Tuition breaks for immigrants? Not first on her list

Last week, El Pueblo - North Carolina's largest Latino advocacy group - named M. Zulayka Santiago to be its next executive director. Santiago, 30, was born in Puerto Rico and now lives in Pittsboro. She has been with the Raleigh-based group for two years as its youth director. Excerpts from an interview with staff writer Michael Easterbrook:

Q: You were born in Puerto Rico? Tell us more about your background.

A: I left the island when I was 6 and went from Puerto Rico to Kenner, Louisiana, which is not the normal trajectory. It's a small city about 20 minutes from New Orleans.

Q: You said you also lived in Arizona?

A: Yes, I'm a bit of a gypsy. My family has got that in us. I went from Louisiana. We lived there for eight years. So at age 13 we went from there to Clinton, Massachusetts, which is in the middle of the state. That cultural adjustment was worse than Puerto Rico to Louisiana. And then from there, I graduated from high school, did two years in Syracuse and transferred from Syracuse University to Barnard, which is Columbia's female college. And then after undergrad, came down here and lived in Rockingham, North Carolina, for about two years. And went off to grad school at Carolina for two years. And then after grad school, worked a little while in downtown Raleigh doing the same type of work with the juvenile court system focusing on abuse, neglect and dependency cases. Went from there to Arizona. Had this dream to drive out West. It was a good time in my life to do it. So I packed up my little car and went.

Q: What brought you back to North Carolina?

A: Family. Close family ties that I have. I only have one sister, and she still lives in Rockingham with her husband and her two children. And I had the plan of moving my mother up from Florida, which I did. I wanted to be a part of my niece and nephew's lives. My nephew is 7, and my niece just turned 5.

Q: Why did they choose you for this job?

A: That's a better question for the selection committee, but I can tell you that my experience within the organization definitely helped. El Pueblo has a strong culture and high standards of excellence. El Pueblo either embraces you or squeezes you out. It's one of those places where you're either here and committed to the mission wholeheartedly or you can't hang because it's a pretty demanding workplace. So they did research and found out that with big transitions like this, an internal candidate is more likely to be successful than somebody coming from the outside. I think they just wanted somebody who had a good sense of the community, which I do have, and also somebody who had experienced firsthand what it is to be an immigrant in this country. And again, it's a passion for the mission of this organization.

Q: What's so demanding about working for El Pueblo?

A: Nonprofit work can be challenging. You're pulled to the mission because you're there wholeheartedly. It's sometimes difficult to draw boundaries between the personal and the professional. El Pueblo is one of those organizations. The type of work that we do, it's endless. You could spend 24 hours in a day, and still the work would not be done. And because we had a leader who set such high standards of excellence, it made for a demanding work environment. You were expected not only to be here and do your work well and give your all. Most of us do it because we want to do it. We talk a lot about the sense of familia. That's part of this organization. With many Latino organizations, we have such strong family ties.

Q: Why did you want this job?

A: Well, the funny thing is, I didn't think I did. When I had my review this past summer with Andrea [Bazán Manson] we sat down and talked. And El Pueblo has been really good to me and has supported me as an individual throughout the two years. And Andrea had asked me if I ever saw myself as the executive director of El Pueblo and at that time, I was like no, no, that's such an incredible responsibility, and I just don't know if I'm ready and right now I'm more focused on the inward things, self-reflection kind of things, and it turns out a few months later she told us she was leaving the organization, and it took some encouragement from people who know me to say, "You know, you should consider this." If it hadn't been for that, I don't know, not that I wouldn't have thought myself worthy, I have good self-esteem, but it is one of those positions that require a lot of different skills and attributes and being able to draw those boundaries when boundaries need to be drawn. And given the overall climate about immigration, and because we are an organization that tackles those issues, it wasn't an easy decision. But I feel like it was my call to serve and recognizing as well that there are so many Latino organizations in this area. This all started with a conversation that I had with a grad school professor of mine where I was expressing to her my distress and my disappointment about whether I should seek an E.D. position because there were so many organizations that were seeking leadership. El Centro in Durham. El Centro Latino in Carrboro. El Vinculo Hispano in Siler City. All of these good Latino organizations that are so needed. She kind of leaned back and said, "You know, you'll know when it's your time to serve." We all have to grapple with fear-based emotions. Am I prepared enough? Am I good enough? Am I going to fail? Am I inadequate? I don't know enough. I always have to grapple with those emotions. But all I can do is my best, and I think the fact that I'm here because it's something that comes from my heart will make a difference.

