‘Our Journey’: Suffolk Student Digital Project Shares U.S. Immigrants’ Stories, Experiences

Suffolk University student Daniella Marrero oversees a fascinating digital project aiming to share the stories of student immigrants — in their own words.

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Daniella Marrero, creator of “Our Journey”

The 19-year-old computer science major and journalism minor from Mission, Texas, said she was inspired to launch “Our Journey” after hearing about possible immigration reform.

“It was one of the very first instances when I actually felt a personal connection with something that my government was doing,” she says. “Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, and being an immigrant from Mexico myself, I always heard powerful stories of families and individuals crossing the border to come to the U.S., at times risking everything they have or earned just to make it.”

From her perspective, the incessant political chatter about immigration’s economic impact and statistics involving immigration trends misses the point: the people involved.

“The U.S. loves numbers, but immigration is tied with stories and experiences that cannot be calculated on any formula,” says Marrero, the assistant international editor of The Suffolk Journal student newspaper. “I wanted people to listen to the personal accounts of actual immigrants, to connect with their struggles and desires, to stop thinking of such a crucial topic as another math problem we can solve and to give the opportunity for immigrants to speak up.”

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In the Q&A below, Marrero speaks up more about the mission of “Our Journey,” its personal connection to her and the importance of recognizing immigration’s impact on all of us.

Since starting the project, whose story has touched you the deepest or remained with you the longest?

I interviewed a 10-year-old girl in the Rio Grande Valley. Although she is a U.S. citizen, her mother and grandmother are undocumented immigrants. What impacted me the most about her was how she was able to express her concerns and worries about the possibility of her relatives being deported with such eloquence and emotion.

She was so aware of how her life could change if they were to be taken away, and it made me realize how much power this issue has to affect lives deeply. I eventually had the opportunity to interview her mom and grandma, whose stories were equally as moving.

Her mother told me how one day the little girl ran up to her excitedly saying that she saw in the news that Obama was going to “forgive” people who had crossed the border illegally, so now she would have a chance to stay permanently. It broke my heart to see how someone that age, who should be preoccupied with less stressful topics, lived in fear of being separated from her family.

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In the mission statement for “Our Journey,” you mention immigration impacts the lives of all people. Explain that a bit. How does it impact even those who may not realize it?

I think people often conclude that because they — or their immediate family — are not immigrants, the topic should not concern them. As with all social issues, immigration impacts the people that surround us, the ones that raise us, the people that teach us, that hire us, that work for us, that we marry and live with.

Everyone wants the best life they can have, and so do immigrants. Everyone wants to feel safe, secure, free and treated fairly, and immigrants are no exception. Immigration ultimately affects the connections and interactions between people, and, in my opinion, that is what shapes our lives more than anything else.

If you’re willing, share a bit about your own experiences growing up in south Texas and coming to the U.S. from Mexico.

My family moved to Mission, Texas, right on the border with Mexico, when I was six years old. My dad is a U.S. citizen, so my mom, sister and I were able to get our visas relatively quickly, a fact that I have learned to value considering the time and money many spend hoping to get their visas approved. My parents say they made the move with our education, financials and security in mind, a decision that the major violence that struck Mexico just a couple years later proved wise.

We moved to several different homes and schools before we settled down, and because my dad had been working in the U.S. even before we moved — he would cross the border daily to work — he was able to find a stable job to buy our house.

Growing up in a border city, in a place where two cultures, languages and kinds of people meet, in many ways deeply influenced my views and character. Being an immigrant myself and having parents whose home country is only a few miles away has often left me with cultural identity clashes, conflicting Mexican and American wisdom between school and home and a feeling of limbo in between the two languages and all they carry. I’m still working on finding a nice place to live in between them…

Most of my extended family still lives in Mexico, but due to the way they see the American immigration system as an impossible puzzle, moving here is not a part of their plans. There are family members that idolize my sister and I for simply attending American schools, and there are family members that are undocumented and live in constant worry. I have helped one of my close relatives navigate her way through with a lawyer to get “pardoned” for entering the country illegally and helping her write a letter in English on why she “should be allowed” to stay for some unknown judge somewhere to validate. It’s all of these experiences together that I keep in mind and have shaped my view on the topic.

What is your advice for student journalists interested in similarly sharing immigrants’ stories?

At the start of this, one thought I had was that I would have no problem finding people to interview. Almost everyone I knew had a story. But I quickly realized that people tend to be quite reluctant to talk about their journeys on how they moved to the U.S. Although at first I assumed that it was because I was just some teenager with no credentials, I learned that it’s really due to the fear and doubt they have to expose themselves. Even immigrants that became U.S. citizens expressed fear to put their names out, and a lot of the interviews I have collected are anonymous.

One instance I remember clearly in the early days of this project was in my hometown when I met an interesting man that was selling fruit at a local market. We had a nice conversation that began with simple questions about his products, but then somehow shifted to us talking about Mexico and politics.

I felt comfortable enough to ask him if he would be interested in being a part of “Our Journey,” but when I did, it did not go as I expected. He asked me if I worked for the federal government or FBI because he had heard of people being arrested after talking to undercover agents. It was a bit difficult to convince him I wasn’t involved in any of that, but eventually he asked me for my contact information and agreed to reach out to me after he had “thought about it.” Not surprisingly, I never heard from him again.

Immigration is a sensitive topic, and it is important to treat the stories with care and to approach people about a possible interview strategically. If they are young or students, they are more willing to talk because they are familiar with blogs and video interviews and social media.

Older people or people in more difficult circumstances will need to believe you are reliable and that you are doing this because you are on their side — and are not an undercover FBI agent. It can be a challenge, but many of the folks I have worked with who met the idea with reluctance at first have found a new significance in their journeys after talking about it. That is what has inspired to keep going with this project.

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