When Ivania Melgar was 10, she left her dolls behind in Chalatenango, El Salvador.
Her aunt introduced her to a young man in Guatemala, who helped her cross the Mexican border. She wore two pairs of socks to avoid blisters. She hid from police in bushes, and slept in unknown homes.
During the month-long journey to be reunited with her parents in the United States, she and a 16-year-old girl from Guatemala got lost from their guide in Mexico. A woman, who noticed men who wanted to take advantage of them, took them under her wing.
Ivania slept on the floor in the woman’s home for about a week until her parents made arrangements for her to continue the journey, which involved crossing The Rio Grande. Ivania did not know how to swim.
“There were people making a chain on each side of the river, I held on to the man as he swam across the river,” she said. “The current was pulling us, but we made it. We made it to Texas.”
On Thursday night, Ivania, now 18, proudly wore a white cap and gown. With a 5.6 grade point average, the honors student from South Dade Senior High School earned an International Baccalaureate degree and was inducted into the Summa Cum Laude honor society. Her mom, Marina Melgar, 39, who cleans homes, was on her left side; her dad, a landscaper, was on her right.
“We were scared. I remember driving from Miami to Texas to pick her up. When I first saw her, I hugged her, and we both cried,” said her dad, Moises Melgar, 39. “Today I want to cry because I am so proud.’’
As she and her parents walked down the aisle for the 28th annual Migrant Students Recognition Program, held at the Palmetto Bay Village Center, Ivana clasped their hands tightly.
“I’m really nervous,” Ivania said. She had the highest grade point average among the nearly 200 students in the room. Her speech was in her pocket, to be delivered to the 600 or so on hand, counting all the family members.
The majority of the students, who will graduate in the coming weeks, were from Homestead Senior High and South Dade Senior High. Other schools represented were Robert Morgan Educational Center, Lawrence Academy Senior, Coral Reef Senior High, Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High and Miami Jackson Senior High.
“ Si, se puede” (Yes, we can!) was the motto of the night, sponsored by the Mexican-American Council, and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Title I Migrant Education Program. The night featured a Mexican feast, complete with live DJs playing Mexican Cumbia and a spread of beef enchiladas, chicken tacos and pineapple lemonade.
Some of the students’ parents never finished elementary school. Miguel Marquez, 37, left school when he was in fifth grade, and his wife Maria Marquez, 39, stopped in second grade. Their son, Jose Marquez, a Homestead Senior High student, won an award for perfect attendance.
“He wakes up every day at 5:30 a.m. He eats breakfast and prepares for school,” said his mother, donning a new floral print dress and black scarf for the occasion. “We were raising five children and working hard. He is very responsible.”
Like Jose, many of the students grew up with parents who bent their backs for hours in South Florida’s fields, following the harvest to different states. Some also worked with their parents over the summer.
“I make between $50 to $55 a day. I have been to California for tomatoes and grapes, and Michigan for cucumbers,” said Marquez, Jose’s father. “Sometimes I can make $1,500 a month. It depends.”
The scholarships are what makes it possible for the undocumented students to continue their education, said Maria Garza, president of the Mexican-American Council.
Her husband, Cipriana Garza, executive director of the Miami-Dade Schools’ Migrant Education program, said the program distributed about $715,000 in scholarships with the help of Miami-Dade College, The Arvin and Helen Maggard Migrant Scholarship Fund, and the South Florida Workforce, among others.
“I have worked so hard all of my life. This country is my home. My worst nightmare would be if I weren’t able to continue with my education,” said Fernanda Larios, in tears. “All I want to do is go to college and use my knowledge to help other people. Luckily some people understand that.”
Fernanda had the highest grade point average at Homestead Senior High. She won a two-year scholarship to Miami-Dade College and another award for her good grades.
“My dad, who died of kidney failure when I was 6, worked hard for me to get here,” said Fernanda, who will graduate with a 4.88 grade point average. “I’m doing this for him.”
Fernanda said her mother couldn’t make it, because her little sister was sick. Her best friend Octaviana Pacheco, 17, who won the Silver Knight award for Vocational Technology, was seating near her.
“We are here to support our daughter and our friends’ children,” said Octaviana’s mother, Augustina Pacheco.
Fernanda, who is a certified medical administrative assistant, and Octaviana said they want to be nurses. Jose and Ivania dream of being doctors. The four will attend Miami-Dade College for the next two years.
“We don’t want anything for free. We have been taught to work hard for what we want,” Jose said. “I love science and I know that if I have the opportunity I will use this to be of service to society.”
Most of the teachers, parents and students in the room believe lawmakers should support the D.R.E.A.M. Act to help students like them. The legislation, which has been voted down in recent years in Congress, would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who came here as children if they join the military or attend college for at least two years.
“We just want to be allowed to take advantage of the opportunities that others are taking for granted,” said Ivania, who will graduate June 4. “We are talented and we are ready to work hard. I will continue to strive for the highest grade point average, and I will find a way. Por que Si, Se Puede.”