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Dreams from Her Parents

Nancy Mata, a former undocumented immigrant, has found a balance between being an educator and an advocate

Nancy Mata, a former undocumented immigrant, has found a balance between being an educator and an advocate

By Siddhartha Mitter

Nancy Ojeda Mata remembers leaving her grandparents’ home in Michoacán state, Mexico, at age six, consumed with the fear she would never return.

She remembers trips with her parents from their home in Corcoran, California, to the immigration office in Fresno, to check on her residency application. “You’d wake up really early, like two a.m., just to form a line and wait for people to treat you badly,” she says.

And she remembers being one of the few Mexican-American honors students in a school and town that were majority Latino. “I didn’t think that was right,” she says. “It didn’t make any sense to me.”

For years Mata kept those memories in separate compartments as she made her way first to Stanford, where she majored in German after a year’s study abroad in Berlin; and then to TC, where she is completing her M.A. in International Educational Development, with a focus on Latino and Latin American education.

It was during the year after she finished college, Mata says, when staying with her farm-worker parents back in Corcoran--a parched place in the Central Valley best known for its two prisons—that her ambitions to educate and advocate came together.

“So many people I grew up with were talented and worked very hard, and they’re not here where I am today,” she says. Some were not so fortunate, as she was, to finally get residency papers and qualify for financial aid. Others were tracked into ESL classes that simply did not prepare them for college.

During that same year, 2009, support was revving up for the DREAM Act, which would have given U.S. residency status to undocumented immigrants who completed minimum stints in higher education or military service. But there was no such fervor in Corcoran, nor even Fresno, Mata observed--despite the local demographics. “There was nothing going on in terms of anyone mobilizing or organizing,” she says.

Angered and saddened, Mata since has publicly shared her story as a former undocumented student. Her master’s thesis compares the experience of two students in private colleges, one still undocumented and one who gained residency. And though the DREAM Act, and immigration reform in general, has stalled in Congress, she is working with the New York State Youth Leadership Council to push for a state-level DREAM Act.

The next stop for Mata may be a Ph.D. program, but she says she will always be an advocate.

“It’s a very big responsibility,” she says. “At first I felt responsibility toward my parents, because I knew the sacrifices they were making. Later I realized that more than just doing this for my family and community, I also needed to do this for myself.”

Published Thursday, May. 19, 2011