Q: So what made you decide in the end to say yes?

A: I think it's an exciting time for the organization. It's also a pivotal time in the organization with the founding executive director leaving. It's an opportunity for us as the staff to get to shape the future of this organization. We're talking a lot about reconnecting with our grass-roots community, and I love that. That was really a pull for me. To be able to be part of that stage of development in the organization where we go back to our grass roots and let our community shape the work we do at El Pueblo. I think that was, in the end, what pulled me to say yes to the position were the possibilities for the future.

Q: What will you do differently as director of El Pueblo?

A: My big focus is conducting some sort of listening tour. Spending time within the community at centros, churches, community organizations, getting firsthand information and hopefully taking some of the people from the staff to travel with me to get it directly from the community. What is it we can do at El Pueblo to strengthen you, to support you, to best meet your needs. And then, secondly, I think it's really important to take this time and do some concrete visioning and strategic planning. The last time the board did a strategic planning session was about five years ago so it's time to sit down with the staff and the board and say OK, based on what the community is telling us, what we're hearing directly from the community, this is where El Pueblo needs to go, and being really intentional about how we implement that plan is important.

Q: Are there any specific areas where you would do things differently?

A: Well, first of all, Andrea did a fantastic job, so it's not me saying Andrea did things wrong. But just that I would do things differently because I am such a different individual. But I think building alliances with other Latino advocates is definitely an avenue we need to strengthen. I think that we recognize that within the advocacy initiative, but within the organization as a whole and then taking that a step further and strengthening the alliances within the African-American community as well. There are so many parallels that can be drawn between our struggles as a Latino immigrant community and the struggles that the African-American community is still facing, so being able to work on those types of alliances is also a priority for me. That is not to say that Andrea didn't do much of that, but I think that would be an area I would focus more on as I undertake this position.

Q: Explain the main things that El Pueblo should be doing to help North Carolina's Latino population.

A: It's a challenge to advocate on behalf of a community that doesn't have much political clout. I mean, it's a reality of the community that we're representing, but that's not to say that there aren't other strengths that we could use within our community. And, so, being ... more intentional in how we tap into those strengths is really important and letting our legislative agenda be very reflective of that as much as possible. Again, also, we're talking about a community which, overall, the educational levels aren't master's degrees or even college degrees, so how is it we reflect the needs of our community in an arena that is so completely foreign to them and do that earnestly. I think it's definitely a challenge and one El Pueblo has tried and that we will continue trying.

I think the most obvious ones are related to documentation status, driver's licenses being one of them. We live in a state where public transportation is not easily accessible to many people. Having a driver's license is a means to earn a living, to be able to get to and from a place of employment. I think that you know, given the political climate that we're in, these are struggles that we're going to continue to be facing as those requirements get more and more stringent. How is it that we can think of alternative solutions for our community when the laws are not necessarily in their favor. And I think, of course, other issues relating to documentation status are access to higher education, which was a big deal for us this past year. Trying to make in-state tuition a possibility for our youth, you know, coming from the position as director of youth programs, there were often times that I would run into students who had grown up here. I mean, all of their education has been in the educational system of this country. They're graduating high school, and then what next? That sense of hopelessness. As if there aren't many avenues for them to pursue if they don't have the financial backing, which most of our students don't have. So access to higher education, of course, will continue to be an issue that we will address, that we try to tackle, as well as access to other benefits. Health care is also very important.

Q: El Pueblo has tried and failed twice to persuade state lawmakers to pass a bill that would give undocumented immigrant students in-state college tuition rates in North Carolina. Is that something you're going to take on again as director of El Pueblo?

A: I really do think it will depend on where our community is with the issue and as a board as well whether or not we decide to tackle this issue head-on or whether we decide to give it some time and use alternative strategies to find solutions for our students at this time. It was an extremely draining process a and consuming process, and I think it gave us a really clear idea of where some of North Carolina's population is in terms of the issue of immigration. It's reflective of where we are as a nation. It wasn't an easy process. So I think we need to take a step back, breathe, analyze the situation and really brainstorm some alternative.

