A strong advocate and supporter of undocumented youth and the Dream Act, Evelyn Cortez-Davis, author of “December Sky: Beyond My Undocumented Life” has many roles.
“I was an illegal immigrant, I’m a working mother, a taxpayer, a college graduate, a civil engineer, a public servant and an independent voter that participates in every election,” she told a rapt audience on Thursday.
All seats were filled at the Creveling Lounge as a large turnout of students, faculty and members of the community gathered eagerly to listen and meet Evelyn Cortez-Davis, the keynote speaker at the 2012 Borders of Diversity Conference.
Cortez-Davis spoke about her immigrant experience and the importance of higher education in redefining the image of immigrants today.
At age 12 she fled El Salvador “to escape a civil war and economic despair,” she said. Along side her mother and two sisters, she endured a treacherous nine-day trip, crossing three borders to arrive in the United States. Cortez-Davis talked about her life in the shadows and silence, yet striving to get an education and find her voice, eventually graduating from UCLA.
It was not until the immigration amnesty of 1986 that Cortez-Davis could finally feel comfortable with the sound of her own voice, she said.
“I was determined to speak for those who could not speak for themselves…I marched on campus, I spoke at rallies, I wrote to the Daily Bruin,” said Cortez-Davis. Throughout college, financial pressure continued to be an everyday companion until she graduated, she said.
In addition to her story of achievement, Cortez-Davis urged supporting the federal Dream Act and gave several examples of immigrants who, thanks to higher education, have made a difference and become exemplary citizens.
“I’m living proof that investing in the education of youth, regardless of immigration status, makes financial sense for our state and for our country,” Cortez-Davis said. “How do we hack into this highly motivated group of bright, young people who may include some of our future doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs?” she asked.
Cortez-Davis encouraged people to help illegal immigrants bridge the gap “to go from underground, to understood.”
English instructor Mikage Kuroki was chair of the conference themed Bridging Communities: Looking Forward/Looking Back. “I wanted something that would connect to [both undocumented and legal students] and empower them,” she explained.
“[The] undocumented students issue is a big [one] and the Dream Act is something that people need to know about,” said Kuroki.
Dressed in a professional business suit, carrying a black canvas bag with the imprint of an “illegals crossing” sign, Cortez-Davis talked about the importance of voting: “If you can’t vote, your voice should not be limited…call on us who are free to speak…everyone’s voices matter in the immigration debate,” she said.
Cortez-Davis invited her mother to the podium, thanked her for her efforts and wished her a Happy Mother’s Day. The applause continued for minutes.
“I cried a lot of times when reading your book,” student Pei Zhao, a nursing major, tells Cortez-Davis. She said that her family encountered similar struggles to Cortez-Davis’, and that the book inspired her.
Cortez-Davis wrote her first book to maintain a record of the experiences of her family “as amnesia insurance” for future generations “[We must] not forget where we began and why we are here in the first place,” she said.
“I’m simply an ordinary person who was granted an extraordinary opportunity to live the American Dream,” says Cortez-Davis.
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