Reaching for a DREAM: Young Immigration Activist Fights for Education

Yovany Diaz, 21, speaking at a rally for immigration reform at the University of Georgia on March 6, 2013. Photo courtesy of The Athens Occupier.

Yovany Diaz of Atlanta, Georgia

Yovany Diaz remembers losing the grip of his brother’s hand in the Rio Grande River and water gushing into his mouth. Eight years old, surrounded by darkness, he was galvanized by fear and love.

“What made me survive and get to the other side was that I wanted to see my mom,” says Yovany. “Okay Mom, I’m coming for you!” he said to himself that night.

Now 21, Yovany is an immigration reform activist energized by the national debate on legislation that would allow him and millions like him to go to college, work legally, and travel outside of the country. In February he was arrested in Washington, D.C. for standing up for what he believes in.

Yovany and a group of activists disrupted a Senate Judiciary’s Committee hearing. Chanting, “No more deportations! Stop breaking up our families!” they were removed by U.S. Capitol police. It wasn’t his first arrest for speaking out.

In the summer of 2012, Yovany joined the “UndocuBus” tour traveling through the South with other immigrants who are discriminated against because they are so-called “undocumented.” The final stop was Charlotte, N.C., just in time for the Democratic National Convention. Yovany and other activists including actress Rosario Dawson blocked an intersection chanting, “No papers, no fear!” Ten were arrested and the protest gained national publicity. Yovany spent a night in jail before being released.

“We were arrested because we did an act of civil disobedience, because we were trying to defend our families. And this is what happens every day in our community. We get detained by the police, sometimes deported, and it breaks up our families,” Yovany says.

Yovany hopes to avoid getting arrested in the future, but that is not stopping him from playing an active role in the immigration debate. He recently spoke at a rally at the University of Georgia with other students from Freedom University, an underground college that teaches immigrant Americans who don’t have legal papers required by the State of Georgia under a new 2011 law.

Yovany is the middle child of three in his family. Both his older and younger brothers were born in California, but Yovany was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. When he was a baby, the family moved to California and his mother went to work wherever she could – cleaning houses, cooking in fast-food restaurants – often working three jobs at a time. A few years later, his father left the family and Yovany’s mother sent her sons back to Mexico to live with their grandmother.

“I had to grow up really quickly in Mexico,” says Yovany. “I was a kid, and I had to be working in the fields, cutting the yard with a machete, milking cows, and getting water from the creek. It wasn’t your typical privileged American life.”

After Yovany’s mother established herself in a new life in Atlanta, his aunt paid a man to help him and his older brother cross the Rio Grande at night. His youngest brother stayed behind. Surviving the river crossing and dangerous traverse across the southwestern desert, he and his brother were reunited with their mother after a three-year separation.

Photo by Grecia Esparza.

At first it was hard to adjust to life in Atlanta. “I was stuck in this double culture of Spanish and English. I wanted to be white because most of my peers were white and I was the only brown one,” says Yovany. He learned English, made friends, and by the time he started high school, he was comfortable with his dual identity as a Mexican and an American. It was a short-lived feeling. By junior year, as other students were talking about going to college, Yovany realized he wouldn’t be able to apply without a Social Security number. “I wanted to go to college and I couldn’t. I wanted to do so many things and I couldn’t,” he says.

In 2010, Yovany finished high school and went to work at a McDonald’s. It wasn’t long until he became a manager, but he was bored. While scrolling through Facebook on his phone, he saw a post about a Freedom University accepting immigrant students. He couldn’t wait for his shift to be over so he could go home and apply.

Yovany is now preparing for a new stage in his life. In March, he received both an official acceptance letter from Syracuse University, and an employment authorization document from the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Now Yovany can legally work in the United States – without fear of deportation – for two years.

Yovany plans on studying to become a counselor for kids, and possibly continuing his education to become a psychiatrist and open his own practice. He wants to someday return to Mexico and build a school near his hometown. These dreams require Congress to create a new common-sense immigration process that works for aspiring Americans.

Until then, Yovany is encouraging others to join him in pushing for reform. “Stories are what define you. I tell my story to anyone who will listen, and I encourage other people to tell their stories and come out of the shadows. Stories get more information out there that is helpful and can change people’s minds.”