The Hope CommUnity Center of Apopka, Florida, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to Florida’s immigrant communities. Three Roman Catholic nuns opened the center in the 1970s with a mission to empower the community to develop its own potential and create positive change. That mission was realized in November of 2015 when Elizabeth (Eli) Garcia accepted the Mario Savio Youth Activist Award at Berkeley, California.
Eli Garcia was born in 1989 in a small village in Mexico. She lived with her parents and two brothers in poverty, with no access to clean water or sufficient nutrition. When Eli was 4 years old, her mother and father came to the United States to make a better life for their family. Eli was left behind with her grandparents in Mexico, finally reuniting with her parents in the United States seven years later at the age of 11. Eli recalls her early years in Florida, when she unable to speak or understand English and was very aware of the differences in language, food, and culture between the United States and Mexico. Her parents told her, “Eli, all you have to do is go to school and study hard and make the best of the best.” Eli believed that anything was possible with an education. She worked hard to learn English and she studied so that she could partake in the American dream. Eli was in middle school when she told her parents that, try as she might, she simply didn’t feel like she was the same as the other children at school. It was then that her parents told her that she was an undocumented immigrant.
Realizing that she was subject to deportation and could be separated from her family was devastating, but, even worse, Eli realized that as an undocumented immigrant she wouldn’t be able to continue her education after high school. Eli felt as though she were an invisible person with no voice. She was scared. Her dreams were dashed. She became withdrawn. She was going through the motions of school, knowing that she would hit a wall at the end, if she even got to the end. But when Eli got to high school she met a worker from the Hope CommUnity Center, which was located in her neighborhood. The worker told Eli that she had a voice and that her voice needed to be heard rather than stifled by fear. Slowly, Eli realized that the Hope Center worker was right, that she needed to overcome her fears for herself and for others like her in the community.
Eli began working with immigrant families who were experiencing fear of deportation. She tried to teach people that they deserved to be in the United States, that they lived here and have contributed to this society. She wanted the immigrant community to raise its voice and share its stories in support of immigration reform. Realistically, Eli understood their fears as her own. Undocumented immigrants could not obtain driver’s licenses, and thus often drove without a license to get to work or the doctor. Police stops easily led to the threat of deportation, so staying under the proverbial radar was essential. Certainly, rising up in protest when one didn’t want to draw attention to oneself was counterintuitive. But Eli was undeterred—“We are the voice of the voiceless”—and the reality of the immigrant movement was that nothing would change until others found their own voice. Eli was determined to do that for others as the workers at the Hope Center did that for her, and together, work for comprehensive immigration reform so that no one’s voice is stifled by fear in the future.