“That’s something that we being undocumented go through. We don’t really know how we’ll do things, we just start them without really knowing the outcome.”
Sharet Garcia sold Mexican candies before it was cool.
She would purchase a variety of candies from the local Mexican shop—colorful, tangy, fruity, chili-covered, milk-and-honey confectionary delights—to sell for a couple of cents each to her classmates in middle school in Los Angeles.
“My mother would tell me that she was so proud of me,” Garcia said. ”She would tell me that she now had money to do laundry with.”
Garcia relayed this childhood memory with a mix of nostalgia and fervor, happy to recall how she gave back to a mother who had given her so much. Garcia is one of seventy-nine thousand DACA recipients residing in Los Angeles, who were brought into the United States as children.1
As founder of UndocuProfessionals, “a national community by and for the undocumented community of Educators Students, Activists, Artists, Entrepreneurs, and Professionals,” Garcia offers countless resources and opportunities to connect with other undocumented students and professionals.
As an experienced counselor, researcher, and associate professor, Garcia could easily be a poster child for the so-called “American dream.” Yet Garcia has lived in the shadows for the greater part of her life and just now has been able to enjoy some of the limelight brought on by her platform.
As a single mother of two, social media maven, and doctoral student, she has not shied away from the public eye, despite being a noncitizen. And I can tell. A quick Google search. 45,300 results in half a second. Podcasts, Youtube videos, and a Linkedin profile with five hundred plus connections. A graphic of a butterfly accompanies nearly every post and picture—she is meticulous and brand savvy. Multiple high quality pictures of her smiling, red lipstick, sleek long dark hair, vibrant patterned shirt. AOC would approve, I think to myself.
When I meet Garcia, even in the virtual realm, her dignified but easy-going nature emanates from her Zoom window. There’s a brief moment of silence before she smiles widely and greets me—the same lively woman from my Google search. Now, she is fresh-faced and animated, using “I,” “we,” and “us” interchangeably in our two-hour Zoom call of unbridled honesty.
Allison Argueta Claros (AAC): When did you decide to create UndocuProfessionals?
Sharet Garcia (GS): It’s very funny, I don’t know how things started to happen to me, but I think it was, honestly, the fact that I was just tired of being in the shadows. I was also in one of my darkest moments in my life—a lot of bad things started happening to me. I became a single mom, I decided that I needed help. I need to be connected to my community and I also really had this urgency of helping my community because I knew that it was very hard to navigate the educational institutions.
And now moving into a professional role, I knew how hard it was, and how lonely the journey can be and I didn’t want others to make the same mistakes I made. So that’s one of the reasons why I went from not being on social media to now being completely on social media, being active on social media all the time, because of this platform UndocuProfessionals.
Educational institutions need to know more about how to serve our community and that’s why I created UndocuProfessionals. I wanted to bring more awareness of the community to these institutions, organizations, non-profits, and everybody out there. So that way they can know more about the community and how we as undocumented students can really be served. We deserve to have better resources.
AAC: Social media is actually how I came across your platform―through your Instagram page, on my Discovery tab in the section where people repost Tik Toks. How have you managed the change from being completely offline to posting about your life and the undocumented community?
GS: It was just a dramatic change. I went from two years ago being very private about my life to now suddenly I’ll do everything on social media! Well, not everything because I still have a lot of things private, but compared to before, it’s very different. This platform is a way for me to heal and be able to have a space to be myself where I can share my thoughts, my resources that I wish I had had. I also do blogs, share my reflections, the things that are happening to me.
AAC: I noticed this recurring image of butterflies on your social media posts and website, why butterflies?
GS: Butterflies symbolize many things for the undocumented communities such as migration. Reminds us that migration is beautiful in a way because we all migrate. Also, butterflies symbolize transformation which reminds us that we not only change but learn to have wings to fly.
AAC: You mentioned blogging, why was it important for you to blog?
