American Cuentos

In the Rio Grande Valley, we tell stories, cuentos, when we are trying to get others to understand something terribly important. The three stories I am going to share are sad—all three of them have brought tears to my eyes. I tell them to every lawmaker I meet; I tell them every time we have a rally to get out the vote in the Valley; I tell them because something has to be done to change these stories.

First Story: At our December graduation, a faculty member introduced me to a young Hispanic woman. The young woman was dressed in her cap and gown, and she was wearing her memory stole. Each graduation ceremony, the graduating students give their memory stoles to someone who has sacrificed to help them graduate. It is very moving to see mothers wearing their daughter’s memory stoles; or husbands wearing them; or even faculty wearing them. I began to ask her to whom she was going to give her memory stole, but first I asked her what her plans were for the future. I watched her face go pale, and I saw the tears come to her eyes as she answered, “I have no plans for the future.” Before I could reach out to her, she turned and disappeared into the crowd of students. “She is one of our Dream Act students,” the faculty member told me. Someone had sacrificed so she could get her degree, and she has sacrificed also. She has the degree—a master’s in communication—but she has, in her mind, no future.

Second Story: I was at the Harlingen airport when a young woman came up and hugged me. Getting hugs is common in the Valley—abrazos we call them. The hug I received that day was from a student who was just returning from another university which had accepted her into its master’s program in accounting. The hug was strong, and it had a purpose. This young woman was just about to graduate from Pan Am with honors, and she had read an op-ed I had written in support of the Dream Act. She too was one of our Dream Act students. We both cried as she told me she feared the Dream Act wouldn’t pass before she got her master’s degree and she was scared about her future.

Third Story: I was presenting at a conference on immigration here in the Valley. The first session went fine. The audience was mostly community organizers, and they were delighted to hear about the grants and scholarships for Dream Act students at Pan Am. The second session didn’t go as well. It was in Spanish, and the audience was mainly parents and children without documents. The mothers talked about the fears they have of being arrested, about how they never jaywalk because the police might stop them; about how they don’t go out in the day but do their shopping only at night. When I talked about the grants and scholarships available for their children, they didn’t believe me. When I told them they could ask the counselors at their children’s high schools, they said they didn’t dare go to the high schools because something might happen to their children if the counselors knew their children were without papers. They didn’t believe me until one very small woman came to the front of the room and said, “El dice la verdad. Mi hija va a Pan Americana, y ella tiene una veca que paga todo.” I told the parents to come to Pan Am and we would help them with the paperwork for scholarships, but they said it was too dangerous. So I gave them my card and told them to call and we would help them over the phone fill out the forms. We cried there too. Three have called so far.

At the University of Texas-Pan American, we have 599 Dream Act students. Last year we had 602. They make up only slightly more than 3 percent of our 19,034 students. But that 3 percent is very important to me, to the faculty, and most of all to the other students. And that 3 percent is smart—they work hard and they graduate sooner than the average for the overall student body.

Until we pass the Dream Act, until we give these students citizenship, we are ruining not only these students’ lives; we are also destroying our own nation’s future. I have had people yell at me and write to me that we should just send the students back to Mexico—a country most of them don’t even know. With the violence there, if we were to deport them, we would be condemning them to a life of poverty and possibly to death. Many of them don’t even speak Spanish.

I could make the moral argument about doing the right thing; or I could make the economic argument about how much they will add to our economy (over $1.377 billion during their lifetime for just the 599 current students at Pan Am). But instead, one more story.

Story Four: Recently, we had a conference on campus to teach Dream Act students how to tell their stories, stories some had been hiding for years. We heard about not wanting to go to Mexico. We heard about dropping out because they couldn’t work to pay for their classes. We heard about how worried they were they would not be able to help their parents as their parents got older. But we also heard about dreams. There is a reason why it is called the Dream Act—and that reason is not that the actual bill is called, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (hence, DREAM Act). America needs to remember that it is a nation of immigrants. America needs to live up to its ideals of liberty and justice for all. Most importantly, we need to dream for and with these brave students (and soldiers). They love our country; it is time for us to love them and to allow them to be American citizens.


Dr. Robert Nelsen is the President of the University of Texas-Pan American.