By Rafi Schwartz
June 9, 2016
For Larissa Martinez, giving the valedictory speech at her high school graduation was more than just an opportunity to wish her classmates well and send them off into the great unknown of semi-adulthood. Instead, as the 2016 class of McKinney Boyd High School sat decked out in caps and gowns last week, Martinez shared something she’d told only a handful of people in her entire life.
After dispensing with the requisite thank-yous, and peppering her remarks with references to Beyoncé and Mean Girls, Martinez shifted gears. She opened up about her experience moving from Mexico City to Texas as a young girl. Looking out at her classmates, she continued:
“I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States. I decided to stand before you today and reveal these unexpected realities because this might be my only chance to covey the truth to all of you: that undocumented immigrants are people too.”
The auditorium burst into applause.
As undocumented immigrants like Martinez become an increasingly powerful political force, more of them are making the same choice she did — to reveal their immigration status to the world, regardless of the consequences. Martinez is one of a growing movement of students who are using their academic platforms to speak up. Sometimes, as in her case, the response is mostly positive. Sometimes, these young people receive hostile and bigoted responses.
Martinez’s speech also contained digs at Donald Trump—immigrants, she said, are people who yearn to “help make America great again without the construction of a wall built on hatred and prejudice—and a ringing call to fix the “broken” immigration system which had left her in legal limbo for so many years.
You can watch the speech below, starting at 21:50
For Martinez, speaking up wasn’t simply an act of personal truth-telling. Her graduation speech served to put a face, a name, and a story behind the narrative of “undocumented immigrants”—a narrative that is often met with nasty rhetoric, dehumanizing stereotyping, and overt racism. As she explained to Houston’s KHOU.com, “A part of me feels like I was meant to do this.”
But while her speech was received largely with cheers and enthusiastic support, another Texas graduate was experiencing something much more discomforting.
On the night before graduation, Mayte Lara Ibarra, senior class president, and valedictorian of Austin, TX’s David Crockett high school, reportedly tweeted that she was at the top of her class with a 4.5 GPA, and headed to the University of Texas with a full ride, and then added, “Oh, and I’m undocumented.” (Universities across Texas “have for decades granted two-semester tuition waivers to valedictorians of Texas public high schools, without regard to their residency status,” as a representative of UT explained to KXAN.)
Ibarra didn’t frame her valedictory graduation speech in the context of immigration, as Martinez did with hers, but she did lead the packed auditorium in both the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Texas State Pledge.
While her message generated plenty of supportive replies, it also prompted a viciously bigoted backlash. Ibarra was inundated with tweets accusing her of “stealing” the place of a legal immigrant.
Or threatening to deport her from her dorm room.
Conservative websites like Breitbart framed her as an “illegal immigrant” who was “bragging” about going to college.
The response was enough for Ibarra to delete her Twitter account entirely, after first tweeting, “I want all this attention from strangers to stop already,” according to NBC affiliate KXAN.
There are many more students who have spoken out about their undocumented status.
In 2011, for instance, Arizona State University “outstanding distinguished senior” Angelica Hernández described what it was like to be both a graduate, and an undocumented immigrant, saying “There’s my degree but I can’t use it as much as I want to get a job, as much as I want to help somewhere or do research, I can’t. Its just very unfortunate.”
And Marlon Portillo, the 2015 Valedictorian for the Carver Health Sciences and Research school, was forced to set up a crowdfunding campaign in order to finance his college education in response to Georgia legislation that makes matriculation at any University System of Georgia school particularly onerous and expensive for undocumented students.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com