Meet an Anytowner: Maria Cortez-Perez

Meet an Anytowner: Maria Cortez-Perez

October 11, 2021
Category: Anytown
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Last week, we caught up with Maria Cortez-Perez (Anytown 2013.) Maria told us a bit about the refugee community organizing work she’s doing with Church World Services. We talked about her reflections on Anytown; the hard journey of coming to terms with aspects of her identity that have shaped who she is and affect how others treat her (“I didn’t fully know how to claim myself and my culture”); her struggle to pursue secondary education as an undocumented student; her dream of attending law school and working to lessen that struggle for future generations of undocumented students; and her message to you, her Triad community.

Keep reading for Maria’s story, in her own words.

“Anytown was the first step for me.”

I went to Anytown back when I was a junior – I think it was that summer before senior year.

I was at Southwest Guilford, and I remember getting a flyer from someone at school about the NCCJ Anytown and I wanted to go because I thought it sounded like a really interesting camp and something cool to do that summer. Then I started talking to other people about it and learned that it was a great resume-builder, as well. That’s one of the reasons I applied to go.

Maria with fellow Anytown delegates in 2013

Thinking back now, I think that maybe the conversations we had at Anytown would have been a lot more fruitful if topics about race and social justice were actually talked about in class. Because Anytown was the first space where I was able to talk about the discrimination that I’ve experienced as a Latina.

I remember there was one part during the program where me and two or three other Latina students went up to present. One of the other girls in my group had talked about being called a slur at school – I think the slur was “beaner” – and I remember the moderator asked us, “And how did that make you feel?”

I remember feeling the same way my partner in my group felt – I said something like “I don’t really care, and it just is what it is.” That was our response. But thinking back on it, I feel like I could have said more if I’d known the things I know now about discrimination and racism and immigration – all these things.

In retrospect, I do feel like Anytown was the first time that we ever had these conversations. We just didn’t know how to fully encompass and articulate what our experiences were. That question (“how did that make you feel?”) is something I’ve always thought back on and wished I’d said more or expressed myself more in response to that conversation. And I didn’t get the chance to do that, because I thought that by just not caring and brushing things off – brushing off those kinds of biases and things like that – I thought that by doing that, that was me resolving the issue.

That feeling seemed like something that was very common among the students in my cohort. But it seems like students these days are more prepared to talk about these topics.

“Anytown was a beautiful experience and I got really close to a lot of people.”

When I was in high school, I recall wanting to think that racism wasn’t such a big issue anymore because, like, “Oh, we’re in the 21st century now, it’s 2013!” And I thought “Ok, these things happen but it’s not because race is an issue, it’s because there are bad people out there, or people who have negative thoughts.”

I was also affected by some very negative social experiences in middle school when I ended up going to a private school: Westchester Country Day School here in High Point. I came from a very low-income family and the only reason I ended up going there was because I got a scholarship. But the students were so mean. It’s a predominantly white institution, K through 12, and I was only one of two Latino students in my grade. And I had a very negative experience with white people.

At Southwest High School, it was diverse but still predominantly white – and thinking back at that time, I still didn’t fully know how to claim myself and my culture. This is part of why I think it was difficult for me to express my authentic self at Anytown. I didn’t know then that my experiences had led me to self-hate and that I had experienced these negative interactions in the world, but I was just brushing it off and saying “it’s not a big deal.”

A Dream Deferred

Maria campaigning for in-state tuition in 2016

But the thing that was really a huge turning point in my life was my senior year – because I’m undocumented.

The only thing I had by then was DACA, because of Obama. When I was trying to go to college, I got in – but I wasn’t able to pay because undocumented students didn’t qualify for in-state tuition. Which meant I wasn’t able to go off to college.

That’s when I started reflecting more on racism and immigration and all of the things I’d experienced, saying to myself – “No, Maria, these things are real and they are actually happening. This is one of those manifestations – you not being able to go to college because of institutional racism and the way the system is set up.”

Anytown was the first step for me, and I still didn’t know exactly how to grapple with these ideas about race and being in the margins. I didn’t know why I was in the position I was in – I knew I was undocumented, I knew I was Latina, and I knew I had to try extra, extra hard in school. I was so caught up in those things, but I had never taken the time to dig deep – I just didn’t know how.

“My turning point was when I watched my friends go off to college and I felt like I was left behind.”

I honestly felt like I had been stripped of something that was mine and I couldn’t get it back. So it was very hard. Even still talking about it, it gets me emotional. Because I remember that summer, I was home washing dishes for my mom and I started crying. All I could think about was “I shouldn’t be here washing dishes. I shouldn’t be worrying about the next bill we have to pay. I should be thinking about college and getting my stuff for my dorm room and getting ready for my first class.” And I wasn’t. So I was extremely, extremely depressed. I wanted the earth to open and swallow me whole.

I graduated with a 4.2 GPA and honors and over 200 community service hours – and it just felt like none of that mattered.

“I’m the type of person who will let myself break down but I’m willing to get myself back up.”

