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Maria Alcivar: Change agent and advocate

Beads of sweat dripped from the foreheads of the protesters crowded outside Jack Trice Stadium during the CyHawk tailgate on that hot September day in fall 2015.

Maria Alcivar, graduate student in human development and family studies, was one of the student protesters at a CyHawk tailgate that kicked off a series of events that put diversity and inclusion on the university’s radar.

The group, filled with students from all three regent universities and members of DREAM Iowa and Iowa State alumni, stood in solidarity and anticipation, peacefully protesting against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who had recently reviled immigrants from our southern borders.

Then a blonde 20-something stirred in the crowd of protesters who were protesting the protesters.

“I should just go up and rip it,” Shelby Mueller, a West Des Moines resident and Trump supporter, said about protester Jovani Rubio’s sign that read, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”

“A vote for Trump is a vote for white supremacy,” she read from one of the posters. “Let’s go. I’m not f****** kidding. I’m going to take it down,” she told her friends.

She walked through the huddled masses of protesters and supporters, grabbed Rubio’s sign from the bottom and ripped through the paper.

Maria Alcivar, graduate student in human development and family studies who was protesting that day, witnessed Mueller’s action, witnessed the crowd of anti-protesters applauding Mueller, and then witnessed Mueller sashaying through the masses, prize in hand.

And from that moment on, Alcivar has been involved in a whirlwind of student complaints and protests that have brought awareness of a latent racism at Iowa State and a change in how minority students, faculty and members of the Iowa State community are treated on campus.

“It’s been coming for a few years, and now it just exploded,” said Sandra Rosado, Alcivar’s best friend.

Since the tailgate protest, Alcivar has helped organize an open forum that filled the Memorial Union’s Great Hall in which students, led by Latinos Unidos for Change (LUCHA), talked with Iowa State’s leaders: President Steven Leath, then-Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Hill and then-Dean of Students Pamela Anthony.

Alcivar also joined one of the six strategic planning committees trying to create a safe and inclusive environment at Iowa State.

But Alcivar’s foray into combating problems did not start this year. She learned how to effect change by watching her mother struggle for a better life in the United States. She calls her mother “the original DREAMer.” DREAMers are members of the immigrant community who could profit from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Her mother’s struggles, however, began before she reached the United States.


“I have to leave. I’ll go to another country. I’ll try my best.”

Hilda repeated these words to herself as she packed her and her children’s clothes and told herself it was time to go. The words helped validate her decision to leave her home for good.

She boarded the plane with her children, Johnny Jr. and Maria, and reflected on the domestic violence and abuse she had endured for years.

“You get married, and you think everything is going to be OK, and that it’s going to be wonderful, but that didn’t happen to me,” Hilda said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘He’s going to change’ you know? But after many years I kept trying and trying, and the violence got worse. I couldn’t control it.”

So she took her children and left her home country of Ecuador, leaving behind her family, the man she had fallen in love with and most of her belongings.

“I had to do it for my kids,” Hilda said. “I was dreaming of a better life.”

Maria was 11 years old.

“I didn’t really think about what was happening,” she said. “I was just going with the flow.”

Hilda, Maria and Johnny settled in West New York, New Jersey, after flying into LaGuardia Airport in New York. West New York as a whole was unsatisfactory.

Maria Alcivar puts her arm around her mother Hilda.

“I just remember saying, ‘This looks worse than my country,’” Hilda said.

But she had other things to deal with -- language barriers, job search, a new country where she knew no one and a husband who had followed her looking for another chance.

“He told me ‘I’m going to be better, I’m going to be OK, I’m going to try my best. Let me come.’ And so again, I said yes,” Hilda said. It didn’t take more than two or three months before the abuse started again.

Hilda told Johnny Sr. to leave, and he returned to Ecuador, where he has since started life with a new family. Maria and her brother keep minimal contact with their father.

“I think at this point, I’m over the anger,” Maria said. “But I’m not going to form a relationship with him, because it’s been too long for me to try to do that now.”

Maria said he taught her how to behave at the table, use proper manners and how to play soccer and basketball.

“He was a good father, just not a good husband,” she said.

Being able to let go of the anger she felt for her dad and watching her mother rise above the domestic violence she endured for many years has helped Maria grow into the strong, dedicated activist that many ISU students see. But her strong-willed nature developed through her own experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, the crux of many of her early problems.

Maria was undocumented for 14 years before receiving a green card for two years and finally her citizenship in July 2015. During those years, her mother told her children not to share where they were from or how they arrived in the country for fear that they would be discovered.

“It makes you a little wary and scared, as to sharing that information with people, and I didn’t until maybe when I was a senior in high school,” Maria said. “I was just like ‘I can’t deal with this secret anymore.’”

The fear went far beyond just disclosing information to friends, peers, schoolmates and others. It followed Maria even after she obtained citizenship.

“Even now, driving and there’s a cop car behind me, I still get nervous,” she said as she thought of driving in her past without a license and the fear of not only getting caught, but also a fate far worse.

