DENVER – Nearly every word she teaches is in Spanish, spoken to high school students eager to learn or brush up on their own language skills.
In many ways, Spanish teacher Marissa Molina is not much different than her students.
“I think she’s great. She’s such a great person and we can really relate to her,” says Jesenia Sandoval, a 10th grader at Denver School of Science and Technology’s Green Valley Ranch High School. “It’s because she’s Hispanic and we don’t really have a lot of Hispanic teachers in this school, so it’s really like, ‘Oh, our first Hispanic teacher.’ So it’s really relatable because she knows what we’ve been through.”
Molina’s classroom is carefully decorated with items she considers crucial to her learning environment, items that symbolize her learning environment growing up.
There are Portraits of Latino leaders like Cesar Chavez and Jorge Ramos.
“For me, it’s about helping my students understand how powerful their education can be outside of these four walls,” Molina said.
There’s the banner of Ft. Lewis College, Molina’s alma mater.
“I went to Ft. Lewis College in Durango — and I continued to live in the shadows,” Molina said. “I continued to lie about my status because I still didn’t feel safe to be who I was.”
The Mexican flag that hangs — along with the others of Latin-American nations — explains why she didn’t feel so safe in the states.
“So really, from the beginning, I knew how hard this struggle was going to be, but not really understanding of the realities of what it meant to be undocumented,” Molina said. “It was really hard and it was hard because the people who are around me, like my best friends, didn’t know what was going on and it was hard sometimes to explain to them why I didn’t have a driver’s license or why I didn’t drive, and why I couldn’t do the things that they were doing, why I didn’t travel to Mexico in the summers.”
Molina moved to the United States from a small town in Chihuahua, Mexico when she was 9, and for much of her life after that, the now 23-year-old voice was often silenced.
“My parents had always told us — this is something that’s our story and it could put us in a very dangerous place if we expose that to anybody,” she said. “It definitely was a source of shame and embarrassment. I think that in high school I started to internalize the fact that maybe I had done something wrong, maybe I was that criminal people said I was.”
Molina said the struggle of living in the country illegally began when she first started grade school.
“When I started at Glenwood Springs elementary school, in my grade level, there were about five kids who didn’t speak English,” she said. “But when I got here, they said despite you having really great grades, you are a year ahead, so you’re younger than everyone else, you also don’t speak English, you really belong in 4th grade.”
Molina was held back from 5th grade. The struggle continued into high school.
“My sister had just graduated high school when I started as a freshman, and I think at that moment I really knew what it meant to be in high school and to be undocumented,” she said. “My sister is now going to a community college. It was going to be hard for her to be able to pay for that. She was considered an out of state student. 6:36 So I started to internalize how hard that struggle was going to be.”
Even getting into a university was a struggle, but she began her college life at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
“When I came into Ft. Lewis, because my parents had filed taxes in CO, I was — they looked at all the evidence and said, ‘Well, you’re an in-state student.’ But when I couldn’t give proof of ID, that’s when they said, ‘We’ve made a mistake. You’re not actually an in-state student. You’re actually an out-of-state student,'” she said. “And I remember having this conversation three weeks into freshman year of college and sitting in this office with people I had never seen and having to be really open about my status. And I remember Kathy, the lady who worked in the Office of Financial Aid, she said, ‘No. Don’t cry. We’re going to help you. There has got to be a way we can fix this mistake because we’ve made the mistake. We’ve made the wrong classification.’ So, Fort Lewis came through for me and they helped me out that first year because they had made that mistake.”
But as she made her way through classes, she realized she would never be able to use her diploma to work in the states, until 2012, when President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“I will never forget the day. I will never forget the phone call I received from my friend who said, ‘You’ve got to turn on the news. This is huge,'” she said. “It changed my life completely. All of a sudden I was able to drive, I was able to learn how to drive, I was able to have a job. … All of a sudden, it was like wow. What I’m learning is actually going to make a difference. Now I can really put this degree to work.”
And she puts her degree to work every single day as Spanish teacher, so much so, she was recently honored by The White House as a “Champion of Change.”
“I still remember opening that email and it said ‘The White House’ and when I opened it, it had an official heading from the White House and I was like, ‘Never in a million years would I have expected this email to come through to me,'” Molina said. “”If I, coming from such a small place in Mexico, if I had the opportunity to step into The White House as a Champion of Change, anything is possible.”
And that’s what she tries to instill in her Spanish students every single day.
“I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh, the American Dream is dead. You can’t make all these dreams come true in America.’ Well, no. You can. And I think that I’m proof that you can, if you’re willing to really fight for it,” Molina said. “I think that that change is possible and the possibility to dream is always there.”
(© 2015 KUSA)