Just a few years ago, Maria Peniche was roaming the halls of Revere High School (RHS), a smiling young lady full of energy with academic talents that she hoped would one day lead to a career at the United Nations representing the United States.
However, 2013 finds her in a very different place, that place being solitary confinement at an unforgiving Immigration Detention Center in Eloy, AZ, where she is allowed to be out of her dark cell for one hour a day. She received that punishment after going on a hunger strike and stirring up a protest within the high-security facility last week – that following the larger planned protest she entered into called the ‘Dream 9’ that has been ongoing since July 22nd and seeks to challenge the country’s immigration laws through a direct action by nine young people who had grown up in America, but had been deported or returned to Mexico prior to last year’s deferred action regulation.
“I’m not allowed to speak to anybody,” she said in a phone call to the protest organizers (National Immigrant Youth Alliance) last Friday after five days in ‘the hole.’ “It’s really frustrating…You feel like the world has forgotten about you…I was gonna hurt myself. Too much anxiety. Too much fear. Too much anger at this entire mess. I just wanted to slam myself against a wall or put boiling water on my hands so I could feel some kind of pain or something different.”
Peniche, now 22, is currently on suicide watch at the facility after apparently trying to harm herself due to the stress of the situation, but that situation hasn’t been enough to deter her from her main goal of bringing an international spotlight on the plight of young people brought illegally to the United States as children.
It’s an issue she has been vocal about since her early high school days in Revere, her teachers here said. In fact, she often spoke out publicly here about those issues. She even once accompanied RHS Teacher Nancy Barile to the New England College Board Regional Forum to speak about the issue.
“This year, my senior year of high school, I have realized that it’ll be 50 times harder for me than any other average ‘resident/citizen’ student applying to college,” she said in the College Board speech. “Yes, I am considered an ‘international’ student, even though I have lived nine of my 19 years in the United States, and I considered myself an American. What does this mean? Well, I can’t receive any financial aid, and there are virtually no scholarships given to people in my situation. My parents have jobs that only allow them to make the amount of money needed to pay rent, groceries, gas and electric bills. I have a job, but I also have to go to school and keep my grades up, so on a decent week I only make $150. This is pretty much a Mission Impossible Part 5 for me.”
Now, Peniche’s protest has garnered just such the spotlight she had hoped for, being highlighted in news reports all over the country – some with favorable views and some with very critical views. Meanwhile, the nine protesters in the Detention Facility have also caught the attention of President Barack Obama – who is expected to address their situation this week.
Back at RHS, Barile said she wasn’t surprised her former student had taken such an extreme action on the immigration issue. She said Peniche was always outspoken on the topic – as she was in the country illegally herself and had grown frustrated with the fact that she could not get financial aid or in-state tuition for college.
“I’m not surprised,” said Barile this week. “She was always my go-to girl on this issue. She knew a lot about it and was very active in the Student Immigration Movement. She was always an activist here and she marched on the State House and Boston City Hall and her picture was actually on the front of the Metro newspaper. That has always been her thing. She wanted to change the law to help other kids in her situation.”
Peniche and her family had apparently been living in Revere for about 11 years after fleeing Mexico City when Maria Peniche was 10, as they couldn’t afford to buy food. Ironically, her father had been born in Cuba and secretly fled with his mother to Mexico on a sugar boat when he was six. Once there, they hid the fact that they were Cuban and became Mexican citizens.
Maria Peniche arrived in Revere illegally with her parents and siblings in 2001 and attended schools here, graduating in 2010 and heading on to Pine Manor College. Her brother, in fact, was a standout football player on the RHS team a few years before.
However, in June 2012, the family could no longer make things work in Revere, and Maria’s education was costing too much money due to her inability to get financial aid. Ironically, the Peniche family returned to Mexico to get a new start and help Maria with her schooling just three days before President Obama announced his Deferred Action (DACA) program for young people who arrived in the country illegally as children. Maria Peniche would have qualified for that program, and it would have certainly put her education problems to an end – even if only temporarily. However, she was already in Mexico and could not return.
“I know that school was costing her a lot of money and she was working at McDonald’s and they were really struggling,” said Barile. “In fact, they were struggling so much that she had to leave school and they all left and went back to Mexico.”
That, apparently, was the genesis of her activity in the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. She apparently had trouble from the get-go in Mexico City, and recently had to put off her education to work menial jobs to help support her family.
On July 22nd, she joined a handful of other young people – now living in Mexico – who had grown up in America, graduated from American schools and who say they consider themselves to be Americans. In a coordinated effort, they marched across the Morley Pedestrian Bridge in Nogales, Mexico – requesting asylum under a ‘humanitarian parole’ when reaching a checkpoint on the Arizona side of Nogales.
Because they did not have the proper documents and they refused to go back to Mexico, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had no choice but to detain them. That, however, was pretty much the point of the protest.
Since that time, they have been at one of the larger private Detention Facilities in the U.S. – just outside of Phoenix in Eloy.
Peniche apparently landed in solitary confinement with one other detainee when they jumped up last week during dinner and led a chant in Spanish saying, “Undocumented, Unafraid,” which is the motto of the ‘Dream 9’ protest.
Organizers said they hoped to shine a light on the stalled immigration issue, as well as to find some respite for young people in Mexico who grew up in America and qualify for DACA.
“From my point of view, I feel like it is not right that a lot of hardworking students like me have to be ‘punished’ for our parent’s decision to come to the United States undocumented,” she said in her speech to the College Board. “It’s not like an eight year old is going to refuse to board a plane or cross borders with his or her parents and be left alone; kids don’t know they are breaking the law…Honestly, I don’t know what is going to become of me if the ‘Dream Act’ does not pass. I have big dreams, and I don’t think I’ll have a better shot at achieving them anywhere else. I know that if I try to pursue this in Mexico, I will be completely lost and my title of a diplomat will mean nothing anywhere else.”
And it’s with just that determination and desperation that Maria Peniche, Revere High School alumna, marched back into the United States 17 days ago – crossing the Mexican border at her own peril and risking her freedom for the cause.