Q: So does that mean you won't be pushing for it again anytime soon?

A: Not anytime soon. I do think we need to rest for now.

Q: Tell me how North Carolina's Latino community has changed since you've been here.

A: When I first moved here, it was in 1997, and I went from New York City to Rockingham, North Carolina, and at that time there was a significant Latino population but mostly in the fields, or in the ... there's a poultry processing plant there ... and the reaction to a professional Latina working within the courthouse, I mean, it was out of this world. People just didn't even know what to do with me. And I think slowly but surely they're starting to see a growing segment of that population of Latinos who have had the privilege of education and who are working in different sectors of businesses and not just relegated to fields or processing plants. And I think that is reflective of the state as a whole and especially as we're having our young people make it through high school and some of them having the opportunity to go to community colleges or start four-year colleges. We're starting to see an evolution in terms of the educational levels and, hopefully, in terms of their political awarenesses and desire to address some of the issues they see within their communities.

Q: There has been criticism that many of the leaders of North Carolina's Latino community are not from Mexico, even though most of the state's Latinos come from that country. You're not from Mexico. Do you see that as an obstacle?

A: That is definitely a criticism we've heard before, but I do not see it at all as an obstacle. Even though I didn't come to this country as an immigrant from Mexico, I did come to this country as an immigrant living below the poverty level, so a lot of the struggles that an immigrant faces, we faced as a family. And my mother is a woman of no academic education. She struggled to get to this country in search of that American dream for my sister and I, not necessarily for herself but for that next generation, and I think that is definitely the case with a lot of the Mexican families that we see here, that the struggle isn't necessarily for themselves but for their children. So even though I'm not from Mexico, I can be completely sympathetic, empathetic and understanding of the struggle that a lot of the community has faced in being here. So I don't see that as an obstacle. And one of my strengths as an individual is that I do take the time to actively listen to people and incorporate feedback and recommendations as much as possible.

Q: You said you were 6 when you first came to the United States. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience?

A: We moved to Louisiana because my uncles at the time were working at one of the refineries in that area. It was challenging. At 6, I was aware enough. I didn't speak any English whatsoever. And we were living in the public housing complex at first with my uncle and then eventually we got our own little apartment. It wasn't an easy adjustment. My mom would leave us in the morning for work and wouldn't come back until after my sister and I were home from school. So we were latchkey kids and had a lot of responsibility at that young age to care for the house and feed ourselves. It wasn't easy, but at that age it is a lot easier. The acculturation process is a lot easier than it would be for an adult.

Q: Earlier you talked about the climate for immigrants. Can you explain what it's like to be an immigrant today in North Carolina?

A: I think that if you turn on your TV or open your newspaper, it's obvious that our immigration system is in great need of reform. Unfortunately, I think our system is not reflective of the reality, so instead of having legal channels of immigration where there is screened and orderly entry into this country, what we're having is a black market where we're seeing a growing number of undocumented immigrants particularly in this state, use of fake documents, increasingly violent smuggling cartels, a widespread exploitation of undocumented workers. It's not the best climate for immigrants in this nation, but I don't think this is new. This isn't the first time in the United States of America we've grappled with these issues of immigration. And I think that, overall, people in this country are hungry for some sort of solution that is comprehensive, that tackles all the different aspects of immigration, that isn't only punitive, that doesn't only focus on border enforcement, that seeks to redeem the American dream to a certain degree. This is a nation that was based on the promise of liberty and opportunity and fairness, and I think that it's when we embrace newcomers that we get to live up to our highest ideals and highest values as citizens of this country. While I'm a realist and recognize that this is a difficult time for undocumented immigrants, I'm also hopeful because I do believe that we are part of a self-correcting democracy that rights its wrongs. This is an opportune moment for us as a society for us to do right.

Q: Do you think there will ever be a federal law passed that will legalize the status of undocumented immigrants?

A: I hope so, and that is what we advocate for as an organization is comprehensive immigration reform that does provide a path to citizenship for people that are here, who are hardworking, law-abiding taxpaying individuals, that hopefully they are able to be integrated into their communities fully.