Sharing their stories

8/26/2013

Minjarez, Palacios looking to empower other immigrants.

Minjarez, Palacios looking to empower other immigrants.

BY ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

Sharing the challenges and obstacles each has faced in being an immigrant in the United States, Armando Minjarez and Emira Palacios are on a mission to empower immigrants and to unify communities across Kansas.

On Saturday and Sunday, the duo presented their stories and their mission in southwest Kansas.

"We're starting with our southwest Kansas initiative. Given the high number of immigrants that live in this part of the state, it just makes sense for us to start here," Minjarez said. "Plus, I went to high school in Ulysses and I graduated from Garden City Community College, so I have a personal connection to the area."

On Saturday, Minjarez, Palacios and Laura Dungan, all co-founders of The Seed House ~ La Casa de La Semillon, a nonprofit organization based in Wichita, began their tour of southwest Kansas at the Finney County Public Library, where Minjarez and Palacios shared their immigration stories in order to illustrate to the public what they are trying to accomplish.

Minjarez immigrated to Ulysses in 2001, when he was 15. He began working almost immediately as a dishwasher at a Ulysses restaurant, where he learned English fairly quickly.

By the time he was a senior in high school, Minjarez had mastered the language, was at the top of his class and was the vice president of his class' student government association.

After high school, however, his plans to attend college appeared to be dashed.

"I was accepted at the K-State architectural department. I enrolled in school, I received several scholarships to attend, including one from the American Institute of Architects, and then I realized I couldn't go to college because I wasn't documented. Because of my status, I was considered an international student, which meant my tuition basically tripled," he said. "So that was pretty heartbreaking for me. It was devastating to know all the hard work I had done basically wasn't worth anything."

After attending GCCC for two years, state legislation was passed in 2004 allowing international students to pay in-state tuition, once again opening the door for him to attend Kansas State, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in art in 2012. Minjarez is currently a legal, permanent resident and became eligible for citizenship in March. He currently is in the process of becoming a citizen, which he said will take eight to 12 months.

Palacios immigrated to Wichita when she was 20, with the goal of making and saving money for a year so that she could go back to Mexico and start her own business.

"Well, I'm still here — 28 years later," she said.

She said that the cost for Mexicans to immigrate to the U.S. legally is out of reach for many, given the low wages paid in the country.

"I often say that I did come to this country undocumented, and the reason I did that is because the people with little resources like me could never afford to come the legal way," she said.

Palacios legalized her status several years ago, but said she spent $30,000 doing so.

She also has testified to both the Kansas Legislature and in Washington, D.C., in the hopes that future immigrants will encounter fewer obstacles in their pursuit of opportunities in America.

"We need to fix a broken system and stop criminalizing immigrants so they can be fully integrated and contribute to the U.S. society," she said.

Minjarez said he will begin collecting stories and interviewing immigrants after the organization raises enough funds to purchase what is to be called the Traveling Seed Pod, a teardrop-shaped trailer that will be equipped with a projector, video, audio and recording technologies.

On Sunday, the trio shared their presentation in Ulysses, where Minjarez' mother still resides and where another project is in the works.

"We just got word from the Kansas Humanities Council that we are the recipients of the Turning Point grant, which will be used to do a short film about Ulysses, focusing on the turning point in that community being the change in demographics due to the influx of immigrants in the last 15 years," he said.

Before returning to Wichita today, the trio also made stops in Satanta, Sublette and Dodge City.

By sharing their stories, both Minjarez and Palacios are hoping to not only encourage other immigrants to do the same, but also help bridge cultural gaps that still exist in multicultural communities.

"There is still a lot of room for improvement, and the way we can arrive at solutions that are good for everyone is by getting to know each other better, on a deeper level, in order to break down whatever constructs and stereotypes people might have and get to the core of each individual," Minjarez said. "Then, if we do that, we'll realize we are all very much the same. We have very similar stories of struggle and joy, and as we realize that, I think people can move forward with a unified front and have a better, stronger community."

To donate to The Seed House ~ La Casa de la Semilla, contact Minjarez at theseed.semilla@gmail.com or by calling (785) 477-6066, or mail donations to 1440 Park Place, Wichita, KS 67203.

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