GS: I am able to share more of my feelings and I think that’s something we don’t get a lot in our community; we don’t get a chance to talk about how we feel and being connected to someone else that is undocumented. In California, you would think there’s more undocumented people connected to each other, but that’s actually not true. We have such a big undocumented community that it’s hard sometimes to find each other. Obviously we’re not there telling everyone that we’re undocumented so I really felt disconnected from my community, and I really wanted to meet someone that was undocumented. I was like “I know that there’s so many out there doing amazing things, how can I connect with them?” And I was very intentional about looking for them and that’s how I decided I am going to create a platform so that way we have a safe space for us to connect with each other to do different things and different events together, it’s been amazing.
AAC: How were you able to find undocumented people?
GS: The first places I went to were Facebook pages. Some of these Facebook pages had over ten thousand followers and I thought it was amazing that we had these pages. I started to get into those spaces but it was way too much; it’s almost like everybody just puts anything they want there. Some of it was political, some of it was educational, some of it was providing up-to-date news about what’s going with everything with immigration and it was way too overwhelming for me. There’s no organization, it was hard to identify people.
I remember publishing a post at this time I was already in my last classes of my doctoral degree and I wanted to do a paper on leaders that are undocumented. My focus was to find why it is that some undocumented immigrants are able to pursue their goals and why are some not able to.
I remember asking that Facebook community: “Hey everybody, are there any leaders that would like to share their stories and what I mean by leaders, is if you feel that you have accomplished many of your goals already,” and I was explaining what I was looking for and nothing really came up, no one would respond. I don’t know if they were just shy or if it was such a big group and so many things were going on, and my message was kind of lost.
The next day I was looking for those leaders on those pages, depending on what they had posted. I came across other people who were also doing research on the community. I would message them, asking if they would want to connect. And it was hard finding these people. Some people didn’t even consider themselves leaders or as someone they think is accomplishing and they were accomplishing great things!
It’s almost like we didn’t empower ourselves or we thought we didn’t do enough in our communities. Ninety percent of the time, when it was a private message, they did go ahead and say that they wanted to help and that they were leaders, so that’s when I started to connect with some professionals.
AAC: How has your experience of meeting other undocumented people changed now?
GS: Once I met four or five professionals, I was suddenly able to get more people to participate. I was also able to say “I’m also a leader.”
At first it was hard, there’s not many platforms out there but then once everything was done, more people started to join. It’s almost like there’s more people coming in now, because this is a safe space for them. I think I made it pretty clear to them, the mission goal of UndocuProfessionals. More are willing to participate, more are willing to share, now I don’t have to go look for people, they come, which is really what I wanted.
AAC: How long have you been working on UndocuProfessionals?
GS: It actually started in the month of May, it’s going to be exactly two years since I’ve started this page.
AAC: I noticed that you are also a doctoral student with a variety of different professional experiences. How do you use your skills in Undocuprofessionals?
GS: I am using all of my skills with UndocuProfessionals. I’m giving it everything I’ve got because it’s my passion and it was what I always wanted to do. I mentioned earlier that I am a doctoral student finishing my last classes and now I’m in the dissertation phase.
AAC: Why did you decide to pursue a doctoral degree?
GS: The reason is because of the lack of research on undocumented people. I think it was a very important moment for me to realize that this is what I want to do. I want to continue going into education and being able to help my community in my own way. Because there are so many ways to help the undocumented community.
I think, for me as an educator, I wanted to be able to help the community by doing research, but also providing resources to the community and how I was going to do that was based on my own experiences.
AAC: How would you describe the educational experience for undocumented students?
GS: In my educational journey, even now in my doctoral program, I feel that staff, professors, and counselors are not able to help us. They don’t understand the challenges of being an undocumented student and I know I’m not the only one that has had this situation. I know that there are so many undocumented students out there that feel the same way and have mentioned the same things. We are not understood in these educational institutions, we feel excluded from these institutions because they don’t provide any financial assistance.
