DADE CITY Ideally — defined as a world that prizes merit above all other considerations — the graduation stroll Suri Chavez takes tonight would be the latest phase of a journey bound for wonders beyond her imagination.
Which is saying something, because when it comes to dreaming big, the 18-year-old Chavez is a gold-medal contender.
Along her fantastical way, there would be layovers at some swanky private university, summer internships at Fortune 500 companies, a semester or two studying abroad, and — assuming she tamed her impatience for recreating the private sector — an Ivy League MBA.
And then? Look out, Planet Earth.
Instead, in that once-in-a-lifetime moment when she crosses the stage at Pasco High’s W.F. Edwards Stadium tonight, what they’ll hand her might as well be a stop sign. Nevermind her 3.7 GPA. Never mind her cum laude status. Never mind those two years of dual-enrollment college credits that provide clear evidence of an entrepreneurial spirit and a hunger for opportunity.
For all of that and the rousing potential it suggests, she lacks the essential energy to propel her ambition. Suri Chavez is here illegally.
On a moonless night 15
years ago, desperate to join her husband, who had lost a good job near Mexico City only to find work in faraway Dade City, Momma Chavez smuggled Suri and two siblings across the no-man’s land where Mexico joins Arizona.
When they were reunited, they set their roots, as well as they were able, in the Hispanic community bisected by Lock Street. While Suri’s dad followed the crops, her mom fixed and sold plate lunches, returning to her stove after a long, dusty roundtrip walk to drop Suri and her brother at daycare.
Suri learned reliability from her itinerant dad, persistence from her mom and goal-setting from her older sister, who became the first in the family to graduate from high school. She, too, gathered dual-enrollment credits with the urgency of a chipmunk anticipating a hard winter, and now, at 26, manages the office of a Tampa-based landscape company.
“She inspired me,” she says. “She’d say, ‘Even if you don’t have a job, you’ll have an education. They can’t take that away.’ So I’m keeping the chain going.”
Want to reveal the name of this Latina heroine? Says Suri with the familiar regret of those afflicted by acquired-paranoia-syndrome, “I don’t think she’d like to be in the newspaper.”
Now, instead of a summer
preparing for the collegiate adventure her academic credentials recommend, Suri will, like the anonymous sister, postpone higher education and look for work; financial aid does not flow to the undocumented.
This does not mean she is without hope for a quantum shift.
The gargantuan (and in many ways worrisome) Gang of Eight bill taking shape in the U.S. Senate would change, fundamentally, the prospects of all our Suri Chavezes, giving them immediate legal status, guidelines for permanent residency and a so-called pathway to citizenship.
What about the details, the criticisms (from right and left), or the hit taken by Sen. Marco Rubio’s brand among conservatives as a result of his leadership on the bill? That is a column for another day.
For now, it is enough to point out, while pursuing the quasi-legal status offered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program — President Obama’s executive order issued as the campaign heated up last summer — Chavez aches for the permanence promised by comprehensive immigration reform.
To that end, Chavez and several dozen peers are planning a demonstration beginning at 2:30 p.m. at the dry cleaner across State Road 52 from Pasco High. Mostly, because the Gang of Eight bill — widely deplored as Amnesty II — faces trouble in the GOP-led House, they hope to influence the vote of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor).
The way Freddie Marquez, 19, tells it, reform is in America’s best interest. Born in Puerto Rico, Marquez is a U.S. citizen, but, he says, “The majority of my friends are undocumented.” And a majority of that majority are either lousy scholars or dropouts.
“They don’t care anything about school,” he says, “because they don’t see anything good coming out of it.”
Plainly, the self-perpetuating cycle of a poorly educated, uninspired and alienated underclass has social, economic and political costs. But doing nothing also wastes the hopeful, committed efforts of those such as Suri Chavez, who believe — against the odds — in an upwardly mobile future of their own design.
In the interest of advancing this conversation, then, here is the undocumented honor student on the sovereignty of the borders of the nation where her deportation is an enduring possibility:
“Higher security is absolutely reasonable,” Chavez says. A completed fence? Surveillance drones? More boots on the ground? “It’s the good, reasonable thing to do. You should enter legally. If I had it to do over, that’s what I’d want to do. I think it’s appropriate.”
OK, then. Common ground. Something to build on. Told you she was smart.