At some point that summer, I decided to reach out to the Latino Family Center at the YWCA in High Point. Margarita Kerkado is in admissions at UNCG now, but she used to be the director at the Center for many years. I had done some volunteer work for them before, and I just wanted to do something for the community and get my mind off what I was going through.

Margarita was the one who motivated me and sat me down and said, “Maria, this is just temporary. We can create a pathway for you. You just have to have hope. Don’t give up on your dream.”

And you know what? I was like, “You’re right! I shouldn’t give up because the system is set up the way it is. I can find a way. If other students who never had DACA found a way to go to college, maybe there is a way for me to go.”

“And that’s when I started just going to different places here in the Triad and just telling my story.”

During that time, American Friends Service Committee was doing a lot of awareness around in-state tuition. They had an educational forum here at the YWCA and they asked me if I wanted to tell my story. That was the first time I ever talked about me being undocumented, who I was, my aspirations – and it felt great. It felt great to share that with a community of people, and they were very supportive.

And that’s when I started just going to different places here in the Triad and just telling my story. And later on, American Friends Service Committee offered my first internship and they wanted me to coordinate the campaign for in-state tuition here in the Triad. So that’s what I did. I was able to mobilize students, people, organizations. We even got a resolution passed through the city council in Greensboro.

And thank God, before I went off to college (I haven’t even gotten to that part yet!), I was able to help a handful of students go to college – undocumented students, DACAmented students. That’s one of my biggest accomplishments, in my opinion – to have been able to help a handful of other people to pursue their career. To not give up.

I had heard Moises Serrano tell his story by then, and I knew that me telling my story does mean something. I was just so happy to be able to touch people and enable them to move forward.

A Golden Door to Wake Forest University

Maria and fellow student organizers (including two more Anytowners!) in 2016

I ended up applying very last-minute to the Golden Door Scholarship and they called me for an interview a couple of weeks later. I was supposed to go through two more interviews – the second one, the third one – and then I didn’t get a call for a couple of weeks.

In December 2015, I was going to pick my sister up at Andrews High School. And it was dark, I remember, because the time had changed. Anyways, I got a call and they said, “Congratulations, you got the Golden Door Scholarship.” And I was in shock! I told them “Thank you! I just want you to know that if I’m not crying, it’s because I’m in shock! I didn’t think I was going to get it.”

Wake Forest was my #1 choice, and I ended up going there in the fall of 2016.

I was at Wake Forest for four years and I also did a lot of community organizing on campus. We brought a lot of awareness to immigrant issues, and I was also the director of what we called the Social Justice Incubator. I would support students who wanted to start initiatives around social justice. I also served on different administrative committees at Wake Forest, to revise the Student Code of Conduct. I remember my sophomore year they were trying to do away with freedom of speech, mainly targeting student organizations and mainly minority organizations. So me and a couple of other students got together, sat down with the faculty, and we revised it. We looked at what other schools were doing, researched policy, and thankfully got a better code of conduct produced.

I graduated last year right as the pandemic started. And that was really tough, because a lot of my plans just crumbled.

One of those plans was going into law school.

“I’m not in law school … yet.”

I’ve always been dedicated to this issue of education when it comes to the undocumented community. Because it’s not just something that affects the Latino community – it affects people from all walks of life, all across the board. Being undocumented, we only have so much to work with. So I took it upon myself to just do more research on in-state tuition and how we can achieve it for undocumented people.

I think if we take the case to the Supreme Court, that would be the fastest way to get legislation to affect everyone nationally. OK, we’re in the Fourth Circuit – I did my research, we’re in the Fourth Circuit. South Carolina is in our circuit, and they’re the state with the harshest legislation in our circuit.

So I thought, if we challenge South Carolina’s legislation maybe we could go from there. I won’t go into all the details, but I developed some arguments that maybe would have influence with the court. I talked to professors and lawyers and got advice from different kinds of people.

I’m not in law school yet. But I would love to be able to know how to actually interpret the law and take the research I’ve started and do more work on it once I get to law school, God willing.

“This past year was very difficult.”

After graduating last spring, I went through several employers. I’ve never been through this many employers before – I’ve always been able to stick with one and it’s always been a great experience.

The first work experience that I had last year was with a sweat shop in High Point. I was a supervisor and we had about 30 women sewing and 30 women folding these hospital gowns. It turns out that the higher-ups had a furniture business, but because of the pandemic that had completely fallen apart so they started doing hospital gowns.

I was only with them for a week and a half. The last few days that I was there, my manager came up to me and she said, “Hey, we need you to talk to the ladies in folding and let them know that for every gown they put in the box, that’s 9 cents a gown.  I had already peeped at how they were doing things because they were lowkey having me do part accounting, part supervising, and part other hats they wanted me to have on. So I knew some people were getting paid $11, some $9, some $10 an hour. When I did the calculation for the 9 cents per gown, I saw that they were barely going to make $9 an hour even if they folded as many as they could, as fast as they could.

I talked to the ladies about this, and then I thought about what I’d learned earning my degree. I graduated from Wake Forest with a major in sociology with a concentration in immigration studies and a minor in communications. I knew there were some protections. I went back through some of my research and was able to say – “Ok, we have collective bargaining! We don’t have a lot of protections in North Carolina, unfortunately, but we do have the right to collectively bargain.”

