Connecticut Students for a Dream
Following is a transcription of a speech delivered by incoming University of Connecticut student, Michael Hernandez. Michael will be studying Political Science as a member of the UConn Class of 2022.
CT Students for a Dream, Intern
Volunteer Luncheon, The Community Fund of Darien
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Good afternoon, I am very excited and honored to be here, and want to thank Carrie, Lisa and the entire team at the Community Fund of Darien for inviting me today. Congratulations to all of you, volunteers, for your hard work and commitment to help others.
In January of 2017, I attended the Women’s March in Downtown Stamford (were any of you there?). I experienced, first- hand, the power of a united Fairfield County community. For many years, I had never shared with any of my friends that I was undocumented. Frightened by the rhetoric of the presidential election and protected by an American accent I had worked so hard to perfect, I chose to remain silent. After the Women’s March, I broke my silence and gathered 5 of my closest friends at Starbucks to plan a rally in front of the Stamford government center. (As I previously shared with Lisa and Carrie, I can always be found at your local coffee shop.) About 100 people, including Stamford’s Mayor and the School Superintendent, came to the rally. We shared our concerns about the fear and uncertainty among the immigrant community, regardless of our country of origin and also heard words of encouragement and support from many local leaders.
I publicly shared for the first time that I was undocumented and since then I have taken pride in who I am: an American by every definition except having a U.S. passport.
After the rally, shortly before graduation, I decided to take a gap year between high school and college and devote my time to volunteering and doing advocacy work. I joined Connecticut Students for a Dream, to be part of a state-wide effort to pass a bill that would give undocumented students access to institutional aid. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass last year, and plenty of people around me, including my own family, perceived our efforts as in vain.
After graduating from Westhill High School, I truly became involved as a volunteer. A great friend of mine, Catalina Horak, kindly opened the doors of Building One Community. I committed to volunteering as an English teacher at this great organization, and ever since I have seen first-hand the tireless efforts of my ESL students and other committed volunteers, to improve their lives. In addition to helping others, volunteering has allowed me to be helped by others. I have met wonderful members of the community who have offered me their unconditional support- from college applications to job opportunities, to building professional skills. I am not embarrassed to say I have been given a hand along the way. On the contrary, I am grateful and proud to have benefitted from Fairfield County’s commitment to volunteerism.
I have not always called Fairfield County home. I grew up in a small rural town in Honduras with my grandmother while my mother worked in the United States cleaning houses. I never wanted to come to the United States, but I had suffered different kinds of abuses in Honduras and the threat of the gangs was never too far away. One day when I was 10 years old, I came home from the library and I saw a suitcase laying on my bed. My grandmother said I was leaving to the United States the next morning. There was no time to say goodbye to any of my friends or family members. Later I learned that my mother had paid the “coyote” who brought me to the USA more than $7,000 dollars, a lot of money for her!
I did not have any input in my travel arrangements to come to the United States. Had it been up to me, I would have waited until I was 18 years old and gone to the American embassy in Tegucigalpa and applied for a visa to come study and work in this great nation. However, access to legal immigration in Latin America is extremely limited to people of wealth and to adults. I do not come from a wealthy family and I was not of age; therefore, legal migration was not an option for me.
The memories of that day are still fresh in my mind. My grandmother dropped me off at the metropolitan bus terminal in San Pedro Sula with a man from Guatemala that we both didn’t know. I followed him but I came to a stop at an escalator, what I now call the metaphorical threshold in my journey to America: I had never been on an escalator and I was very scared.
I was about to miss my chance to come to America. I finally got on the escalator and took a bus to Guatemala with this strange man. At the border with Guatemala and Mexico, I met with three more kids and a woman who I had to call Aunt Santos. For the next three weeks, we drove through cities like Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara and finally Tijuana, across the border from the United States.
Aunt Santos, our new coyote, would give us a piece of paper to learn a new identity, and as an incentive she promised to take one of us to the playground. I had never been to a playground in Honduras, so I always made sure she picked me. After a week in Tijuana, Aunt Santos dropped me off at a McDonald’s where I met a man who I had to call my “older brother”. We drove to the border with San Diego, where he handed a yellow envelope with two passports to the immigration officer. The officer asked me why I was going to the United States. I replied “to go to Walmart to buy toys.”
We drove off into San Diego, and I stared through the window in disbelief. I was in the United States.
Finally, I arrived in Stamford in September of 2008. I did not speak a word of English and my mother was practically a stranger to me. In one occasion, a young man spat on my face for not speaking English. His discrimination ignited in me a passion for languages that still lives on to this day. Not only did I learn English, but I also went on to learn Italian, French, and Portuguese. I still remember how in eight grade I begged my mother to buy me a mobile app to learn Italian because Spanish was not enough!
Life as an undocumented immigrant was never easy, from my mother saying “Michael we can’t afford to take you to the hospital because we don’t have health insurance,” to literally being escorted out of a job after they found out about my immigration status. However, with the help of committed community members like many of you, I have been able to overcome many of these obstacles. I will be the first person in my family to go to college, and I am also on a path to becoming a U.S. permanent resident through a special law that provides legal immigration status to children under the age of 18, who can prove that they were abandoned or neglected by one of their parents. That is me! I have never met my father.
People like you have inspired me to share my story.
As part of my advocacy work, I have had the opportunity to engage with activists in Hartford and in Washington, D.C. Most recently, I continued to work with Connecticut Students for a Dream to fight for the bill that will give undocumented students in Connecticut access to institutional aid. In the last 8 months we participated in rallies and testified before legislators. When the bill did not pass last year, the other volunteers and I were very disappointed. Today, I am happy to share a great victory with you. Last month, the bill passed, and our hard work payed off, not in money, but in the new opportunities that students across the state will have. I will be one of the hundreds of students who will benefit from this bill as I will be attending the University of Connecticut in the fall to study political science.
Despite my challenges, I am confident in the future because time after time I have seen the people of Fairfield County come together to support me and many people whose situations are even more uncertain than mine. There is no doubt in my mind that all of you here today will continue to connect with people whose backgrounds and stories are different than yours. How you choose to do it, teaching English like I did at Building One Community, providing food to others, or mentoring someone, will be up to you. The most important thing is to share your passion, to engage with the wider community and to remember that regardless of where we came from, or where we grew up, we all have unique and powerful individual stories, and are part of one big community.
Congratulations to all of you! Your work and mine will always be needed.
CT Students for a Dream, Intern