President of Mexico presents grant to UCLA student

A representative of the "Dream Generation," grant recipient Francisco López-Flores will graduate from UCLA this December.

President of Mexico presents grant to UCLA student

Los Angeles, August 28, 2014. From left: Governor Jerry Brown, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Francisco López-Flores, First Lady of Mexico Angelica Rivera de Peña, Mayor Eric Garcetti, unidentified Mexican official, and Mexican Consul General Carlos Sada. (Photo: courtesy of the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles.)

“I was part of the first wave of undocumented students to come to UCLA after the passage of [California] Assembly Bill 540,” said López-Flores.

by Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, September 3, 2014 — UCLA student Francisco López-Flores received a $1,000 education grant from Mexico at a ceremony held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on August 28. No less than the President of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto, then on an official visit to Los Angeles, presented him with a diploma for the grant; a press conference was held later at the Consulate of Mexico in Los Angeles. Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Mexican Consul General Carlos Sada were also in attendance.

López-Flores was able to overcome his complete surprise at the news — and the deluge of U.S. and Mexican media calls that ensued — by the time of the ceremony. (The media blitz heightened after the ceremony). Unbeknownst to him, he had been nominated for the grant by Rubén Hernández-León, director of the Center for Mexican Studies and associate professor of sociology at UCLA. The UCLA professor, who has forged a close working relationship between the Center and the consulate, was asked to suggest a deserving UCLA student for the grant.

“It’s an honor to receive the award because I am a Mexican national living undocumented in the United States. I’ve been here since the age of five and I would love to travel to my native country, but because of my immigration status, I am unable to at this point,” said López-Flores. “But I did receive my working permit and a Social Security number a year and a half ago under the DACA Program, so I can now work legally and pay taxes.”

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program was initiated by President Obama in June 2012. It enables undocumented immigrants 30 years old and younger who were brought to the United States before the age of 16, and who meet certain other criteria, to obtain a working permit and thus be protected from deportation.*

Currently working full-time as an analyst in human resources for UCLA Health’s Santa Monica Hospital, López-Flores must renew his DACA status every two years. His recent grant would be a signal achievement for any student, but for this UCLA undergraduate, it is only one of many earned in years of overcoming persistent obstacles.

López-Flores receives a check from UCLA Associate Professor of Sociology Rubén Hernández-León. Mexican Consul General Carlos Sada, standing next to the professor, and other consulate officials presided at a press conference at the consulate. (Photo: Consulate General of Mexico.) López-Flores grew up in Riverside speaking Spanish at home, but hiding his Mexican identity in public. When California Proposition 187 was passed in 1994 amid rising anti-immigration sentiment, his mother kept him and his brother at home for a time because she feared they would be deported. (The proposition prohibited illegal aliens from accessing public services in the state, including health care and public education. It was found unconstitutional in 1999.)

When López-Flores and his brother returned to school, their mother warned them not to let people know where they were from. So although he spoke Spanish at home and began studying the language formally in sixth grade — continuing all the way through AP courses in high school — he never spoke Spanish in public except in class. 

Overcoming the odds to attend UCLA

After graduating from high school, López-Flores moved to Los Angeles with the intention of attending UCLA. “I didn’t know how I was going to pay for school, pay for rent or feed myself,” he recounted. He began by scouring the classifieds for rooms for rent, then pitching the idea of exchanging work for rent to potential landlords. He negotiated his first such arrangement with an elderly Jewish couple living on the Westside.

“One of the ways I paid for my education when I first came to LA was by working odd jobs for different people,” he noted. He stuck with it, taking to heart the dictum cited by one doctor for whom he worked: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

“I was part of the first wave of undocumented students to come to UCLA after the passage of [California] Assembly Bill 540,” he explained. That bill made both University of California and California State University educations affordable for undocumented immigrants, who would otherwise have been required to pay the higher tuition charged to international students.

During his years at UCLA, López-Flores has taken two upper-level sociology courses that he particularly enjoyed. One dealt with Latin American politics and the economy, and the other, Mexico-U.S. migration as studied by Mexican scholars since the 1930s.

These course offerings are unique to UCLA’s sociology department, he explained, as they are taught in academic Spanish and use entirely Spanish-language curricula, but are not Spanish-language courses. After having had to suppress his Mexican identity and language ability for so many years, he said, “It was refreshing to discover that the language was used for research in so many fields.”

“What is most interesting and rewarding about [these courses],” remarked UCLA sociologist Hernández-León, “is to see how students like Francisco — heritage Spanish speakers who come from low-income, undocumented immigrant families — discover that the language of their parents and grandparents is also a language in which scientific knowledge is produced.” This shift of perception, he said, “leaves them with a newly found sense of worth of their language, of their heritage and of their culture.”

One of the great contributions of a UCLA as a public university, continued the professor, is that it shows students of the Dream Generation that “their experience is something the rest of the world should know about; and that we want to study this experience in order to formulate more effective and constructive policies for a more inclusive, diverse, and just United States.”

In any other generation, López-Flores would be hailed as a living illustration of the American dream. But his undocumented status makes his path more uncertain. That uncertainty has been prolonged for an entire generation by the persistent failure of the U.S. Congress to enact immigration reform.

When asked about the costs of being undocumented, López-Flores emphasized the harm it does to people’s sense of self. “It makes you feel that you’re not worthy as a human being,” he remarked. “Virtually everyone I’ve talked to who is undocumented has experienced some kind of depression.” And although he considers himself privileged to have met the DACA criteria and receive a work permit, he knows many friends who have not been so lucky.

In his opinion, another great cost of being undocumented is economic. And by this he means an economic loss for this country. His generation has gone through public schools and public universities, which he describes as an investment on the part of the American public. “But we’re not allowing that investment to generate returns,” he insisted, arguing that it would be more beneficial to the economy, both in terms of taxes and productivity, if their status was legalized.

In December 2014, after 12 years of hard work to support himself, pay tuition and go to school, López-Flores will graduate from UCLA with a major in Chicana/Chicano Studies and a minor in Society and Genetics. He then hopes to pursue an MBA in one of the country’s top-10 programs and return to working in the health industry. Although completing such a degree will be difficult —his immigration status precludes him from applying for federally guaranteed loans and numerous scholarships — his track record leaves little doubt that he will succeed.

*The other DACA criteria are: to be have been physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012; to have entered the country without inspection before that date or have had lawful immigration status expire by that date; be currently enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or be honorably discharged from the U.S. Armed Forces or Coast Guard; and not have any convictions for a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors and not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

See recent KPCC story about new financial aid for undocumented UC students.

This story was published September 3, 2014, and updated September 8, 2014.