This is the first in an ongoing series about DACA recipients in Appalachia. Click here to read the introduction to this four-part story.
Elementary school teacher Aura Strickland, originally from Honduras, has known Lena Martinez since kindergarten, and says she’s a role model for the hundreds of other Hispanic children she has taught. As an educator, she believes that it truly “takes a village.” “It’s like they’re your own children. And it’s everybody’s job (to raise them).” If Lena were to lose her status and go back to being undocumented, or if she were to be deported, Strickland said, “All that work was for nothing.”
The city of Hickory, North Carolina, sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a location that has blessed the city with abundant forests and enough water to create a lake with more than 100 miles of shoreline. The city’s website offers up the slogan, “Life. Well Crafted.” This ethos of craftsmanship, not to mention the abundant forests, helps explain why three of Hickory’s top 15 employers are furniture companies. More than one in five Hickory residents works in manufacturing. Another similar share works in wholesale food companies.
Reader’s Digest named the city one of the 10 best cities in the U.S. to raise a family in 1998, two years after the Martinezes arrived from Cuernavaca, Mexico, when Lena was still a toddler. The National Civic League awarded Hickory the title, “All-America City” three times in the last six decades – most recently in 2007, when Lena was 10.
Also during Lena’s lifetime, the city’s Hispanic population has nearly doubled, from 2,863 to 5,486, even while Hickory’s overall population has only increased by 8.2 percent. As of 2016, according to the census, about one in seven of Hickory’s 40,274 residents were Hispanic.
On a brisk Saturday night in November, 350 or so people came together to celebrate the life of Lena’s 15-year-old sister, Lina, in a convention center about 10 miles southeast of their home. Many had spent the week working in Hickory’s furniture or food industry factories, or at their own small businesses, such as car garages. Shortly into the ceremony, Carlos, Lina’s dad, proposed a toast: “First, many of you were my customers. Now, you’re family.” Carlos was referring to the videos he’s taken over the years of their most cherished family events, a business he’s built during the last decade. Standing behind him were 26 padrinos, each of whom contributed something to the event: sodas, the band, tablecloths. Without their help, the event – the cost of which, Carlos later estimated, reached around $10,000 – would have been impossible.
Family. Solidarity. Those are the values Hickory has offered as its legacy. At the same time, the event itself–a quinceañera–and the last names of the hundreds present were signs of Hickory’s present, and future.
Getting into Lenoir-Rhyne University as a teenager was Lena’s entry into the American dream, including future hopes of joining Hollywood’s entertainment industry. She acquired a passion for behind-the-camera work and music videos growing up around her father, Carlos, who has paired factory jobs with his small business making videos of quinceañeras, baptisms, weddings and so on, since she was a child. He got it from his father, who was the family photographer back in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Lena was able to get into Lenoir-Rhyne because she graduated with a 3.8 GPA from Hickory’s St. Stephens High School around the same time that the college, like other private colleges in Appalachian states like North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, saw declining white, non-Hispanic populations. At the same time, these same states and others from the region occupied most of the top 10 spots in the nation’s list of states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations. These schools saw the need to recruit and retain more Hispanics – including those who were undocumented or had DACA status.
Motivated by this, Lenoir-Rhyne, named in part for a Confederate Civil War officer, had hired Emma Sellers to visit area schools like St. Stephens, among other efforts. One day in May 2014, she convinced the Martinezes to visit Lenoir-Rhyne, and when the leafy, well-kept campus appealed to them, she helped them obtain private scholarships. They also took out private loans.
Sellers, who is from “a farm in the middle of nowhere” in Evergreen, South Carolina, remembers that Lena spent her first year “not getting her hopes up, because maybe (her college education) would get taken away.” That year, she said, “her Dad would pop up often. Starting the second year, not so much. He would say, ‘You’re taking care of her.’”
Four years later, Lena is a member of the school’s Broyhill Institute for Leadership, an invitation-only group whose members must have good grades and demonstrate character. This year, she has been named to the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society, a century-old organization whose past members include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. When Lena graduates in May, she will add further evidence to the data that appears to show DACA recipients slightly outpacing everyone else when it comes to obtaining a college degree: 35.5 percent who are older than 25 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the most recent and largest survey, compared to 33.4 percent of the rest of the nation.
But as of September 5, when President Trump had announced that he would end DACA, for Lena, any ideas about life after graduation were suddenly hazy. One thing she had decided – if she, or either or both of her undocumented parents were deported, they would all leave, in order to remain united as a family. That would include Lena’s sisters – Lina, 15, and Karla, 11, who were born in the U.S.
Lena’s mixed-status family is not unlike those of other DACA recipients. Nearly three-fourths have a spouse, child or sibling who is a U.S. citizen, according to the most recent survey – including 59 percent whose brothers and sisters are citizens.
Given the cultural importance of family relationships for most Hispanics, this means that each DACA recipient’s fate is joined to several U.S. citizens, in ways ranging from psychological to economic.
Whatever Congress decides March 5 – the deadline President Trump handed down with his decision to end DACA – will not just affect 800,000-plus young people, most of whom have grown up in the U.S.; it will also change life for millions of U.S. citizens.
But none of the older Martinezes wanted to talk to Lina and Karla about such things that September morning. Lena turned off the TV, and “went back to being a student.” And later that day, Lina and Karla continued rehearsing for the teenager’s upcoming quinceañera, an all-day celebration of girls entering womanhood central to Mexican culture.
