17 Transcript: Embracing Life as an Undocumented Immigrant (with Kenia Calderon)

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J: You are listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, episode number 17.

K: I've been able to buy my parents a home, I've been able to keep and maintain 2 jobs while still going to school full-time. It hasn't been easy, but it's… it's been a crazy ride and I wouldn't change any of it.

Intro: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, stories of vibrant women living happy lives. And now, your host, Jen Riday.

J: Hey there, Jen here and welcome to today's episode of Vibrant Happy Women. On our last episode, I had the fun of chatting with Jamie Myers who shared her story of following her intuition and allowing her life to unfold at its own sacred pace. If it's hard for you to trust what your intuition is telling you or… or trusting that all things are coming together for your good, then you want to go back and listen to that episode. Today, I'll be chatting with Kenia Calderon who is a 22 year old Spitfire from Des Moines Iowa who attends Drake University. Now, what's interesting and unique about Kenia is that she immigrated to the United States with her parents from El Salvador when she was 11 years old. They walked 3 days across the desert, and since being here, she has worked hard and become very successful. She shares her story of the struggles she's faced as an undocumented person here and how she's trying to help others. What's interesting, at the end of the interview, Kenia gives us a challenge to find someone who doesn't look like us and to talk with them, to simply talk with them and maybe listen to their story. In light of recent events in our country with the issues regarding race, I would encourage everyone to do that; find someone who doesn't look like you and talk to them. It's so important that we hear each other's stories and recognize the struggles others might be facing and become more unified as a country. So we will go ahead and get started with this important and timely interview.

Welcome to Vibrant Happy Women. Today, I'm interviewing Kenia Calderon. She was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador and migrated to the US at the age of 11. Over the years, Kenia has become a strong immigration activist. She will be a senior at Drake University this fall and she's majoring in management and entrepreneurship. Kenia, welcome to Vibrant Happy Women, I'm so glad you could be here.

K: Oh, thank you for having me.

J: So, Kenia, I introduced you, but I… I know there's more to your story than those few sentences, so go ahead and tell us more about yourself.

K: Like you said, I was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and for some of you who don't know where that's at, that's in Central America. I lived it for 11 years and it was a pretty good childhood, I like to think, but a young age, I noticed how thanks for changing in our country; I noticed the violence and how we weren't allowed to go out at certain times during the night. So when my parents told me that we had to migrate to the United States, it wasn't… it wasn't a surprise because I knew things were getting pretty bad. So we came to the United States, we crossed the border illegally, my family and I walked in the desert for 3 nights and 3 days. We arrived in Phoenix, Arizona where one of my uncle's came to pick us up and brought us to Iowa. So I have not lived anywhere else in this country besides Iowa since I came in 2005. Since then, I've known my place in this country which is as an undocumented immigrant. I'm very proud to say that I will be graduating college in a year. I've been able to buy my parents a home, I've been able to keep and maintain 2 jobs while still going to school full-time. It hasn't been easy, but it's… it’s been a crazy ride and I wouldn't change any of it.

J: Impressive, 2 jobs while you're in college?

K: Correct.

J: Ooh, that's amazing, Kenia.


J: So, Kenia, we often start out our show with a favorite quote from our guest, do you have a favorite quote you'd like to share with us?

K: Yes. My favorite quote is actually from the kid president, I'm sure you or anybody that's listening is familiar with the kid president on YouTube and he says, “If it doesn't make the world a better place, don't do it.”

J: So, Kenia, stepping back again a little, tell us more about the traumas that you were experiencing, the ones you can remember or that you heard about in El Salvador.

K: I had a pretty good childhood. My dad was an attorney and my mom was going back to school; she was going to be a teacher. But I do remember that, one night, I was playing outside with my neighbors and we… we all went inside to have dinner and I remember the TV was on and the… they were… a cop was making an announcement saying that, “If you were to see any bag or a backpack in a public place like a playground, you are not to touch it or to open it because they had been discovering human heads being placed in backpacks and being left in public places for people to find them,” and… and that was a way for the gang members to send a message to the government and to the residents. And I was… I believe I was like, I want to say 7 or 8, watching this happen, and that's when reality hit that the place that I love, my home, was a very dangerous place.

J: Wow. So you escaped that violence, you made it across the desert, a 3-day journey, and… and made it to Phoenix and then finally to Iowa, Kenia, tell us more about what you're currently doing to live a vibrant happy life today.

