Moving beyond the fear: Hispanic community members reach out for understanding

Jessica Fuller • Nov 24, 2018 at 6:25 PM

For some members of the local Hispanic community, telling their stories has been a way to garner understanding with a larger community.

The attention around Hispanic immigration reignited during election season as President Donald Trump focused his attentions on the caravan of would-be immigrants headed toward the United States from Central America. Marsha Blackburn successfully parlayed those fears in her successful bid to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.

Over the past few years, as stories about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals spread in the news, those who came to the U.S. as children were thrust into the spotlight. Nearly 1 million residents watched as the certainty of their future in the country dissolved with the White House’s resignation of the program that protected them. While previously-enrolled recipients were grandfathered into the program, Congress has yet to draw up another plan to replace DACA.

The issues surrounding DACA poured new fuel on the nationwide debate on immigration, and some in the Hispanic community say it reignited a fear of immigrants in their communities — though many will tell you that their ethnicity is enough to put them on the receiving end of prejudice regardless of where they were born. 

Daily discrimination 

Milady Maldonado is a student at East Tennessee State University, and the daughter of immigrants — her mother is from Colombia and her father is from Puerto Rico. She was born in Miami and grew up in Oak Ridge.

Maldonado said growing up for her could be a challenge in many ways, because she often shouldered presumptions of her ethnicity. 

“It wasn’t easy a child of Hispanic parents because people assume that you’re Mexican or illegal,” she said, adding that her experience at high school was challenging at times. “Every time I would speak Spanish they would tell me to speak English.” 

In the days following the 2016 election, Maldonado noted that she and her friends, who are also Hispanic, suffered name-calling and abuse at the hands of other classmates. She recalls one classmate spitting on her. 

“It was a terrible junior year of high school,” she said. 

Maldonado said she hasn’t had that experience so far in college, but she worries about her friends who are under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy.

Day-to-day uncertainty 

Some immigrants carry the label without the memory of crossing borders, like Jessica Miranda. An early childhood education student at East Tennessee State University, Miranda is one of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients across the country whose residence in the country depends on what action the newly-elected Congress takes on the policy. 

The state of those recipients, commonly called “Dreamers,” is up in the air. While the Trump administration ended the program for new participants last year, previous recipients like Miranda were grandfathered in but remain in limbo awaiting congressional action on the future of the program. 

Miranda came to the United States when she was 5 years old, and doesn’t remember anything about her life in Mexico before that. Miranda’s life has been underlined with periods of fear for herself and her family. She said her father was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when she was in middle school, and the initial rescinding of the program left her wondering where she’d go without deferred action. 

Since then, she’s attended several DACA panels to get her story out as a Dreamer in the hopes of getting people to understand the plight of others like her. 

“My professor at that time, she was talking about how strong I was to stand up for myself and my community, and before I hadn’t really seen it that way,” she said. “It was something I didn’t realize I could do.” 

Felipe Fiuza is the director for the Language and Culture Resource Center at ETSU. He left his home in Brazil to study in the U.S. and settled in Johnson City about 10 years ago. He has also attended several community panels concerning DACA, which he believes have been instrumental in clearing up misconceptions about those affected. 

In his years of living in the area, Fiuza said he has seen an increase of fear among immigrants. 

“People are afraid of speaking up, afraid of standing up for each other. It is a complicated matter,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of today being harder or if it’s a matter or if there’s more exposition but it is definitely a time where we need to come together united and we should be able to always be proud of who we are.”

Miranda said that while she isn’t scared for herself anymore, she sympathizes with others who might be more affected by immigration policy. 

“It’s just seeing how people going through rough times, I just couldn’t imagine being in that position,” she said. “Just imagining if that would be my nephews, that’s what hurts me, but that’s what inspires me to make a difference.”

Moving past the fear 

Miranda is taking a break from school to save up funds to finish her undergraduate degree. As a DACA recipient, she isn’t eligible for financial aid. 

But she still has her eye on the future — opening a preschool. 

“I hope others see me succeeding so it can remove doubt and grow belief for my community,” she said. “Maybe right now I can’t make as big of a difference, but that’s why I have to focus on my vision.” 

Editor’s note: Recent events regarding minority groups in American culture, politics and law enforcement prompted the Johnson City Press to take a deeper look at ethnic, religious and gender/sexual identities in the Johnson City area. Today, we begin a three-day series of articles regarding that spectrum of marginalized populations.