Also, many in our community are first generation, the first person in the family to pursue an advanced degree. Because you’re first, there are a lot of challenges that come with that; you don’t have the people around you to support you or help you and you’re pretty much navigating these institutions by yourself. I think that being undocumented, we do try to tell people about our situation because we do need help. When we do many times we either get the wrong information or we are discouraged from continuing our education. I was told a few times in my educational journey that if I didn’t have the money to pay for education that I should not continue my education. I was also always given misinformation.
AAC: Were you given any financial aid?
GS: I think I only got two or three scholarships along the way and I want to say, 90 percent I paid for it myself and I’m not rich. I don’t have that kind of money. If I added up all the money from getting my associates degree to my masters it comes out to $90,000-100,000
AAC: In terms of being informed of viable career paths, how did the universities you attended advise you?
GS: I was told that I couldn’t go to a certain career path because of the lack of my security number. I was never introduced to entrepreneurship. No one ever told me that I can be an entrepreneur in the meantime, that I can use the skills that I learned in my undergraduate and graduate experience. Nobody ever said that to me and I think a lot of it had to do with not being able to help me and that’s a disservice to us.
AAC: How is your doctoral program going?
GS: I’m actually currently going through a problem with paying for my doctoral program. I’ve already reached out and advocated for myself and said to the president of the school and said, “I am going to be the first undocumented student that is going to get a doctoral degree from your school. I need the following to be successful. I already paid 90 percent of my education, now I need 10 percent of the remaining balance to be paid. Can you help me and how can you support me?”
They were able to help me with two, three classes but that’s it, and now they haven’t been able to help me and don’t know how to help me.
I pay for my doctoral program four thousand dollars for a unit, while others in the cohort don’t have this problem. I am the only one with this problem, and the difference is that they’re paying between two hundred and three hundred dollars per unit. That is a huge discrepancy. If I was accepted to this doctoral program it’s because I earned it and they wanted me in that program, they knew what I could bring to the program. Now not helping me complete the program, that’s when I see they’re definitely not as inclusive as they say they are, that’s why I went to this program for.
I already invested 90 percent in my education and all I need is 10 percent which by the way, I didn’t know I was going to need. It just kind of happened because my life changed as I was in this program because I became a single mom and my life just dramatically changed because of that. And I explained that to them and now I’m stuck not continuing my education right now. I had to pause it for now to be able to come up with this money and I’m not going to allow money to stop me from pursuing my education.
But that is a fact, that is what is happening with these institutions. They are not providing us with resources, they’re not willing to learn about the undocumented community and also, they need to be able to give options to undocumented community; they need to give more scholarships, they need to understand that the systems in place really are excluding us for doing that. I gave a long response because these are important conversations to be had and many times, being undocumented, we blame ourselves; we say “I wasn’t good enough.”
AAC: Since you are advocating for yourself all the time, does that take a toll on you?
GS: Yes, definitely. We get a mix of emotions all the time. I know for me as I was saying this to you I get angry because I invested so much money in this, I have a huge debt because of my education because I really believe that education is an investment. My education is something that no one is going to take away from me and I can go anywhere with my education. If I want to go back to my home country, I can take it.
If I want to stay here I can become an independent contractor which we can work in this country as. Also, the time and energy that it took to complete those degrees and this one. I’m at the end of my classes. It’s really an investment. I could’ve spent time with my kids, with my family but instead I decided to be in this program and now I feel like they’re not assisting me.
I am thankful that I didn’t have any debt coming into this program. I paid for all of my other education. But I did get a loan at first with my doctoral program, I didn’t want to worry about having to pay for the first time as a DACA recipient, these are one of the privileges that I was able to get a loan.
It’s the first time I’ve ever taken out a school loan and it’s a huge loan so for them to not provide me with resources and options to keep going so I can continue with my doctoral program―that’s why I get angry, I get upset, I get sad because I want to finish this, I know I’m going to finish this. I’m here again by myself, trying to finish it.
That’s the unfortunate thing that happens because we go through a mix of emotions we’re going through it and as we’re going through it, we’re trying to figure things out. That’s something that we being undocumented go through, we don’t really know how we’ll do things, we just start them without really knowing the outcome. And having so many uncertainties in our life, it definitely comes with a price. It really can be very unhealthy, damaging in ways that you didn’t even were possible.
