Norma Torres Mendoza says she was reluctant to put her mother on a plane to Boston to attend her graduation ceremony at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government this week.
There was the fear, Mendoza said, that her mother, Carmen Torres, would be stopped by airport officials and possibly detained. Even worse? The thought of her mother being deported, she said.
“We didn’t want to take the risk of her being questioned,” said Mendoza of her mother, who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and lives in Texas.
So the 25-year-old, amid end-of-the-year events and trying to move out of her apartment, flew to Houston to meet her mother last week, then gassed up a car and drove her about 2,000 miles back to Cambridge.
On Thursday, when Mendoza receives her graduate degree in public policy, her mother will be there, watching proudly from the crowd.
“The trip was a little nerve-wracking, but also very exciting,” said Mendoza of the three-day drive. “I’m just glad that she’s here.” Mendoza, an only child, said she came to the United States with her mother in 2000. When she arrived, she didn’t speak any English.
But from a young age, Mendoza loved to read and was inquisitive, she said. So she forged ahead, while adhering to her mother’s advice that getting an education was the most important thing in life.
“I think that propelled me, and prepared me for a successful academic career in my life,” said Mendoza, who studied political science and Hispanic studies at Rice University, before receiving a full scholarship to attend the Kennedy School in 2014. “I came here with the mentality that education was one of the ways to escape the cycle of poverty that my mother was born into.”
Mendoza, who was the first in her family to receive an undergraduate degree, not to mention her graduate degree, is able to live and work here because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an executive order that lets qualifying immigrants who came to the United States as children temporarily avoid deportation. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Mendoza said having her mother, who has worked as a house cleaner much of her life, in Cambridge for commencement means a lot. Finishing her degree, Mendoza said, is a way to thank her mother for her support growing up.
“We came [to the United States] out of necessity, like a lot of people do. It was never our intention to break any law. I just think my mother’s thought was, ‘How do we survive? How do I put food on the table for my daughter?’” she said. “My mother worked hard, and never gave up on her dream of having her daughter be the first one to go to college. And because of that, I’ve always tried hard to be an active member of any community I’m a part of.”
Mendoza has been part of many different communities. At Rice University she helped launch a group that prepares students from underserved communities for college.
At Harvard, she was the president of the Harvard Latino Student Alliance; a co-program director of the school’s Democratic Caucus; and co-coordinator of the Public Policy and Leadership Conference.
Mendoza was also an organizer of the second annual Latino Graduation, which took place Tuesday at the school. Mendoza’s mother walked across the stage with her daughter at the event.
“That was such a beautiful moment,” she said.
Dr. Karen Jackson-Weaver, dean of students at the Kennedy School and Mendoza’s graduate adviser, said in an e-mail that Mendoza has embodied “the epitome of leadership, dedication, excellence, and public service.”
Jackson-Weaver knows Mendoza well. But she didn’t know that she had flown to Texas and then driven back to the area with her mother by her side. “But I’m not surprised,” she said. “I feel privileged and honored that I had the opportunity to work so closely with her.”
This summer, when Mendoza wraps up in Cambridge, she’ll return to Houston, again with her mother, to begin a fellowship from Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit organization that gets Latino voters active in their communities.
Despite all of her achievements, the fear of deportation lingers in the back of her head.
“It makes me sad to think that the country we have come to love as our home, we may one day have to leave,” she said. “Especially because we have so much to contribute.”
But she won’t let fear overtake her desire to continue to grow. “My mother used to tell me, ‘They can take you away from this country, and everything you’ve worked for,’ ” she said, “ ‘but they can never take away what’s in your brain.’ ”Steve Annear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.