Undaunted by the obstacles of life as an undocumented immigrant, Ana Aguayo has become a voice for the voiceless.
Shooting stars punctuated the night sky in July 1997 as Ana Claudia Aguayo, then 8 years old, walked with her family across the desert from Mexico to California. They crossed the border and headed east to join Ana’s three oldest brothers, who had already moved to Springdale, Arkansas. The Aguayos wished on the stars that night as sand slowed their feet, everyone nervously listening for the castanet of rattlesnakes.
“Our parents began talking with us youngest,” Aguayo remembers. “My mom asked us not to complain, and she explained the risks and our responsibilities to the group.” Aguayo thinks that long night, full of stars and dangers, gave her a deep sense of responsibility. It opened her eyes to her own connections to others, an understanding that both protects and challenges her. And it began her journey to advocacy, leading Aguayo to help numerous families who have experienced the same types of challenges her own family encountered.
Pressured by prejudice
It took time for Aguayo to understand the realities of her new life in America. As a child, for example, she didn’t even hear the derogatory names the opposing team hurled at her when her Springdale soccer team played the girls from Harrison, Arkansas, a town with many Ku Klux Klan members. Instead, her teammates told her on the bus ride home.
Aguayo was unable to legally work or drive because of her immigration status. As she began to tell her story publicly as an advocate for the DREAM Act, which aims to provide young undocumented immigrants a potential path to citizenship and an opportunity to attend college, she routinely heard even more slurs against her.
She looked to her parish, St. Raphael, and to her family for support. In particular Aguayo relied on her parents and on her brother, Jose, two years her elder, who was dealing with many of the same issues. Jose urged her to turn the frustration she felt into positive energy, using it as motivation to fight for change rather than allowing herself to become demoralized by her situation.
“I could have drowned in the sorrow of growing up criminalized, (with) the angry stares and ugly comments,” she says. “But those people are missing a form of love that helps them embrace others. It challenged me to help them with kindness.”
As she got older, Aguayo became even more involved in the community and worked ever harder in school, taking advanced placement classes. This wouldn’t necessarily lead to college, though—students need a Social Security number to apply. But Ana and Jose both used a work-around: a nine-digit non-Social Security number for their college applications.
It worked, and Aguayo attended the University of Arkansas, majoring in international relations and broadcast journalism. She chose that major because she felt that God had given her a story to share that would awaken others to the connections between people, and their connections to God. “That helps push out the negative,” she says. “I know the negative is there, but I decide to focus on what is meaningful.”
Then, in 2008, Arkansas’ governor ordered colleges to check each student’s identification number. Those with generic numbers, like the Aguayos, would have to pay tuition at international student rates—rates that are many times higher than the affordable in-state resident tuition cost, and far beyond the Aguayos’ ability to pay. Ana, Jose, and other affected students shared their stories publicly. They met with the university’s chancellor, who was deeply moved.
“He said with unwavering strength we would finish our education,” Ana recalls. He told them, “I will fundraise for each and every one of you” to cover the cost of their tuition, a decision that earned him public criticism and even threats. “It meant life for us,” Aguayo says. “Our education was the hope that offered our families a better life.”
Working for others
Aguayo graduated from college with honors, but again her immigration status dogged her. When she couldn’t find a job, she instead volunteered with the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, a grant-funded nonprofit that provides assistance to low-income workers. Aguayo started volunteering as a translator and encouraged Jose, also unemployed despite earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, to do the same.
Ana’s work really hit home during a case where she translated for a dozen construction workers whose wages had been illegally withheld by their employer. She realized with shock that this could have happened to her own family. “There were the 12 workers living in this tiny space with their little kids,” she recalls. She credits the experience with helping her to grow and to become a worker advocate—albeit an at times intimidated one.
Arkansas farmers and contractors aren’t typically gracious when the center’s advocates challenge them over unpaid wages. After some angry shouting, the errant employers often pull out what they think is a trump card: Undocumented workers, they threaten, are just a telephone call away from deportation.
Aguayo knows how to respond to such threats. She and other advocates remind employers they’re obliged to verify a new hire’s immigration status within 72 hours. If an employer doesn’t do that, then they’re also in trouble. After hearing that, employers usually settle down and the business of collecting unpaid wages can begin. To date, the center has recouped nearly $600,000 for workers.
In the beginning, though, it took all of Aguayo’s courage to talk back. “I was an advocate, but not a strong voice,” she says. She renewed herself with prayer, walking on a leafy trail through a nearby park. “I prayed God would help me think of myself as a strong person. I’d remind myself that the Lord sent me to become the person I was praying to be.”
When the center lost its executive director because of health issues, Jose Aguayo stepped in to fill that post. Ana is now director of development for the center, which has grown substantially under the Aguayos’ leadership and taken on even more issues. In 2013, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops awarded the Aguayo siblings the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, given to young Catholics who have demonstrated leadership in combating poverty and injustice in the United States.
“We were so shocked,” says Ana. “It’s a tremendous honor. I’ve learned not to compare my life with others. We all take different paths. But it reassured me that I’m learning to be who God wants me to become.”
This article appeared in the June 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 6, pages 47-48).