AAC: Whenever I see immigrants or just about anyone in a precarious situation in the U.S., it’s always about their trauma, not who they are as people. What do you think about the representation of immigrants in popular media?
GS: Yeah definitely. I think again it’s the lack of not understanding our communities and just picking and choosing certain stories. I remember that when I would look at the media (when I wasn’t active on social media, before UndocuProfessionals). I would see the same people, the same people come out on newspapers that were either being asked questions about what do you think about DACA? What do you think about this next president? All of these political questions and I would always see the same faces, and I’m like “Why are we talking to the same people when there are so many undocumented people?” We are highly diverse and we need to have more spaces out there, more of these people’s opinions. And no you don’t need a PhD to be interviewed, you don’t have to be “successful” to be talked to; you don’t have to continue this good immigrant narrative. I think that’s what I would always see and I still see it today, it’s getting a little better, but we’re also not that close to getting there, just more representation, more people coming in talking about their lives.
AAC: Can you think of a common misconception?
GS: They keep calling DACA recipients things like “kids” and “the youth.” Honestly, there’s a lot of us, including myself, that are no longer very young now. We are getting older; a lot of us are getting closer to our forties, we’re in our thirties, mid-thirties, some of us that are DACA recipients are almost getting to our forties. That’s something we have to remind ourselves that DACA recipients are no longer just the youth, that’s the misrepresentation we keep seeing in the media.
We keep seeing the youth, the young people that are educated. We really need to stay away from that because that really divides us more. I think the media just wants to hear one perspective, that’s the reason why it was important for me to create a platform. I wanted things to be highly diverse, we have Black professionals, we have Asian undocumented professionals, we are not just Latinos.
AAC: Since your platform is largely about helping undocumented folks transition into professional roles, can you speak about people who decide not to pursue an advanced degree?
GS: There are some that don’t want to pursue higher education and that’s fine. I’m not here to say, “Only professionals that have a degree are welcome.” If anything, I want to say if you did not pursue higher education that is completely fine. To me what’s more important is that they know how to empower themselves, that’s more important to me than the title or their educational background. To be undocumented and doing things here in this country, that keeps excluding us and gives no resources to us, you’re surviving and doing great thing with whatever you have and that’s for me, someone that needs to empower themselves.
I have met with professionals that are owners of food trucks and are chefs, they do all of these different recipes, they have their own menu for their truck, for their business now they own trucks and then they have two other trucks, and that’s how you do things. And that person says they only finished high school and I’m like “No you’re a professional.” I want to know your story because you’re a chef, you’re a business owner; it’s all about empowering ourselves and giving ourselves credit for everything we’ve done, whatever it may be.
AAC: Where do you think these migrant narratives originate?
GS: I think it’s the politicians making all of these different narratives for us. They keep calling us “dreamers” for example. I really try my best to stay away from that word “dreamer.” I don’t feel like it’s something that really reflects who I am in so many different ways, but politically, that term, that’s what you hear all the time on the news because that’s the term that was accepted and brought in by politicians because of the DREAM act.
I don’t feel uncomfortable when someone tells me, “Oh, you’re a dreamer”; it doesn’t bother me to the where I’m upset about it, but it does trigger a lot of people, especially people about my age who are on the older side, and even those who aren’t even protected by the DREAM Act.
AAC: What was your experience of applying for DACA like?
GS: DACA only protects certain people, there’s a whole list of guidelines to meet to be eligible for DACA. It was passed by Obama by executive order because not many were willing to pass the DREAM Act, but he made a lot of guidelines on that and one of them was the age. But the fact that so many of us that are older were already waiting here for such a long time. I was just very lucky to get it. I was almost didn’t make it to the program.
DACA was introduced in 2012, for me it came late because I was told by an immigration attorney that I did not qualify for the DREAM act because of my age, the date was close to my birthday about three days, or maybe the immigration attorney didn’t read it correctly or not sure what happened. All I remember is the attorney telling me that I did not qualify for the program.
