A Lion in the Classroom:
From Undocumented Student to a White House DACAmented Champion of Change
It was a rough day.
There was just not enough money to pay for both the rent and the food. His parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, worked long and hard hours, but they lived paycheck to paycheck. He couldn’t bear to ask them for money unless it was a real emergency.
So, that day in June of 2012, Luis Juárez, a student at the College of Education, University of Texas, Austin, made the only decision open to him. He took the high school graduation ring his grandmother had bought him and put it in his pocket. It was heavy; he could feel its weight rebuking him as he got out his bike and started pedaling through his East Riverside neighborhood. He was on his way to a local pawn shop when he received a call from a longtime friend.
“Luis!” His friend’s voice was bursting with excitement. “Have you heard the news?”
Luis was chosen to lead the procession at his University of Texas graduation ceremony.
The news, of course, was President Obama’s announcement of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) For more than half a million undocumented young people across this country, it was as if Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July had been rolled into one glorious moment. Luis was no exception.
“It was the pivotal moment of my life, second only to coming to this country,” remembers Luis, now a bilingual fifth-grade math and science teacher at William Lipscomb Elementary School in Dallas. “It changed my life, it changed my family’s life, and it allowed me to change the lives of my students.”
Many of those students come from immigrant families similar to Luis’s family. Many of these students have the same fears and hopes Luis had when he first came to this country 11 years ago. They struggle to learn a new language, a new school, a new country. Luis understands them because he is them.
Luis shared his story with us at our recent National Justice For Our Neighbors conference in Grapevine, Texas, where leadership from JFON sites across the country gathered to learn and be inspired. He is a gifted speaker; at turns stirring, poignant, funny—and completely at ease with his audience. He crackles with energy and enthusiasm that touches everyone in the room. It’s easy to picture him in front of the classroom.
But for Luis, it’s what he does outside of the classroom that sets him apart from other outstanding teachers. Yes, he volunteers, serves on committees, stays late grading papers and designing interesting lesson plans, and he coaches the school’s soccer team. But Luis also realized, early on, that he could do more.
Luis coaches the Lipscomb Lions, but intense loyalty to Los Tigres is a family tradition.
Many of these parents are new immigrants to the United States. Many do not speak English. They are often unfamiliar with how our schools work. They are confused by the various rules and testing schedules. Luis started a YouTube channel to communicate with these parents.
“It’s called Lipscomb Noticias—a video newsletter that I send home to the parents once a week,” he says. “I sit down and tell my parents—in Spanish—what’s going on in my class and in my school. Some even get a text message when a new video has been uploaded. They really appreciate that.”
Looking for more ways to bridge the gap between school and parents, Luis also offers to visit the students in their homes. Yes, he makes house calls. The parents gratefully accept.
“The parents don’t have a lot of time,” he says simply. “They work multiple jobs and it’s hard for them to come to a parent-teacher conference during regular school hours. So I’ll go see them in their homes on a Saturday or Sunday.”
Sometimes the parents will invite him for dinner—home-cooked meals that evoke memories of Mexico are a side benefit for a single man. Sometimes they will share more personal things with him. “They are in the comfort of their own home,” Luis says. “It helps me create strong relationships with both the parents and the students.”
“Here’s the way it works,” Luis says of the experience. “They send you an email. ‘Congratulations, you’ve been nominated, do you accept?’” He shakes his head, laughing. “I mean, do you trust this? I had to go look it up.”
It’s a long way from Dallas to Washington, D.C. For Luis’s parents, flying was, of course, out of the question. They have no identification. Making the 20-hour trip in a car was equally impossible. What if they were stopped?
“The fear is something that never leaves you,” Luis explains. “You go to buy groceries and come out to find a green bus waiting to take you away.” A long road trip across state lines was just too dangerous. His mom and dad would have to stay home.
Luis invited some friends to the ceremony instead.
Luis with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his fellow DACAmented Champions of Change. Photo courtesy of the White House.
Luis has just started his second year teaching at William Lipscomb Elementary, still endeavoring to find innovative and compassionate ways to improve the learning experience for his students. Some of them can’t be visited in their own homes, because they haven’t got one yet. They can’t watch his videos on YouTube because they have no access to a computer.
“This year, I have a student recently arrived,” he tells us, “I met her on Meet-the-Teacher Night. She was wearing the same clothes she wore when she came here. She’s excellent in math and has a keen eye for scientific research,” he says proudly, “but she also had such fear in her eyes.”
The room is quiet. All attention is riveted upon the young man speaking at the lectern. The people in this room—JFON attorneys, staff and volunteers from around the country—have seen that fear for themselves in the faces of the clients they serve.
“Her parents reminded me of my own parents,” he continues. “They were so optimistic, they had such faith.” He pauses. “The thing is, that night I went home to sleep in my nice bed. They went home to sleep on a floor. “
“This girl came in to school this morning with a smile on her face,” he finishes. ”Because she knows I will be there for her.”
His students, you think, are very, very lucky. Luis insists he’s the lucky one. He graciously thanks the audience and implores all of us to keep working and advocating on behalf of vulnerable immigrants. “People come to you for hope,” he says earnestly. “Know that you are really making a difference.”
After his speech, at dinner, Luis sits with his girlfriend, Mayra. They are holding hands and he is telling us the story of how they met. Suddenly he’s not the exceptional motivational speaker, teacher and future leader destined for great things. He’s just a 24-year-old guy, happy, secure, and in love.
He shows us his many friendship bracelets. There’s one of yellow and blue yarn, the colors of his favorite soccer team back in Mexico—los Tigres. There’s one with the burnt orange and white of his alma mater, University of Texas at Austin. Another is purple and gold for the Lipscomb Lions—the soccer team he coaches. There’s also one made by the beautiful Mayra.
Luis and Mayra at the 2015 Justice For Our Neighbors Annual Roundtable Conference.
Before she was officially his girlfriend, he says, with a sly glance in her direction, he brought Mayra to his class. She was instantly cornered by a cadre of fifth grade girls, all questioning her intentions towards their beloved teacher.
“So, are you going to be his girlfriend or not?” one girl demanded.
Mayra answered yes, of course. What other answer could there be?
Luis shakes his head at the memory. “I owe my kids a lot,” he says. “I like to believe that they helped me get my girl.”