A Texas high school valedictorian who described herself as “undocumented” in a tweet touting her academic accomplishments said she didn’t intend to cause offense.
“My tweet wasn’t made to mock anyone. I just wanted to show that no matter what barriers you have in front of you, you can still succeed,” Mayte Lara told the Austin American-Statesman on Wednesday.
Lara graduated June 3 from Crockett High School in Austin. The 17-year-old’s tweet read: “Valedictorian, 4.5GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I’m undocumented.”
The tweet went viral and generated a barrage of negative comments online, most calling for her to leave the country and expressing anger at her University of Texas scholarship.
Lara said she was unprepared for the backlash and decided to deactivate her account “in attempts to ignore the harmful comments,” she said.
Lara has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status, which protects certain youths from deportation if they were brought into the U.S. illegally as children. It allows them to legally work and study in the U.S. The status is initially granted for two years and then can be renewed.
Lara, who has lived in the U.S. most of her life, told the newspaper that one of her greatest hardships is overcoming “the stereotype of people like me.”
Lara said she wants to become a resident and then a citizen and adds that she’s grateful for the opportunities the United States has given her.
UT spokesman Gary Susswein said privacy laws prevent the university from discussing individual students, but that under state law Texas universities have for decades granted two-semester tuition waivers to valedictorians of Texas public high school without regard to residency status. He noted state law also doesn’t distinguish between documented and undocumented graduates of Texas high schools in admissions and financial aid decisions.
Meanwhile, a valedictorian in North Texas got a standing ovation last week when she revealed her undocumented status during her graduation speech from Boyd High School in McKinney. Larissa Martinez, who left Mexico with her family in 2010, told WFAA-TV, “We just flew over here with luggage and a lot of dreams.”
Martinez, who is heading to Yale on a full scholarship, shared her family’s story during her valedictory address at the school’s graduation ceremony last Friday.
Fewer than a dozen people knew Martinez’s secret before thousands heard her speech. She said she wanted to raise awareness that unauthorized immigrants are “trying to do it the right way, but we don’t know how” because of a broken immigration system. Martinez has been waiting seven years for her citizenship application to be processed.
“The most important part of the debate and the part most often overlooked is the fact that immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, are people too,” Martinez said. “People with dreams, aspirations, hopes and loved ones. People like me.”
Martinez moved from Mexico City on a tourist visa six years ago with her mother and little sister for a better life, away from her abusive and alcoholic father.
Immigrants “have become a part of the American society and way of life,” Martinez said in her speech. She said they “yearn to make America great again without a wall built on hatred and prejudice.”
Martinez received a full-ride scholarship to Yale through QuestBridge, a program that matches high-achieving students from low-income families with selective schools.
She said she decided to reveal her status at graduation because she realized it might be the only time she could talk to a large crowd and make a difference. She said it was part of her motivation to do well in school. She has been ranked No. 1 since she was a freshman.
In her speech, Martinez said, “I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States.”
So far, Martinez says, she hasn’t heard negative comments because of her speech, but that she knows they’re probably coming.
“I know who I am and I know who my family is, so honestly nothing they can say can make me feel bad,” Martinez said. “It makes me sad to hear the ignorance in the comments and the racism because I thought that was over in America, so I guess not. It makes me sad to think people actually believe those things they say.”
Martinez said in her speech she is most thankful for everything her mother, Deyanira Contreras, has done to get her where she is today.
“While parents metaphorically move mountains for their children, you literally moved countries for my sister and me,” Martinez said. “Every sacrifice you have made has been for us. That’s why everything I do, I do for you.”
When she came to the U.S. in 2010, Martinez realized education would help her and her family, especially if she got into a school such as Yale. She found out she received a full ride on Dec. 1 and withdrew her applications to other schools.
The summer before seventh grade, she had just arrived in Texas and read a lot of books from the library, she said. When school started, her summer reading helped her, and within a month she advanced from English as a second language classes to regular English classes and then to Pre-AP English.
The topic of immigration would sometimes come up in class, and Martinez said she did not shy away from it.
“I stood up for it enough that people could tell, but I think it’s worth it,” Martinez said. “It’s worth standing up for.”
Martinez has faced struggles being unauthorized, such as having to take the train to Yale rather than fly. It’s a three-day trip, but she decided it was a better option than flying after hearing about a Harvard student who was threatened with deportation when he flew to San Antonio.
Martinez hopes to become a neurosurgeon and wants to continue to be active in political movements for immigration reform. Her involvement with the medical field will also be a platform for her to help make sure patients aren’t turned away because of their immigration status.
She says her mother, who works at a restaurant, has rheumatoid arthritis and has had trouble getting medical treatment.
“Honestly I want to save lives, and I feel like there’s not a better gift you can give than give them more time with their loved ones.”
The Associated Press and Tribune News Services contributed to this story.