Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: How undocumented immigrants are a voice for the community

Sep 24, 2020

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the long history and rich cultures of the nearly 61 million people who make up the Hispanic and Latinx communities in the United States. It honors the many contributions that members of these communities have made to the success of the country and their legacy moving forward.

Of course, it is impossible to recognize the impact of the Hispanic and Latinx population on the economy, history, and culture of this country without appreciating the diverse heritage and mix of countries it draws from: Mexico, Spain, as well as two dozen nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Roughly 35% of the 41 million foreign-born people living in the U.S. have Hispanic or Latinx origins1 and approximately 77% are either naturalized citizens or lawful permanent residents.2

Immigration has played a vital role in the history of the United States, yet differences in opinion regarding immigration policy continue to be an ongoing source of political discord. Misconceptions about immigrants’ motives for migrating to the U.S., their impact on the economy, and the long process to obtain documentation are pervasive. Regardless of immigration status, the contributions of millions of immigrants and the challenges they face to fulfill the American Dream cannot be discredited.

“You are not lucky to be here. The world needs your perspective. They are lucky to have you.” – Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation

According to a June 2020 press release from Governor Ned Lamont, Connecticut is home to approximately 140,000 undocumented people who make up close to five percent of the state’s workforce.3 They help to stimulate and strengthen the economy and are responsible for a quarter of the $13.8 billion of spending power that the immigrant population harnesses in the state.4

Despite these contributions, undocumented immigrants and their families represent a particularly vulnerable segment of our communities. They often forgo medical care and the limited social services available to them, fearful of repercussions from interacting with public agencies. Compounded by language or cultural barriers, difficulties securing safe and affordable housing, and challenges accessing transportation, they are often marginalized, underrepresented, and devalued.

Emanuela and her mother sharing a moment at an event.

Emanuela Palmares, a prominent Danbury resident and philanthropist who immigrated to the U.S. with her family in the 1990s, remembers the challenges she faced leaving an ideal childhood in Brazil to live in an unfamiliar country. Here out of medical necessity, the family stayed after their emergency visas expired so that Emanuela’s mother would have access to specialized care for a chronic medical condition. At just 10 years old, Emanuela did not speak English and felt like an outcast as she struggled to communicate with her teachers and other children. “For years, I felt like no one outside of my family knew who I was.”

The family worked hard to make ends meet and, once she reached high school, their undocumented status had a greater impact on Emanuela as she realized that her aspirations to study art in college might not be attainable. Told not to bother taking the SAT, she attended Western CT State University as an international student, even though she lived just 10 minutes from the school for almost a decade. It would be 12 years before Emanuela would finally become a naturalized citizen.

Nonetheless, Emanuela says she maintained a “glass half full approach,” due, in part, to her mother’s constant reminder that a piece of paper did not define her worth. Emanuela was encouraged to volunteer as a teenager, teaching English to immigrants at Danbury Public Library, selling her artwork to benefit local charities, and serving on community boards. She also began working at Tribuna, the trilingual newspaper her mother founded in 1999 to bridge the disconnect between non-English speaking immigrants and their community. These opportunities helped her make connections in Danbury and beyond, and reminded her that she had value that could impact others.

“It is the duty of today’s documented immigrants to talk about their undocumented experience: to support, celebrate and inspire others to not give up.” – Emanuela Palmares

Today, Emanuela is a wife, mother, business owner, former Danbury Board of Education member, editor-in-chief of Tribuna, and vice president of the New American Dream Foundation, the philanthropic extension of the newspaper that supports immigrants through its mission of education, health and civic engagement.

She remains a powerful and eloquent voice in the community.  She encourages other immigrants to remember those who came before them so that they can be a beacon of hope to those who will come after.