As a teenager growing up in Central California, Jesus Chavez had to learn to be careful. “My parents always told me you can’t tell anyone about your status,” he says, “They were afraid what would happen to me.”
Chavez’s secret? He was an undocumented immigrant.
Born in Mexico, when Chavez was three, his family packed up and headed north. “They just came over the border,” he says. “No visa or anything.” From a young age, he was told that keeping his immigration status a secret was the only thing he could do. He kept it from his friends, his teachers, everyone he knew.
Chavez is a unique individual — humble yet passionate, brilliant yet approachable. Unsatisfied with just an average life, he wanted to make a difference, not just for the family he loved, but for the community that he grew out of. He knew he had to go to college.
For many, the hardest part of applying to college is submitting the application on time, but an undocumented applicant faces myriad challenges. “When you’re an undocumented student, you’re always hustling,” he says. “A lot of them have to raise the funds for school themselves.” For Chavez, this meant juggling his course load with three jobs, all while having to live with the worry of being deported.
It was in one of those jobs that he met Arcelia Gallardo. A Mexican Latina business owner, Gallardo ran a housing program for low income, first generation students in the Berkeley area. Chavez came to her for a job, and she gladly obliged. Though Gallardo is a citizen, it was her mission to provide resources to undocumented students to help them succeed in college. She and Chavez connected immediately.
“She’s spent the last six years mentoring me professionally,” he says. “She’s one of the first people I told I was undocumented.”
It took Gallardo to show Chavezthat his immigration status was something to celebrate, not hide. “I became very involved with the undocumented student support group at UC Berkley,” he says. That’s a bit of an understatement. Chavez was co-chair of the UC Berkley Immigrant Student Issues Coalition (ISIC). There, students from around the world came together to help, guide, and encourage one another. And in his Junior year, Chavez and his cohort went to the Board at UC Berkley to propose something that would make life easier for students like him: A program solely for undocumented students. “NPR did a piece on it,” Chavez sheepishly admits.
However, his immigration status wasn’t the only thing Chavez kept to himself. “For me, coming out as undocumented was way easier than coming out as gay,” he says. While it might have been easy for him to find other undocumented students to connect with, finding other gay people proved more difficult. “Even though I had all these friends, none of them were gay.”
In sophomore year, he found YQUE!, UC Berkeley’s LGBT Latino group. Through them, he learned about the UndocuQueer movement, a group of LGBT undocumented citizens. “The struggles of LGBT people are very similar to those of undocumented people,” he says. “Undocumented people have even adopted some of the methodology of coming out of the closet.” His time with YQUE! helped form his future career path. Chavez desired to work to bring rights and equality to the thousands of LGBT people living undocumented in the United States.
In September of 2013, he moved to Washington, D.C., to intern with the National LGBTQ Task Force. He also worked closely with the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project which “seeks to organize and empower LGBTQ undocumented people, LGBTQ immigrants and allies through grassroots organizing, leadership development, advocacy and engage in alliance building between the LGBTQ and immigrant rights movements.” After one year, he was chosen to represent D.C. in the national Unión=Fuerza Latino Institute planning committee, where he planned a bilingual day for LGBT Latinos to learn valuable skills and issue based training.
Today, Chavez works as Metro DC PFLAG’s operations manager. He continues to advocate for and educate the public about the LGBT community. Chavez is also responsible for the first Spanish language parent group of DC PFLAG, where he helps Latino parents of LGBT families better understand the struggles of their loved ones, because for him, it all comes down to one thing. Says Chavez, “The reason I do the work I do is because of my family.”
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