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American Dreamers

Alejandro Fuentes Mena '13
Image: ameliaannphoto.com

Having come to the U.S. as a four-year-old, Alejandro Fuentes Mena ’13 has long since overstayed his visitor’s visa. Now an elementary school teacher, Fuentes may or may not be on a path to citizenship.

By Daniel F. Le Ray

Patricia Sotelo chose to make the one-way trip from Valparaiso, Chile, to the United States for a simple reason: she believed that, in her new home of San Diego, she could find the work, community and security that she so badly wanted for her family. At the age of just four, Sotelo’s son Alejandro Fuentes Mena ’13 joined her, overstayed his visitor visa and became one of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

“The U.S. was, in her mind, the land of opportunity,” Fuentes said.

Chile—at that time under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet—was a place where women’s rights and employment opportunities were limited.

“She was looking for a place where she could succeed and where I would be able to get as far as I possibly could.”

Fuentes has gone far. Thanks to Teach For America’s DREAMer Program, which recruits undocumented college graduates to teach and mentor children of similar backgrounds, he has just completed his first two-year stint as an elementary school teacher in Denver.

Fuentes and the other DREAMers around the country are all beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, part of an executive order signed by President Obama in 2012. DACA grants renewable two-year work visas to undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. prior to their 16th birthday and before June 2007.

However, as with any executive order, it may be overturned as soon as a new occupant moves into the Oval Office. About his nebulous immigration status, Fuentes admits: “It’s kind of scary to be in this situation.”

FOR FUENTES, the concept of being “undocumented” remained abstract until it began to impact him at school. Not speaking the same language as his classmates, communication with them and his teachers was difficult. He became the class clown.

“I kind of gave up to a certain degree,” he said. “I knew that the education system was not where I was going to succeed, or at least that was the story I told myself.”

But Kelly Kovacic—Fuentes’ teacher at the Preuss School in La Jolla, California—was there to tell him otherwise.

“She saw potential within me that I didn’t necessarily see within myself, or rather, didn’t want to show off,” Fuentes said. “She supported me and got me out of that mindset that said my status meant that I wasn’t going to be able to succeed.”

Fuentes went from class clown to straight-A student over the course of three grades.

He and Ms. Kovacic—his “lifelong mentor”—are still in touch (and she is about to start working for Denver Public Schools), so it is fitting that he has taken up her baton.

Entering his Denver classroom, Fuentes immediately empathized with the students, many of whom were either undocumented or who had undocumented family members. As teacher and mentor, he has been able to make an impact on the social level: “A big part of this job is being able to be socially and culturally responsive in the classroom.”

And his drive and passion for teaching spring from a desire to affect his students’ lives as profoundly as Ms. Kovacic affected his.

THE TEACH FOR AMERICA program seemed to find Fuentes. He first heard about it at Whitman, when he attended a recruitment session led by recent graduate Jacqueline Kamm Downey ’10.

Here, he thought, was an opportunity to effect some real change. At the time, he was also worried about how his immigration status would change post-graduation.

“I did all of this work, and I worked my ass off, but this [was] kind of the end of the story for me,” he said.

Downey helped Fuentes as much as she could, but it wasn’t until DACA was announced that the pieces started falling into place. Becoming one of the first two DREAMers nationwide was both a great honor and utterly surreal.

“It was very beautiful. I ended up crying when I heard that the opportunity was going to be granted to me,” he said.

Each teacher in the program takes on a minimum commitment of two years in the school they are assigned to. Fuentes has just completed that stretch and has chosen to stay in the classroom, because that’s where he can have the greatest impact.

“I want to use this as a basis for a change in [students’] social and economic status,” said Fuentes. “It’s not always the case, but education does end up being at least a foothold onto escaping those clasps of poverty.”

Fuentes is teacher, friend and counselor to his students—sometimes all at once. He plans to do three more years at the upper elementary school level, then five at high school, ideally at the Preuss School, where Ms. Kovacic set him on the right path.

And after that?

“I think that, after being in the trenches, so to speak, for 10 years, I’ll be able to have a better understanding of what it is that I could do to impact the educational system in the U.S. as a whole.”

His ultimate goal: to work toward educational equity for all students, across the country.

EVEN IF a piece of paper or a permanent Social Security card doesn’t define the person, Fuentes thinks that there should be a path to citizenship available for immigrants who, like him, came to the U.S. at a young age.

“I have grown up saying the Pledge of Allegiance and making American culture into something that I deem my own,” he explained.

“All my friends are here, all my immediate family is here. Everything that I know, everything that I love, everything that I’ve come to cherish, all the things I’ve gained in this life and all the things that I’ve lost.”

What would he say to those who would say that he should be sent back to Chile?

“That’s not the life I know and that’s not the life I’ve loved, so it would be very unfortunate and—dare I say—unfair to make me go back.”

His immigration status was not an issue when applying to Whitman, which has a policy of admitting and enrolling students regardless of citizenship.

When hearing about the support provided to undocumented students, Fuentes felt humbled and “good about the future of undocumented people not only at Whitman but across the nation as well.”

However, he also recognized that neither he nor his family had been in a place to offer advice on applying to college or a university.

“I grew up in a low-income neighborhood with my family, and because they never knew the context of the American school system, they couldn’t really help me,” he said.

He hopes, as a DREAMer, that he can give back to those like him—school-age students who might now know what their educational options are.

Whether those students are citizens, legal permanent residents or undocumented immigrants, Fuentes doesn’t care.

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