This post is dedicated to Poly.
When I read about the Trail of Dreams march in the New York Times this weekend, I was naturally inclined to write about one of the four students walking from Miami to Washington. Felipe Matos, 23, was sent to the U.S. at age 14 from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Though he was an A student and was accepted into Duke University, he could not attend because of his legal status. Luckily, he excelled at Miami Dade College, where he became an advocate for immigrant rights. Now, he's on a march to DC to pressure the President to get moving on immigration reform.
I got in touch with Felipe during his first days on the road, and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions after a long day. In his response, he also added that his walking companions include three other immigrants: an Ecuadorian, a Venezuelan, and a Colombian. Only the Colombian has managed to normalize his immigration status. He told me that he volunteered for Students Working for Equal Rights, one of the groups that campaigned for President Obama in 2008. He told me: "I understand the risks I am running since I am undocumented myself, and we are walking through one of the most anti-immigrant regions in the US: the deep south. But my present is unbearable! I can't go to school, get a job or even get a driver's license. This is more than a simple question of legislation; it is about human dignity."
Without futher ado, an interview with an extremely brave Carioca.
1. I read that you are originally from Rio de Janeiro. What neighborhood or zona did you grow up in, and what was it like living there?
I lived em Equitativa, Duque de Caxias. I was very poor back home - as matter of fact, we barely had food on our table most of the time. However, I had the privilege to have a wonderful family that never failed to give me a sound base for my future. For instance, when I was 6 six years old, I remember my mother coming to me and tellling me to give away the only bread we could afford at the time to a homeless lady with a crying child. At that point she said, "Felipe, if you want to change the world, you have to work until your hands bleed. When they start hurting, acknowledge the pain and go right back to work, because there is so much to be done." Those are the principles I brought with me to the USA. That's why I am doing this walk. I have been working for immigrant rights and different legislation such as the DREAM Act for at least 2 years. (This legislation would allow young people who came here before the age of 16 to get conditional residency if they go to college for 2 years or spend 2 years in the military.) I, alongside other national young leaders, were in the forefront witnessing so many people losing hope because they were not allowed to go to college. I noticed that it didn't matter how many protests or rallies we organized, so I decided to do something more drastic, such as this walk. Today, I was looking at my blisters and I thought that the pain I am feeling is so little compared with the pain immigrant communities have to face because of the broken US immigration system. So many families are having their families been split apart or students that can't finish college. For instance, I met students including a Chinese young man that tried to commit suicide 3 times because he felt trapped, since he couldn't finish his education. This is just one of the many unfortunate examples of the painful reality that we have to face everyday. We are sharing our stories because we want to change the stigma that undocumented immigrants have to face in the US. Words such as "illegal" only put our people down; it creates a second rate citizen. We have been contributing to this contry for so long- all we are asking is for full citizenship.
2. You came to the US when you were 14. What ultimately brought you here? Why did your mom decide to send you? My mother got very sick and she couldn't take care of me anymore, so she sent me to live with a family member in Miami.
3. You are clearly very gifted. What challenges have you faced to get an education and access educational/professional opportunities in both Brazil and the US?
I had to face extreme poverty back in Brazil and in the US, I had to face my immigration status. In both sides of the hemisphere I was told that because of reasons beyond my control I couldn't fulfill my full potential. Needless to say, I did not believe in those lies. In the US, I was Student Government President at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus and student representative in the board of Trustess representing more than 160,000 students. I got four national awards so far: All USA Academic Team (This put me in the top 20 students in the nation from community college in 2008), New Century Scholars (Top student in Floridain 2008), Campus Compact service excellence (Top student leader in Florida in 2007) and Davis Putter Award for my work with social justice this year. Even though I have achived a lot, I was still denied entrance to college. I was accepted by Duke University and couldn't go because I couldn't apply for financial aid. I did not give up, however: after struggling a lot, I was able to enroll at St. Thomas University a year after I graduated from the Honors college at Miami Dade College. I was part of an accelerated law program but after I was already taking classes I was told I couldn't continue because of my status. If I was in Brazil, I would have to face similar condition since my lack of monetary power would not allow me to pursue a higher education.
Read more after the jump!
4. Have you been back to Brazil since you left? When was the last time you saw your family?
I haven't been back to Brazil since I got here because if I go back, I would be banned for 10 years from the US. I saw my mother three years ago when we were finally able to get her a visa so she could come to visit. She returned to Brazil after a month.
5. Why is it important for Brazilians to know about your experience and your mission?
My roots are in Brazil, even though the country's condition did not allow me to continue living there. However, I cannot deny that I love rice and beans and that I have many cultural ties with the country I was born in. We are asking for everyone that lives outside the US to go to the American consulates and embassy and take a picture with signs saying "Trail of DREAMS". It means a lot to me that my people stay in solidarity with this effort. We need to pressure President Obama to stop separating families and deporting young people who have lived in the USA for most of their lives. If all of us push for change, it could be realized.
6. Despite the hardships you have been through, do you still think the US is the land of opportunity? Do you consider Florida your home?
I would have to say that I believe that this country was built on a beautiful ideology that ALL people have rights. Although my personal narrative might say otherwise, I still believe in freedom and the pursuit of happiness. This is why I am taking this 1,500 mile walk to DC to show that even though I live in the "sunshine state," I cannot enjoy its warmth since I have been pushed into the shadows. Florida is my home and all I want is an opportunity to contribute to this nation's well being.