Two months later, a crowd of about 150 filed into Hickory’s St. Aloysius Catholic Church for the Mass celebrating Lina’s quinceañera. Before the ceremony, six chamberlains, or escorts, teenaged male friends of the Martinez family, stood in the hallway outside nervously adjusting their white ties set against black suits. That same morning, rapper Lil Peep had died of an overdose; one of the teens saw the news on his phone and said to the others, “RIP Lil Peep.”
In the airy, wood, brick and stained-glass chapel, Father Nohe Torres, pastor, began his remarks by looking at the Martinezes, sitting off to his right. “I don’t remember the year when we first met, but it was a long time ago,” he said. “There is great value in the effort you have made as a family to stay united.” When it came time for Carlos to address his daughter, he assured her, “You will always be with us.” Lena, taking her turn, recalled how, 15 years earlier, she had kneeled at the same altar she was facing, and asked baby Jesus for a little sister. “I’ll always be with you, no matter what,” she said.
When Lina was born, the notion that “everything I ask God for, I get it” became part of family lore, Lena told me later.
If any of the family’s dozens of close friends gathered in the church felt any connection between the ceremony’s words of love and permanence and the pending decisions of lawmakers in Washington, which could rip the family apart, they weren’t letting on. All gathered around afterward for kisses and photos with the quinceañera, and Lina slowly walked outside with her chamberlains and family, her white dress flowing behind, a black limousine waiting in the fall chill to take them to a nearby park for more photos.
At the party that night, Karla performed a dance routine with Fernando, one of Lina’s chamberlains and a friend of the family since they were little. The song: “Mi Gente,” the first all-Spanish song to hit No. 1 on the Spotify Global Top 50 chart, and which had recently been remixed by Beyonce.
On the wall behind them in the cavernous hall, a video Carlos had made looped photos from the Appalachian childhoods of the Martinez girls: running in a park, posing in front of a Christmas tree, Lina biting Lena’s cheek playfully.
Aura Strickland sat at one of the dozens of tables, together with other teachers from St. Stephens Elementary School. From Honduras, she married a local and has been in the area since 2005, gaining U.S. citizenship several years ago. She teaches English as a second language and helps with reading and writing, and has known the Martinezes since Lina was in kindergarten. She has videos of school events at home – plays, seasonal celebrations – that Carlos recorded and gave to her as gifts. When Lina went on to middle school, she wrote a note to Mrs. Strickland “saying thanks for everything I had done,” the teacher recalled.
Because of this relationship, when Carlos and his wife, Josefina, began planning Lina’s quinceañera last year, they asked if Mrs. Strickland would be the “madrina del ultimo juguete” – a role that involves giving the 15-year-old “the last toy of her childhood.” “(Lina) always wanted a doll that looked like her,” said Mrs. Strickland. “I cried when they asked me,” she added. “For me it was very special … I got a doll, and dressed her like Lina in her quinceañera dress.”
As for Lena, the teacher says that the young woman has been a role model for the hundreds of other Hispanic children she has taught. She’s aware of Lena’s progress through high school, with a 3.8 GPA, and of the few months that remain for her to earn a college diploma. “She’s about to graduate from the same college as my husband,” the teacher beamed. As an educator, she believes in the idea, “it takes a village.” “It’s like they’re your own children. And it’s everybody’s job (to raise them).” If Lena were to lose her status, and go back to being undocumented, or were to be deported, she said, “All that work was for nothing.”
Emma Sellers has gotten to know several dozen Lenoir-Rhyne students with DACA in the last few years. “They’re brilliant people,” she said “They’ve been interpreting (for their parents) since they were three or four.” Most, she said, are interested in health fields–“even if they can’t sit for boards … (they have) the hope that DACA will be resolved,” she said, adding, “they’re the best people on our campus.”
Lena says spending time at Lenoir-Rhyne, with its early 20th-century brick and stone buildings and the daily deadlines of her senior year, distracts her from the news, and endless efforts to decode a president’s tweet, or a senator’s grandstanding.
Beyond March lies May, and Lena’s graduation, which Josefina plans to celebrate with another special Mass. Until then, Lena’s young mind tries to hold two worlds in her head at the same time.
In one, she is still leading her daily life in Hickory, where, mostly due to the hundreds of families whose most valued moments have been captured on Carlos Martinez’s video cameras, “everyone knows me – in the mall, at the movies, everywhere.” In this world, she thinks she could spend another year in this city, the only place she knows, after graduating, and save up money through her own photography, video and graphic design work. Then, she would like to move to Los Angeles, where she wants to to study film at Columbia College Hollywood and find her way into the music video business. She discovered Columbia as a high school senior, and has had a postcard from the film school stuck with a magnet on her family’s refrigerator for the last four years. “My Dad says, ‘if that’s your goal, the more you see it, it’s like a law of attraction. If that’s your dream, just keep focused.’”
In the other world, she, or one or both of her parents, are deported. At first, her mother told her, “If we’re deported, you can stay and raise your sisters. You deserve the opportunity.” But then Lena thought, “I’ve never been without my parents. I don’t want to raise my sisters. We’ll all go.” Carlos, Josefina and Lena now agree on this. Carlos sees a certain irony. “It would be like saying goodbye to our whole world – just like we did 20 years ago.”
Timothy Pratt (@TimothyJPratt) is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications.
All photos by Jesse Pratt Lopez.