So, I went back to the ladies in folding and we talked, and then I went back to the higher-ups and said, “Hey, I don’t think they want this” (meaning the 9 cents per gown) “but they want to talk about it with you and have a conversation, and they want to collectively bargain.”

They let me go at the end of that day. I was fired.

That was the first job I had out of college, and it was very disappointing. I was upset, because I had family members working there – but then they let me go.

“Then I had a couple of other jobs that I had to leave, including a law firm that fired me in January after I was hit by a car.”

The car hit me while I was walking my dog. I really think I should have died, because my body flew through the air. I flew and landed on the other side I was trying to get to, on the grassy patch area of the sidewalk. It was a very traumatic experience and then the officer made it worse by telling me that it was my fault, not the driver’s fault – that I was supposed to be walking in a designated walking area.

I was panicking at that point – I don’t know injury law very well, so I didn’t know what to think or what to do with his comment. I was also in severe pain, so I didn’t have the energy to defend myself. I mention that because that same night I called my job to let them know that I had been hit by a car, and the next day when I was in the emergency room, they called me to tell me I had been let go.

After that, thank God, I ended up with Guilford County Schools. I finished off the last 3 months of their semester this year. Then I had to find another job after the students were out for the summer.

That’s when I ended up getting this opportunity with Church World Services. I feel very blessed, because 1) they have benefits and 2) it’s something that I am passionate about. I love doing community work. Immigrant rights has been something that I’ve dedicated my life to since the moment that I truly knew what the consequences of being undocumented meant.

“To me, an immigration status is just a status.”

At Church World Services, I’m a refugee community organizer. I’m not mainly focusing on the Latino community like I was before, but I’m still very grateful for the opportunity. To me, an immigration status is just a status. To be able to work with a different group of people within the immigrant population, it’s very rewarding and it’s also going to allow me to learn how to work with different groups of people and reach different people within the immigrant population. I learn a lot from them – their lifestyle, what their beliefs are, how they interact with each other, and what their values are as well.

It’s also making me wonder about some things. For instance, I’ve realized fully just how some immigrant groups are treated differently from other immigrant groups. I see that more now. As a refugee, you get all the support. But as an undocumented person coming to the United States, you don’t get any of that kind of support. And I wonder, if we can someday expand those benefits and support systems for other groups of people under different immigration statuses. That’s just something I think about.

It’s been a great experience so far. I started with CWS in July and as soon as August started, we jumped on community calls to action and direct action for congressional August recess. Our congressmen and women came back to town, to their districts. I set up some meetings with Congresswoman Kathy Manning and Congressman Ted Budd and I was able to get a group of people, including a refugee leader and an Afghani ally there for these conversations. We advocated for Afghan families to be evacuated and to create a support system for them. Our refugee speaker talked about funding the resettlement program.

That’s just one of the activities that we did ever since I’ve been involved with CWS.

We’re planning on having a community meeting soon. We’ll go to the refugee community and asking them “What would you like us to organize around? What can we do? What issues are the most pressing right now?”

We have a lot of new things coming up and I’m really looking forward to the work that we can accomplish together.

“It’s funny, undocumented people can start businesses and buy homes and we pay taxes – but we aren’t authorized to work here legally.”

I’ve been here in High Point since I was 2 years old, and I’m 25 now. I’ve always been here.

I’m close to my family here in High Point. I have my mom and three siblings.

I support my mom with her cleaning business. I do the administrative stuff. For years she did the menial work, and I did all the administrative work. Thankfully, her English has gotten better over the years, so now she does her own invoices and I just help her with outreach.

I helped her with that even throughout college. I was juggling a lot – I don’t know how I did it.

She mostly does apartment complexes. We do commercial and residential, but we mostly do commercial now. So, when people move out of the apartment units we go in and clean. It’s deep cleanings, it’s not something light. It’s a lot on her, and I can see that it’s taken a toll on her body. She had cancer this past year. Thank God she was declared cancer-free in March. But she’s still doing her janitorial work. Right now, I’m trying to get her more office buildings, because the work will be lighter on her.

She’s been doing it for 7 years now. That business is the thing that keeps us afloat. I support her now with bills, and I came back to live with her because of her cancer. We are doing what we can to move forward and I’m not so worried anymore since she’s recuperating.

She’s still fully undocumented. It’s funny, undocumented people can start businesses and buy homes – but we aren’t authorized to work here legally.

Maria’s message to you

As a community, we are all connected. Regardless of what job you hold, what walk of life you come from, your background – regardless of all of that, we are all connected. In today’s world I think acknowledging that we are all connected is extremely important, because in acknowledging our connection to one another we are acknowledging that we must respect one another and love one another. We must understand that we need to move forward as a community together. Because in harming myself, I am harming my neighbor. And in harming my neighbor, I am harming myself. We should love one another and move together towards the light. Because in doing so, we will thrive. And I think we can do it. I have hope.