved through life and met many other young people, and yes, many U.S. citizens, I caught myself thinking about my words during that hearing. Going to college is really hard, for just about anyone. And the assumptions one makes about others are often misleading. Sure, for U.S. citizens, it may be easier to get a loan for school or have access to educational opportunities, but the fact remains that access to higher education is difficult for most people. And if I could go back to that hearing, I would have said something else because I now understand the struggles so many face to graduate high school and go to college. And treating those supporting the same cause that we are is just not good politics or humane.
This also informed how I talked about higher education in general. I often presented to groups of educators, students and families. And I always talked about the different ways to go to college, for U.S. citizens and noncitizens. I never knew exactly who was in the room so why not cover all my bases and be as encompassing as possible.
I was listening to MPR earlier this week and there was a story about access to voting for new U.S. citizens, especially in the Latine community. (Latine is my preferred alternative to Latinx because it is more common in Mexico and Latin America.) There was this quote that caught my ear, and stopped me in my tracks: “We are overlooked as a political power in the state,” said Annastacia Belladonna Carrera, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause. “We are not all undocumented. We are not all on visas. We are citizens in the state of Minnesota. And we do more than scrub toilets.”
I sighed in frustration and sadness. Why do we have to put down others, speak in disgust of others, to show the value of the community? Why do we have to have a hierarchy in the community? Why is a U.S. citizen who does not scrub toilets more valuable in the community than a non-U.S. citizen who cleans for a living? It feels so unnecessary. And it’s hurtful.
I understand the feeling to create a contrast as to what the white community thinks of the Latine community. We are diverse. Those of us in the community know that. But why go to such lengths so as to put down members of the community to highlight the vote power?
As an undocumented person, I have done so much for the community, and yes, I know I cannot vote, but I am valuable and I bring so much to the community. Yes, voting is really important, but the undocumented community can still engage in getting out the vote and getting family members engaged. I mean, we are doing so already.
The law we were trying to pass in 2007 became a law in 2013 as the Prosperity Act or MN Dream Act. I never got to benefit from it because I had graduated from Augsburg University already, but it has changed the landscape in access to higher education for so many in the community. And it was undocumented youth and their allies who made this happen.
So to those who want to highlight the power of the Latine community, including voting, never underestimate the children of a toilet-scrubbing undocumented Minnesotan or that Minnesotan herself.
Juventino Meza is an undocumented student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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