K: What I'm currently doing right now to be happy and to keep myself motivated… because it's hard, I'm still technically considered undocumented in this country.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: So when you're undocumented, you carry such a heavy load from depression to… to uncertainty, fear of deportation. And even though I'm protected from deportation because I have a work permit, my parents aren't.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: So we could be separated at any time. So that's something that I… that I think about every day, but I found ways to… to turn those negative aspects in my life into a positive. And that's when I learned to embrace the fact that I was undocumented in this country and that I came illegally and I was that criminal that everyone talked about in the media. And once I started to embrace my identity and really understanding that we had no other choice but do it this way, I became unafraid to tell my story into to motivate others to… do the same.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: Before I had my work permit, I wasn't sure that I was going to get to go to college, and then I received this work permit called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that is given only to young immigrants that came to the United States before the age of 15…

J: Mm-hmm.

K: … and have continued to go to school, whether they have their high school degree or they're pursuing higher education. So with this work permit, I'm able to work legally, I can't be deported; and basically, that's it. (Laughs)

J: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

K: So if I want to go to school, if I want to… you know, if we want to go to school, we have to pay out of pocket. So I tried so hard during high school to have the best grades. I fell in love with volunteering because I couldn't work because of the lack of documentation. And so I was what you would call the perfect high school student.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: Good grades, well-behaved, loved to volunteer, but that still wasn't enough for colleges to want me; I still needed the Social Security to… to almost validate that I was worthy enough to receive a college education. And so I started sharing my knowledge with others that were in the same situation as me that weren't as fortunate to be as outgoing or to… to go to the school that I was going to. And that's kind of where I started my activist and it brought a lot of joy to me because I was making this bad experience into a positive by sharing how I've been able to overcome some of the obstacles that I've had and… and just by talking with other youth that we're going to the same… going through the same struggles as me. I have talked to kids that were in… that were sophomore in high school and now that are going to college, and although I can't take all of the credit, but I like to think that because they knew that I was making it work, that they could too.

J: Yeah.

K: So that's… that's how I've been able to turn in such a big part of my life that's been negative for many, many years into positive things and be able to help others.

J: We also would love to hear about some of your favorite things. Kenia, what's your favorite personal habit that contributes to your success?

K: My favorite personal habit, I think it's using my creativity whenever I can. I'm an artist and as you can imagine, I'm quite busy. So I haven't been able to paint as much, but I know that some of the best ideas that I've had, whether it's for my activism or schoolwork or just my personal life, have come to me when I'm drawing or painting or throwing clay on the wheel.

J: Mm, pottery, fun.

K: Correct. (Laughs)

J: What's a favorite easy meal that you like to eat regularly?

K: That one's quite easy, I'm not the best cook; I can barely make eggs. But my favorite meal right now is a Caesar salad with grilled chicken.

J: Mm, yum. Do you make that on your own or do you…?

K: No, I buy it.

J: Ah, yeah, yeah.


J: Perfect. If you're working 2 jobs and going to college, of course you should be buying it. Who would have time..?


J: Okay, your favorite possession.

K: Right now my favorite possession is a book that I bought last year and it's… it's Monsignor Romero and it's about a priest that, during the civil war in El Salvador, was able to be the voice for the… the farmers who were being killed, and he… he wasn't supposed to do that because, you know, he was a church leader. And it's such a wonderful book because I've learned so much about my history as a Salvadorian that I didn't really get to learn because I came at such a young age.

J: That's great. So I often like to ask about a bucket list item, but I think I'll go even further since you have your whole life ahead of you. You're doing some activism now and you're majoring in entrepreneurship and management…

K: Mm-hmm.

J: … so what do you see for yourself in the future?

K: I want to do everything.


K: I… I see myself working for a company that aligns themselves with my values and working my way up to an executive position because I feel we don't have enough women in those positions, but also I… my activism has led me to learn how much politics affect their lives. And I think we need better politicians, so I see myself having a future in politics to… just to be able to make some changes. The ideal thing for me would be to be governor. (Laughs)

J: Ah, governor of Iowa. And have they ever had a female governor there?

K: No, we haven’t.

J: Ooh.

K: We haven’t. And I want to be governor just because they have a lot of executive power so they can make things happen at a State level. And, you know, Washington is very messy so I don't want to get involved with that, (Laughs)

J: Yeah.

K: So… so I would love to be governor someday.

J: Okay, okay. We met you here first, Kenia Calderon for governor.


K: Please remember, and if you're listening in Iowa and somebody see me run, please vote for me. (Laughs)

J: Yes, yes, write that name down.

K: (Laughs)

J: Okay, excellent. Anything else?

K: I also like to see myself in the future also taking care of myself because that's… it's something that I think a lot of women forget to do because, you know, we're trying to do every else for everybody. And I'm not… I'm not quite there yet, so I hope to see that in my near future that I'm putting myself first before I can impact the lives of others because that's so important.

J: Right. And having worked enough to purchase a home for your parents, I can only guess that taking care of yourself has definitely been on the back burner all these years.

