Like many Coloradans and Americans, I was deeply moved last month by the pictures of President Joe Biden holding up a young Ukrainian refugee in his arms. The jubilant smile and the loving energy of the embrace between our president and the refugee child struck a particular chord with me, reminding me of my hopes for our country and the values I believe must be a cornerstone of society.
The last two years have been a turbulent time, but to me our goals are clearer than ever: democracy, opportunity, and inclusion must prevail, with education leading the way both at home and abroad.
As I consider the path forward, I take inspiration from a special anniversary. One hundred years ago this month, my great-grandmother Rafaela Gomez crossed the border in El Paso on her way to Boulder. She was fleeing poverty and war in her native Zacatecas, México where the recent revolution had torn apart her family.
Over the years, she eventually lost all of her children to poverty, sickness, or accident, with the exception of my grandmother, María. Ayoung girl with an electric smile, María was born in Boulder and will celebrate her 94th birthday in a few weeks. I cannot help seeing my grandma’s smile in the smile of the young girl that Joe Biden held in his arms in Poland.
In the century since the Gomez family came to Colorado, much of the world and Colorado has changed. Yet some things are sadly still the same for migrants everywhere whether here or in Ukraine.
How long will I be here? Where will I end up? Will I be truly accepted for who I am? My grandma was shamed for speaking Spanish in Boulder schools and held back in the first grade. She encountered “No Mexicans Allowed” signs at pools in Longmont.
We must name the challenges newcomers face — not to wallow in despair and blame — but because they paint a colorful contrast to how Coloradans have harnessed our democracy and education systems to overcome these moments to build a better future. Working in education, I am lucky to often see these examples of communities who have warmly and powerfully embraced newcomers.
In Denver, I saw a parent from Somalia welcomed at the Superintendent Forum with applause. I’ve been able to work with Sylvia Hernandez, who fed tens of thousands of the most impacted during the pandemic and then launched her own restaurant to national acclaim. I’ve met the newcomer students graduating every year from Aurora Community College who build the future of the Colorado economy. Recently in Greeley, I was inspired to hear a group of community members welcoming the announcement from the school district that they were receiving their first family from Ukraine.
These stories of inclusion and opportunity are the core of my love of Colorado and why I believe in the power of our education system as an engine for opportunity. I know deep in my soul Rafaela would look upon the lives of her daughter, grandkids, great-grandchildren — and now her great-great grandchildren — with joy and awe at the progress our family has made, aided at nearly every turn by education.
In Colorado, Ukraine, and classrooms across the world, the education system is daily faced with a reality of living up to its full potential. We must not only welcome newcomers to live their full life, but confront that too few Coloradans of all backgrounds have access to the future they aspire to. Through this, we can begin to see the real truth – that all our lives are interwoven.
What an important truth to see, a real challenge to rise towards: that by embracing the newcomer, we actually embrace all Coloradans. To name this is to name that — with the important exception of our indigenous community — all of our ancestors were once newcomers to Colorado. All deserved opportunity and belonging then, and their ancestors – us – deserve it now, whether in Denver or Holyoke or Trinidad.
I get very emotional when I think about Rafaela, her journey and what she must have overcome. I remember spending time with her as a young child, her loving embrace, her beautiful blankets, and the way she called me “Landito.”
Her story is the story of so many of those in Colorado, in America, and now in Europe. Even after a century, her story reminds me of the stakes that are at play right now in this global moment. Her example helps me choose the path forward. Her life inspires me to understand what we must do together to build a better world.
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