Maria described a fear that undocumented students know -- the fear of being left behind, forgotten about and the struggle to keep up with their classmates. During her junior year of high school she started taking classes to obtain her driving permit in advance of getting her license, not knowing she wouldn’t be able to take the driving test.

“They broke it down to me that since I didn’t have a Social Security number, I couldn’t get the permit,” she said.

“Seeing all my friends going through that, and then me, left behind,” Maria said. “It’s like every time undocumented students are left behind, you don’t have that support system to tell you, ‘It’s OK,’ or ‘Yes, the system is messed up but you need to keep fighting.’

“You want to have that person that says ‘keep doing good, keep getting good grades, keep pushing for it,’ because you never know what could happen,” she said. “The immigration system is unstable. It changes all the time, so there are opportunities that undocumented students could have eventually, such as DACA.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a statute that lets undocumented people stay in the country as long as they arrived before their 16th birthday or June 2007.

“It could be something so small, like getting a permit to drive, but you see people transitioning and moving forward in their development and in their life course, and I’m still here, behind, because of these damn papers,” Maria said.

“It could be something so small, like getting a permit to drive right, but you see people transitioning and moving forward in their development and in their life course and I’m still here, behind, because of these damn papers, you know?”

When she applied to be a student at Iowa State, she was still undocumented. Had it not been for someone in the Admissions Department pulling strings for her, she wouldn’t have been able to attend and further her education.

Having that connection at Iowa State is an example of the “you never know what can happen” phenomenon that Alcivar wants other undocumented students to understand.

“If I would have never done well in high school, because of my status, then this opportunity wouldn’t have been presented to me,” Maria said. “I wasn’t sure I was going to go to college, and it just happened there were nice people in administration that helped me out.

 “This can happen for other undocumented students, too,” she said. “I just want other undocumented high school students to not give up because crazy opportunities can happen at any time.”

When she graduated in 2011 with bachelor’s degrees in international studies and women’s studies, she couldn’t find a job, and once again felt left behind due to her status.

“I have this awesome diploma from this awesome institution, but I still don’t have documents, so nobody can hire me,” she said.

Maria considered leaving the United States, even though it meant she could never return and see her mother and brother, just so she could use her diploma. But she returned home to West New York to work in a retail store in Union City.

“I was just not happy. I worked so hard for my diploma for years, and I was like ‘Is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life – not fulfilling or at least not trying to apply the knowledge I gained in school?’” she said.

Then Maria got her green card, which led to a permanent residency in the United States shortly after she moved back to New Jersey. She began working as a teller for CitiBank, but still felt unfulfilled.

“I was a teller, which is fine, but not for me, not good enough for me,” she said. “I made the decision to try and do my masters again, and I came [back] here because of the connections I had.”

And while life was good for Maria, her family is mixed status -- she is the first in her family to achieve citizenship. But her mother is undocumented and her brother is employed in the United States because of DACA.

So Maria is working toward getting her mother’s documentation while studying and working a part-time job.

“It’s not an easy thing to do; it’s not a system where you can just go and apply or get in line,” Maria said. “There’s not such a line. If that were the case, then we would all be in line.”

“It’s not an easy thing to do, it’s not a system where you can just go and apply or get in line like people say, that’s just not real,” Alcivar said. “There’s not such a line, if that were the case then we would all be in line.”

The process to apply for citizenship is what Alcivar describes as “a really screwed-up system.”

Undocumented immigrants must go through many stages of questions to see if they even qualify to apply. It also depends on the person’s entry into the country, the country they are from and other factors. The process can take up to 15 to 20 years to complete.

The application process is also expensive, and if a person doesn’t get accepted, that money is non-refundable. Because undocumented immigrants are not legally permitted to work, many resort to jobs that pay cash to cover their living expenses and their documentation expenses, if applicable, all while paying taxes to live in this country.

“I’m tired of hearing the same old ‘they don’t pay taxes, they don’t contribute to the economy,’” Maria said. “That is a misconception. Undocumented people do pay taxes. You can’t get any benefits, you can’t get financial aid -- you don’t get any government aid at all -- so you’re going to have to work hard.”

Maria’s natural resiliency has helped her through those times when she had to “work hard.”

Rosado says Maria is strong.

“She jumps through hoops and has dealt with systems that are already in place and overcame those,” Rosado said. “She’s 100 percent dedicated to anything she decides to do.”

Maria’s journey in this country has been more than growing up with a single mother and worrying about her undocumented status. As a Latina immigrant woman, she has dealt with the problems that come with not feeling like she has a place in either country she has lived in.

“I’m like an in-betweener. I don’t fully ‘fit the stereotypical American girl’ here, and then when I go home, like Ecuador, I don’t fit the Ecuadorian girl -- the traditional role either,” Maria said. “It’s like I get it from here, and I get it from my own place of birth.

“I get it as a woman too, and I get it as a woman of color,” she said. “It’s multi-layered, all of these layers I have are a part of my identity. I have so many different systems to fight based on the multiple identities I carry.”

