Arcela Nunez-Alvarez was just 12 years old when she left Mexico with her mother and sisters to move to the northern San Diego suburb of San Marcos in the early 1980s. Yet her immigration experience was vastly different than those of undocumented arrivals today. A beneficiary of former President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty — for immigrants who’d entered the United States before 1982 — Nunez-Alvarez was granted residency and allowed to apply for citizenship. “It made a huge difference. I went from being an outsider to feeling connected to the community,” she says. “We were able to become part of society and work and contribute and go to school. From the moment we arrived, our mom taught us that this was our home and that we had to make it better.” That mindset gave her the confidence to assimilate into her high school, where she joined student organizations, learned English and took college-prep courses. “I knew that not everyone had the same opportunities I did. I was also lucky to have a counselor that showed me the path,” she says. Nunez-Alvarez went on to attend the University of California, Los Angeles and to earn a doctorate in history at the University of Minnesota.
Nunez-Alvarez believes it should be a priority of immigration reform to provide undocumented immigrants with a way to legally contribute to society. “It should be humane and include a pathway to citizenship,” she says. “That’s what helped my family. This is a place that allowed us to thrive.”
From the moment we arrived, our mom taught us that this was our home and that we had to make it better.
Nunez-Alvarez now serves as director of the National Latino Research Center at California State University San Marcos, where her job is to inspire Latinos to become more involved in the political process. She recently received $900,000 in state funding for a three-year project to study Latino civic engagement. “The Latino population has been growing very rapidly, but we have the lowest voter registration across all groups in San Diego County,” she says. “And we have the lowest turnout.” The goal of the project is to encourage more Latinos to run for political office, for city councils and school boards, for example, to better represent the Latino community, which makes up nearly half of some North County cities, such as Escondido. “We’re not getting the language teachers we need, and the school curriculum doesn’t include Latino history,” she says.
Her project also trains educators to reach the community on a grassroots level. “We work with youth and families to learn about political structure, elections, and candidates,” she says. Staffers also show undocumented immigrants how to participate in a system they are excluded from, by encouraging them to help others register to vote. “Even if they can’t participate now, we’re seeing that they want to help others,” she says. “So we help get them get involved by volunteering to educate others in the community.” Nunez-Alvarez hopes to help them feel they belong to a community until immigration reform can officially let them belong to a country.