AAC: That’s very suspicious.
GS: Yeah, or maybe she was too busy. I don’t know what it was, but she missed it and she told me that I did not qualify so I was without DACA. DACA had already been in place, many were taking advantage of it and I do recall it was a very scary time. We were so scared to provide our information. And I was already almost done with my grad program. I was in my last classes when DACA came in.
And then I met someone in my graduate program. I remember we were talking about something and that conversation came up that I was undocumented and he was a first-gen student Latino and he told me that he worked with a firm and maybe he could review it and give me a second opinion. He came back and told me that I did qualify and that the reason why I almost did was because it was so close. And because of him, I was able to apply to DACA. He did the whole thing for me. He wasn’t even an attorney, he wasn’t even a paralegal, he was just helping that office.
I remember trying to give him payment and he said “No, it’s okay,” and he showed me how to do my own application so that way I could renew by myself all the time. It was just so awesome that he was able to help me and I felt very very thankful to him for doing that and really stepping in.
AAC: What else was going on during that time?
GS: I made my last payments for my program because as we know, if you don’t pay the very last dollar for your program, you don’t get your diploma! I had already graduated and everything and had to wait, I was just making payments so I made my last payment and I got my diploma, and that was when I decided to start looking for a job. So that’s what happened, that’s what DACA did for me, it opened doors for me.
AAC: How many years have you had DACA?
GS: I graduated in 2016, and that’s the time I got DACA, so about five or four years.
AAC: How many months is the waiting period to hear about your DACA application?
GS: When I got it, it used to take three months, but now it’s probably double.
AAC: You mention that age is a major factor in determining the eligibility for DACA, how do you feel about people who do not meet the age criteria?
GS: There are people that have been here thirty, forty years and don’t have anything. My uncle has been here before me and even my mother. When I got DACA, he was happy for me. They’re always happy for you, even if they don’t have something.
AAC: When did you come to the US?
GS: When I was five or six, my mother came back for me. She left Oaxaca in the 1980s where it wasn’t common for women to go to the U.S. on their own. My mother is a guerrera.
When we came here, we lived in this apartment with a lot of men and I thought they were my uncles or cousins. Y’know how it is. It was very uncomfortable, especially around puberty, there was no privacy.
I remember that the house smelled like food because most of the men worked at restaurants. They would bring me back food sometimes.
AAC: When did you realize that you and everyone else there was undocumented?
GS: I always kind of knew because we would joke about it.
AAC: You are really involved in education. I would love to hear about your experiences in high school and middle school.
GS: I’m a gemini, so I just wanted to learn and really enjoy learning. I would take night classes for classes that weren’t offered in my high school like how to create PowerPoint presentations, typing, and accounting. I would also take dual enrollment classes; I was really involved and really busy, coming home late. I was the president of the Latino association. It was one of the best times in my life.
AAC: How did your mother feel about all of this? Your desire to learn and pursue higher education?
GS: She trusted me, she always let me do whatever I wanted because she knew what I was doing. As the oldest, I went off on my own. When it came time to go to college, she wanted me to go somewhere nearby but I really wanted that undergraduate experience. I didn’t want her to worry about me, she had my younger siblings to take care of.
AAC: What is a moment in your educational experience that has stuck with you?
GS: I had to repeat fifth or sixth grade because of a language barrier. It really affected me; I thought it was my fault. The worst part was that I had to return to the same teacher, the same desk, the same spot and see all of my friends go off to the next grade. From then on, I knew I had to work harder than everyone else so I wouldn’t be left behind again.
AAC: What advice would you give people who are apprehensive about applying to DACA?
GS: Just know that the program has just reopened and now new applications can be taken again, so if someone is eligible for DACA program, I would highly highly suggest that they do, because it opened a lot of doors for me. I know it’s temporary but at least it’s something that we can take advantage of now that’s available. It does continue to be under threat and we don’t know what’s going to happen later and if people will able to apply for that program, we don’t know what’s going to happen.
Anyone you know, encourage them to apply.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.