K: It has, it has, and it's… it's affected me the most this past 2 years. And it's also because, once you're in the public eye… is not that I'm famous (Laughs), but, you know, I’ve done a lot of interviews and because I talk about an issue such as immigration, I… I tend to have a lot of haters, meaning a lot of people that disagree with me, and they believe that I don't deserve to be in this country.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And I understand everybody has a different worldview and I respect those differences, but this year has been… especially this year has been extremely hard for me to have… to be able to deal with the criticism from strangers, my own community, because once you have that place as a leader, people forget that you will have your own opinion, correct? And I've dealt with a lot of depression this year, also a lot… because of the depression and because I'm not being… eating healthy or sleeping enough, I've gained about 20 pounds. So I'm also learning how to accept my body and accept my new image and not feel like a failure because I'm failing to… to work out every day, you know, because right now, I'm at the time that I'm… I'm quite tired and… and I’m being… if I'm being honest with you, I will choose to take a nap over than drive myself 15 minutes to go to the gym, right? So this year has been about that, learning how to deal with the changes that are going in my life and how to be able to find a good support system and make sure that I'm in a good place mentally and physically before I can continue to help those in my community.

J: Mm-hmm. You mentioned the haters, would you be able to share with us the top 3 misconceptions people have about immigrants; you know, the people who believe you shouldn't be here? What are the 3 main things that they say or that they use as reasons for why immigrants shouldn't be in our country?

K: Oh, I love that question. One, that we take advantage of the welfare in this country, that we are criminals; criminals coming from Latin America (well, mostly Mexico because they think that we're all Mexican).

J: (Laughs)

K: And the third one is that we are uneducated people, uncivilized. And so the first one, just being in the public eye and sometimes reading in the comments that they leave under some of the videos that I've done in interviews, so they say that we're taking welfare and that we're taking advantage of government programs, which in reality, if you don't have a Social Security in the United States, you're not eligible for any of those programs. So I believe the undocumented population in the States puts about a billion dollars into Social Security every year.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And that's money that my parents will never be able to benefit from.

J: Wow.

K: So….

J: They put a billion in, but we'll never get a dime out.

K: They also talk about us taking advantage of food stamps, we can't qualify for food stamps because of our undocumented status. I can't… I can tell you that the first years, it would have been very helpful to have food stamps in my house when, you know, we were bare… we were eating hot dogs every day because that was the cheapest thing for my parents to buy, even with 2 jobs. So I can tell you, we don't… we can't… we can't apply for food stamps because we can't receive it. If an undocumented student wants to go to college, they have to pay everything out-of-pocket because we don't qualify for federal grants or FAFSA or even student loans, we can't apply for student loans so we have… everything has to be out of our own pocket. And the second one was that we’re criminals and, you know, “They're just a bunch of criminals coming from Latin America.” I grew up hearing that in the news, I grew up hearing that around me when I was 11, and for many years, I saw myself as a criminal, I didn’t… because of all that rhetoric and I didn't think that I belonged in this country and I didn't think that I deserved certain opportunities because I was that criminal that everybody talked about.

J: Aww.

K: And when I was very young, I used to… I used to see all of us as criminals. And let… and let me remind you, my dad was an attorney back home.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And because of the rhetoric, I was starting to believe that, and I used to… I started resenting my parents for bringing me to this country and having me go through this life of living in fear and being limited on what I can do in school. But… but I also struggled with the fact that I knew that, if I would have stayed home, if we would have stayed in El Salvador, I'm not sure if we would be alive right now. And so that was a struggle that I had and it didn't hit me how much that rhetoric of being called criminals affected me and my parents until one day (this was before I received the work permit) I was… I was very depressed because I've… I've always wanted to go to college. That was when I was 8, that was my dream; I wanted to be a college student because I went to college with my mom at that time…

J: Mm-hmm.

K: … and I just fell in love with the environment. And… and when I was little, they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and I would say, “A college student.” And so I… that was always in the back of mine, and because of my lack of legal documentation, that wasn't going to be a possibility for me; and my parents knew and I knew. And one day, I was very sad because it was junior year, those around me were starting to talk about school visits that were… they were going to outside the state, and it was hitting me because no one knew what my reality was and my dad started crying and he apologized for bringing me to this country and limiting my opportunities in school. So that day really, really hit me about the fact that people calling us criminals, it hurts our mental health.

J: Oh sure.

K: Because you start believing it, even though you know that it's not true, even though you know that your parents have no other choice; because no parent in the world wants to put their kids through a desert for 3 days just for the sake of things.

J: Right, right. Well, so you said you wouldn't be able to go to college so how did you end up in college at Drake University?

K: Yes, so like I… halfway through my senior year, President Obama announced an executive action that would give us a work permit, a Social Security, a driver's license, and deportation relief.

J: Ah.

K: So I didn't apply to college until the very last months of my senior year.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And then the next reality hit. Well, actually my dream school accepted me, but when I called them and told them about my situation and I needed to know if they had any private scholarships that I could apply, they turned me away. They said, “We can't help you because you have this status and we just can't… we can't deal with you.”

