May graduate Tania Chairez never planned to become an activist, but soon after she arrived at the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman, she found a new calling. Chairez became an advocate for undocumented residents of the United States.
Chairez was 5 years old when she and her parents arrived in Phoenix from Chihuahua, Mexico. Living in Arizona, she and her family were afraid to let others know that they were undocumented. The fear of deportation was always on their minds.
“When I was in Phoenix, all I wanted to do was to run away from my identity. I wanted to be as white and as American as possible,” says Chairez. “I didn’t identify as Mexican, as undocumented, as Latina--none of it.”
In Philadelphia, Chairez found a vibrant Mexican community that welcomed her. She joined the group, Dream Activist Pennsylvania, which advocates for immigrants’ rights.
“That’s when I began to do my social awareness work as I found my identity as a Mexican and as an undocumented woman,” she says.
She publically revealed her status in 2011 in a guest column in the The Daily Pennsylvanian, declaring, “I am undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic.”
“My parents thought I was crazy for sharing it. My friends thought I was crazy. I thought I was crazy at some point. It was something I was taught not to tell anyone for a lot of reasons. But looking back on it, I think it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Chairez says she felt relief after going public.
“I can talk about it and ‘come out of the shadows,’ as we call it,” says Chairez. “It’s a great, great, empowering experience.”
At Penn, Chairez became the co-founder of the group Penn for Immigrant Rights, which works to raise awareness and to provide support for undocumented students on campus and in the surrounding community.
“I think it’s most helpful to those undocumented people who are looking into going into higher education and don’t think it’s possible,” Chairez says. “I only found out that I could come to Penn because I had amazing teachers and counselors in high school that invested their time in me, and they did the research and found that Penn would accept me as an undocumented student. Prior to that I thought that maybe I could go to a community college, if I could afford it.”
In March of 2012, Chairez’s advocacy led to her arrest during an immigrant rights protest outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office in Philadelphia. She was charged with two misdemeanors, obstruction of a highway and disorderly conduct. She spent 24 hours in jail, was sentenced to community service and eventually earned a clean record.
She feels safer now that she has a work permit under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for undocumented people who were brought to the U.S by their parents.
Her advocacy work at Penn extended to other groups on campus, including the Latino Coalition, which she co-chaired in her junior year.
Chairez’s advocacy work was recently acknowledged when she was named one of Latina Magazine’s Top 12 Inspiring Latinas Under 25.Others named to the list include singer and actress Selena Gomez, cookbook author Eliana de la Casas and actress Raini Rodgriguez of the Disney Channel’s Austin & Ally.
This fall, Chairez will be teaching English to middle and high school students in her hometown of Phoenix for Teach for America. Her future plans include law school. She would like to pursue a career in public interest law.