UC Berkeley student Itzel Calvo Medina has spent the last six years advocating for her undocumented community across the state. Medina recently authored A Student Guide for Community Organizing. Illustrated by fellow immigrant rights organizer Maria Hu Wu, the guide gives students the tools to build social movements of their own. (Photo by Irene Yi)
By Ivan Natividad October 13, 2020
As an undocumented child growing up, I always felt like I had to hide a part of myself.
I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and migrated to Los Angeles when I was five. My parents, my younger brother and I were all undocumented.
When I started kindergarten, we settled in Portland, Oregon.
My dad worked as a dry cleaner and as a waiter at local restaurants. My mom cleaned houses. We were not wealthy, but I went to a high school in Clackamas, a suburb of Portland.
Clackamas High School got more funding than other schools in the area, and had more white students than students of color. It was a very, very college-oriented school. My peers never questioned whether or not they were going to college or not. The question was more about what university they were going to.
I remember there was a board in the school’s hallway that showed where different students were planning to go to college. There were never many Black or Latinx students on that board.
When I was in high school, nobody spoke about undocumented issues. In 2010, when the DREAM Act was in the House and the Senate, it was all over the news.
But I couldn’t talk about it with any of my friends.
When talking about the future, they were talking about getting new cars, going to parties and college applications. I was thinking about what kind of job I was going to get to help my family after high school. How am I going to get a job if I can’t get a license to drive as an undocumented person?
I felt really lonely. I couldn’t relate.
One day, my senior year in 2012, I told a counselor that I was undocumented. She was a little shocked and didn’t know how to help me. So, she just went on Google to search for scholarships for undocumented people.
In Portland, there wasn’t a lot of public support for undocumented people at the time. All of the college applications required a social security number just to apply. My only option was community college.
My counselor nominated me for a scholarship, so that I could get one semester paid in full for my community college. But I still wondered if it was even worth it to go to college. If I got a degree, I wouldn’t be able to work. So, really, what’s the point?
That summer that I graduated high school, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy was announced. I was able to get a work permit.
After visiting family in the Bay Area, I decided I wanted to get out of my little community and just kind of expand my horizons. I wanted to go to a university in California where there were more resources for undocumented students.
Medina has organized and attended rallies and protests to push for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In this photo, Medina, third from right in the back row, stands with her fellow activists during a 2017 protest against deportations. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)
My parents had made all these sacrifices and really wanted me to get an education, so we all moved to South San Francisco together to live with my mom’s sister and her husband. She was pregnant at the time, so it was the four of us (and) my tía and tío living in a one-bedroom apartment.
In spring 2013, I started attending City College of San Francisco and took social justice and ethnic studies courses that really radicalized me and made me see issues that don’t just impact me as a student, but issues that have impacted me my whole life as an undocumented person of color.
Why did I have to hide my undocumented status? My parents made so many sacrifices and were working so hard. I was told that if you work hard in this country, you’re going to make it.
But we were still living in poverty.
Medina, bottom right, lays with her fellow organizers outside of San Francisco’s ICE processing center during the 2017 protest. (Photo courtesy of Itzel Calvo Medina)
I started getting more plugged into organizing around undocumented issues. I began sharing my opinions on social media, and some of my friends from middle school reached out to me saying that they were also undocumented, but they were just scared to talk about it back then.
We had no idea that we were going through the same thing.
Around that time, I remember watching the news and seeing ‘Dreamers’ out on the streets protesting and voicing their demands and concerns about undocumented communities. And they were being led by other young people.
I wanted to be part of that.
There was a group on campus for undocumented students called Students Advocating for Equity that I got involved in.
I also began doing research around why undocumented college students were falling through the cracks in California. It was because they had to often pay out-of-state tuition rates and did not get financial aid.
Through the different policy groups I’ve interned for and organized with, I began contacting people in Sacramento to help expand the qualifications for legislation like Assembly Bill 540 and the California DREAM Act.