Written by Karen Guzman and cross-posted in partnership with the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health as part of the 2012 Latina Week of Action.
This profile of Karen Guzman is one of several of powerful Latina women advocates throughout the United States.
Every time I hear the word poderosa or powerful, a particular experience in my life strikes me immediately. The details are all incredibly vivid and I begin to remember this particular moment that completely changed my life. I was 18 years old the first time I ever felt empowered to create positive social change. At the time, I was applying for colleges and universities and immigration started to play a huge role in my life. During this time I was lucky to have two of my cousins go through the college application process with me since we were all the same age. It was an exciting time for us because we were all about to be the first ones in our families to go to a college or university.
After years of waiting and asking others for advice on how to apply and what scholarships to look for, we were finally going to achieve one of the biggest goals we had set for ourselves: to be professionals in the United States. To my surprise, it was while filling out one of those applications that I found out that one of my cousins was undocumented. The blank after “SSN:” on an application–that I had quickly filled out and overlooked–was the only thing standing in the way of her dreams. Never mind the fact that she wanted to be a doctor and was incredibly smart, or that she was on the honor roll every quarter in high school. It felt as if her shot of going to a four-year university was shot down instantly. The day I found out about my cousin’s immigration status, I felt hopeless and dis-empowered because I knew that nothing I could say to her would bring the light back to her eyes when she talked about her future.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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My cousin, who was once so hopeful about her life and her future, now felt trapped and betrayed by the American Dream and, even worse, she felt alone. I don’t know what exactly happened to me after that day, but something struck inside of me and I knew I had to do something for my cousin and for the thousands of people like her. A couple of months later, the perfect opportunity showed up as I found out about a rally in Washington, DC right by the mall on a sunny summer day. This rally would be the first one I ever participated in, but certainly not the last. I decided to go with my mom because I was terrified of going by myself and since she knew how much this meant to me, I knew she would be a great supporter.
Together we went to the rally for immigration reform, which was hosted by the campaign to Reform Immigration for America where hundreds of individuals and organizations came out to express their thoughts on our broken immigration system and possible solutions to fix it. Among the advocates and supporters there that day were grandparents, fathers, mothers, and lots of youth. The diversity of the people really struck me and I felt at home. Between chants and marching, I eventually found myself next to about 15 DREAMers from Texas. They were holding up a huge American flag with the word “DREAM” on top of the red and white stripes. Their motivation and energy was contagious so my mom and I decided to join them. While we marched, we each exchanged stories and in each one of them I saw my cousin and I knew she wasn’t alone. Their courage and resilience really touched me and I still remember feeling like I could actually do something about the immigration system in America—right then and there I felt poderosa—powerful and almost invincible. I realized that my words and my actions do have meaning and purpose and that I could be a catalyst for social change in my community.
Years after that rally, I created several events and programs at the University of Maryland to raise awareness on immigration and have been actively supporting the Marlyand DREAMers. I am continuously finding ways to engage my community to fight for justice by being a support and resource for them, after all that’s when I feel that I am a poderosa. My cousin, who was my main motivation for my activism ended up getting permanent residency and is now in the process of completing her nursing degree. Thank you primita for letting me find my passion and helping others realize just how poderosas y poderosos they truly are!
– Karen Guzman, Policy Intern