When Stephanie Mazariegos was a small child, her parents struggled to pay their bills. During the day, her parents worked alternating shifts – her father in a restaurant and as a janitor at a synagogue, her mother cleaning a woman’s home – so that one parent could be at home to care for the children.
Then at night, the couple cleaned an office building together.
“I remember being 6 years old and going to work with my parents in the middle of the night,” said Mazariegos, now a 20-year-old senior at Illinois. “They would put my sister Dayran and me in a room, and we would fall asleep there while they would clean the whole office building.
“My parents didn’t tell me when I was younger why it was that we had such a poor lifestyle, but I saw that we were struggling,” she said. “As I got older, I knew it was because they didn’t have papers. An undocumented worker can’t really get a good job and help their family have a good life here.”
Although Mazariegos’ parents have long since obtained permanent residency and achieved a better standard of living, the hardships of those early years made a lasting impression on their younger daughter, kindling a passion for social justice.
When Mazariegos began college at Illinois, she knew that she wanted to work with immigrant families but couldn’t quite find an organization that fit, until a friend introduced her to La Colectiva.
A registered student organization, La Colectiva is an advocate for immigrants in the Champaign-Urbana community, supporting social justice and change, and providing resources through grassroots initiatives, such as public forums, workshops, film screenings, candlelight vigils and other events.
Group members have rallied on the U. of I. Quad and in Washington, D.C., lobbied at the state Capitol in Springfield and, last October, participated in a two-day, 30-mile pilgrimage between U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis’ offices in Decatur and Taylorville, to prompt Davis to support immigration reform.
Although the organization has only about 20 student members, La Colectiva’s respect for its constituents and willingness to tackle difficult issues have earned it a sizable reputation in the surrounding community, said Angelica Sanchez, 21, who claims both Chicago and its suburb Burbank as her hometowns.
A McNair Scholar, Sanchez is a senior in urban and regional planning and works as a personal assistant to students with disabilities living at Beckwith Hall on campus.
“I liked that (the group was) working in the community and on campus,” said Sanchez, who joined La Colectiva as a freshman. “What I get out of working with them is the joy of seeing that La Colectiva empowers individuals and community members, and not many organizations do that. And they keep in contact with people as well, so that connection is never really lost.”
Illinois’ passage of a law in January 2013 establishing a temporary visitors driver’s license program for undocumented immigrants was a victory for La Colectiva, which had vigorously supported the legislation. Since the state began accepting applications for the temporary licenses last November, La Colectiva volunteers have been helping community members with their paperwork.
La Colectiva was among the local immigrant advocacy groups to voice opposition to the Champaign County Sheriff Department’s participation in Secure Communities, a controversial program administered by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that involves local police in detaining people for immigration violations.
After La Colectiva hosted a series of community meetings about the problems associated with Secure Communities, the sheriff’s department ultimately decided to quit honoring detainer requests under the program.
Last spring, the McKinley Foundation on the Urbana campus recognized La Colectiva’s work with one of its annual Social Justice awards, which honor individuals and organizations that demonstrate exceptional dedication, promote awareness and improve the circumstances of those who have suffered unfair treatment.
La Colectiva’s roots go back to 2001, when several Latina students on campus wanted to rally support for a proposed bill to extend in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants in Illinois, according to Jesse Hoyt, who was La Colectiva’s president during the 2010-2011 academic year.
“The organization started off with the premise that it’s important to be your own advocate, and especially for undocumented students to lead the fight, raise awareness and support legislation that would help families and undocumented students across the state,” said Hoyt, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in sociology and now works for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “La Colectiva started off with a progressive and active student body that was trying to involve students in reaching outside the campus bubble.”
In 2011, La Colectiva’s leadership decided to move from La Casa Cultural Latina, a cultural center on campus, to the University YMCA in Champaign.
The student leaders felt that the YMCA’s autonomy and social justice focus were better aligned with La Colectiva’s mission and that the YMCA “could provide the institutional support that we were looking for,” which included grant funding for a full-time organizer position, Hoyt said.
To gain insight into the areas of greatest need – and opportunities for engagement with others in the community who also were working with the immigrant population, Hoyt and other La Colectiva representatives entered into extensive discussions with clergy, business and civic leaders, and others doing similar work.
Two new programs evolved that are in their second year. A mentoring program called “We DREAM” fosters friendships between Illinois undergraduates and Latina/o youth at Urbana High School and seeks to improve their academic success and promote a college-driven environment. Fifteen students are being mentored.
“La Linea,” a telephone helpline staffed by Spanish-speaking volunteers, provides direct services such as translation and interpretation and promotes awareness of other services – such as health care, legal and employment services – available to immigrants in the area.
La Colectiva continues to work closely with La Casa Cultural Latina and other groups on campus that have similar missions.
“I appreciate how La Colectiva is connected to other organizations and they all follow the same principles,” Mazariegos said. “They do something about what it is they want to change. We all volunteer a lot here on campus. If there are workshops, we’ll go and help out with translating or taking care of community members’ kids.”
Mazariegos said that she was inspired to join La Colectiva during her sophomore year after she attended a meeting at which a woman recounted a harrowing experience about a traffic stop that culminated in her being arrested and detained for possible deportation.
“The rest of us don’t really understand the fear that they live with – that a five-minute drive to McDonald’s could lead to being stopped by the police and deported,” Mazariegos said.
Helping peers afford college is another key objective for La Colectiva, which is raising funds to establish a scholarship program – called “We DREAM, We Act” – for students at Illinois who are undocumented immigrants. The group’s primary fundraiser is an annual banquet and auction, held every April at the YMCA. Also on the group’s calendar for April is a new initiative – a community baby shower for low-income mothers and their infants.
“They continually inspire me,” said Francisco Baires, the YMCA’s community programs director, about La Colectiva’s members. “Shortly after I first came to campus two years ago, I went to a meeting in the community. Once I said that I worked with La Colectiva, the people didn’t care about anything else I had to say. All they wanted to talk about was La Colectiva.”