J: Oh.

K: “It’s too much of… it's too hard of a case.” So the dream school that I wanted to go to since I was a freshman in high school turn me away, but I was so used to having doors closed right in my face that I… I knew that, if that was… that door was closing, it was because something better was going to come along. And that's when I received my acceptance letter to Drake University and I almost had a very pessimistic attitude. Remember, I was about 18 years of age and I was doing all of these paperwork by myself…

J: Yeah.

K: … and navigating the college system by myself. And I set up an appointment with the president of Admissions, so I went all the way to the top (Laughs) and I set up an appointment with him. I was in his office for 5 minutes, I told him about my story and I just asked him, “Look, I barely received this work permit, I was undocumented before, can you guys help me or do I need to look for something else?” And I was… I wasn't disrespectful, but I was very pessimistic about my chances, and he looked at me he said that he didn't care if I was undocumented still or if I wasn't, that he was going to try to do something for me.

J: Oh, great.

K: So he doubled the scholarship that had received already by just pulling money out of different scholarships that people didn't apply for.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And… and that still left a remaining balance of $10,000…

J: Mm-hmm.

K: … that I was supposed to come up by myself. And that summer before I started college, I worked 3 jobs. So I can't tell you how I did it, I can't tell you if I would be able to do it now, but I just remember that I was working at a non-profit in the mornings, at a retirement home in the afternoons, and on the weekends, I was babysitting.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: So… and all of that money would just go to my savings account and I was able to pay for my first 2 years of college out of pocket by myself because I didn't want that to be a burden on my parents because they had already given up their own careers and their own life for me to be here, so I really took it upon myself to… to work my, butt off literally (Laughs)…

J: Yes.

K: … to pay for my education. And then, at that time, I was very well known in our community for my activism and for my… my storytelling and I guess you could call it motivational speaking that I was thinking… I was at an auction, a silent auction for the middle school that I went to and I was thinking the donors that had put me through a college at… I mean, a Catholic education through high school, because I didn't pay anything to go to a Catholic education, it was just private owners. And they were all in this room and that was the first time that I was able to say thank you to them, and they liked my speech so much, some of them were crying, that one of them, at the end, came up to me and said that he wanted to pay for the rest of my college education.

J: Yay!

K: So… he's still very unbelievable that someone would offer me to pay ten grand every year for me…

J: Right, yes.

K: … for me without even knowing me. And so… so that's how, again, we go back to the thing… to the concept of turning your struggles into something that you're proud of and good things will come along because, if I would have never embraced my identity and my struggles, I would have never been… I would have never ended up at the auction and telling my story.

J: Mm-hmm.

K: And, yeah, it would be a very different story. (Laughs)

J: We've reached the part of the show where we get to hear about your personal happiness formula. If you had to create a 3 to 5 part formula of actions that help you to be happiest, what would you include?

K: I am the happiest when I'm taking care of myself…

J: Mm-hmm.

K: … and I'm taking care of others and when I'm taking the time to continue my learning about different human beings around me from different backgrounds and learning their stories and where they come from; and that's when I'm the happiest.

J: Nice. Well, Kenia, thank you so much for sharing your story. And I want to tell our listeners that they can find links to everything Kenia's been talking about by going to jenriday.com/17. One final thing, Kenia, could you give our listeners a parting challenge and then we'll say goodbye?

K: Yep. Oh, and before we go, I do have a blog that I kind of talked a little bit about the immigrants story, and if they want to find me there, it's coffeewithkenia.com.

J: So, co f f e e with Kenia (k e n i a).com?

K: Correct.

J: Great, coffeewithkenia.com; thank you, good.

K: Yep. So a challenge, this week, I want to everyone listening to talk with someone that doesn't look like them, even if it's just saying, “Hi, how are you?” to someone that you normally wouldn't or wouldn't normally acknowledge that they're there, because I feel like it will really help you learn about the world and outside of the country that we live in.

J: Beautiful.

K: Mm-hmm.

J: Thank you so much for being on the show today, Kenia, your story is really remarkable and I'm so glad you shared it with us.

K: Thank you for having me, it's been my pleasure.

J: Take care.

Thank you so much for joining Kenia and I today. And be sure to check out Kenia's web site at coffeewithkenia.com or go over to jenriday.com/17 to find links to everything that we discussed. Be sure to join me next time when I chat with Kimberly Bost. Kim is a home and lifestyle expert and she shares her story of feeling completely overwhelmed and rushed and beaten down by the world, and then going on her own journey to take back her life through prioritization of her time and de-cluttering her home. She has so many nuggets of wisdom in this interview and I can't wait for you to listen to it. Talk to you then. Take care.

Outro: Thanks for listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast at www.jenriday.com.