Although Maria is ambicultural and able to flow in both U.S. and Ecuadorian cultures, it hasn’t shielded her from discrimination. Walking into a business has always made her wonder how the people will treat her based on how she looks and sounds.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so smart!’ like they’re surprised that I’m smart and that I can speak well. They’ll say ‘even with your accent you’re very articulate,’” she said. “They’ll say things suggesting as if because I’m Latina or because my first language isn’t English I should be dumb or something.”

Maria is completing her master’s degree at Iowa State, and when she tells people she’s a graduate student, they are often shocked.

“I’m just like ‘Why are they so surprised?’” she said. “In my opinion there’s nothing else that is suggesting that for some reason I shouldn’t be getting my master’s degree, I mean what is suggesting that?”

Last summer, Maria and a group of women were playing soccer and a car drove by screaming “beaners.” She wondered if that person acted out of hate toward them because they are Latina or because they are women.

“It gets me mad and it gets me teary, because first of all, you’re a coward because you can’t say that to my face, and second of all, what’s the point in hurting people that way or trying to make it seem like you’re better than them based on your race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call yourself,” she said.

But the discrimination Maria faces is more complex than just a couple of comments being shouted out of a car window.

As a student, Maria faces micro-aggressions from ISU faculty and students, the everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs and comments from people around her.

Alcivar is a graduate student studying human development and family studies at Iowa State.

She studies human development and family studies, “the study of people,” Maria said, but some faculty members are still blind to issues associated with students of color.  Some faculty members in other departments don’t use correct terms, such as using undocumented instead of illegal.

“You expect people to be equal all around, so you do things as a teacher and you say things as a teacher as if we all have the same opportunity to do them,” Maria said. “You can apply for A, B and C grants or scholarships, or this and that, but in reality when I didn’t have my documentation I couldn’t do those things.”

Maria also said it is uncomfortable for people to ask in the middle of a conversation where they are from.

“It’s kind of just implying that because of how I look or sound, then I’m not from here, so I guess in the context of the conversation, if that is where it’s going between you and that person or group, then of course it’s OK,” Maria said. “Just don’t ask just because they look different or sound different.”

“Assumptions are the problem,” she said. “Don’t assume. And that goes with everything that goes with immigration, that goes with an undocumented person, that goes with everything.”

Maria described how hard she is working to obtain her mother’s citizenship status and the extra steps she has to go through for her family.

“Professors don’t know the extra burdens students of color have,” Maria said. “They don’t think about that because they are white.

“For example, everything that happened with LUCHA put a strain on me as a graduate student in the middle of the semester,” she said. “I’m still here and I’m still going to fight, and some of my professors knew a little bit about it, but no one really came and said, ‘Hey, if you need some time, take your time.’ It was rather some advisers that reached out, but not my actual professors.”

Maria didn’t want to take any time off from her current efforts and her studies. She explained that she wouldn’t play victim to some of the things that happened on campus, but not recognizing the problem is still wrong.

She combats these problems by being a voice for her community outside of campus and working with others on campus to initiate change.

Maria works at Assault Care Center Extending Shelter and Support (ACCESS) in Ames. She previously worked specifically with the Latino community to help women who have experienced domestic violence. She now counsels, gives resources, finds financial assistance, connects clients with lawyers and assists with language barriers for her clients, which is all confidential.

She also has been attending protests on campus, is a part of the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines and is active with the League of United Latino American Citizens.

Her drive to work with people and help not only people of color, but also victims of abuse, comes from her upbringing with her mother -- her guerrera.

“My mom is my world. She’s a role model as a woman, as a woman of color, as an immigrant woman, as an undocumented immigrant, as a poor woman,” Maria said. “She portrays everything that I would like to be for my own kid. She’s strong; she’s a warrior.”

Tears fill her eyes as she talks about her mother.

“Any time I’m down I want to be able to say I can pick myself up because that’s what she’s done,” Maria said. “I’m really the person I am because of her, like her fight, her struggle, her sacrifice was what made my brother and I graduate from college.

“Her sacrifice made us the people we are now,” she said. “She taught me to make sure other people respected me, even men, even as she was being abused by my dad.”

She dreams of buying her mother a house one day.

Her ultimate goal is to bring awareness to racial, immigrant and domestic violence issues.

For now, Maria said, the best way to achieve these goals is to have discussions.

“People need to be open to having difficult conversations. First, respecting other people’s views, and second, validating their experiences,” she said. “If you don’t know something, be honest. That’s the third thing, like be honest about not knowing, it’s normal, we are not experts at everything.

“The difficult conversations are a good start, but at some point we need to push for policies that will enable change for marginalized people not only at Iowa State but in the United States in general,”  Maria said.

January 2017

Alcivar is currently applying for Ph.D programs. She will be defending her thesis in the department of human development and family studies in March. Spring 2017 will be her last semester as a master’s student. She was also awarded the Student Change Agent Award from the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

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