Paulina Pedroza, activist of the Hispanic community in Tyler began teaching English and citizenship classes 18 months ago.
Her goal was not to solely focus on aiding immigrants with immediate needs such as food and resources, instead she is helping to walk them down the path towards citizenship, offering a way towards achieving full rights including the right to work and to vote.
“There are doctors working as painters, lots of teachers cleaning houses, engineers working in the meat shops. There are people with master’s degrees doing those jobs… If they don’t work today they cant pay rent tomorrow. The food bank is sometimes the only resource they have, and during Covid-19 more than ever before. They are living in the shadows,” said Pedroza.
The road to citizenship can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who do not speak the language. Pedroza saw a need for guidance, and stepped up to offer free English and citizenship classes to those who want to legally reside in the U.S.
Adrian Tovar, current English student of Pedroza, immigrated to the U.S. in 1999 to settle in Tyler, and has worked in the area ever since. He started citizenship and English classes in May of last year, and said that gaining legal status has changed his life.
“I moved here for a better life,” said Tovar. “I had a good life in Mexico, living with my parents and siblings, we were all together but we worked in the countryside and there isn’t opportunities to advance.”
When he moved to Tyler the area was less developed. He explained that as an undocumented worker, he had to work hard labor jobs and in the back of his mind lived with the fear of potentially being found out and deported.
“I used to have to do more hard labor, now I can search for different jobs, it makes a huge difference,” said Tovar. “Now I’m not scared that something will happen to me.”
Since living in Tyler, Tovar met his wife and now has two kids. He still takes English classes with Pedroza, and encourages those who wish to gain citizenship to pursue it.
“For other people in the position I was previously in, don’t be afraid to take the citizenship classes. It’s not too difficult and it’s even easier if you speak English. Learning English is hard but it’s worth it,” he said.
Tovar said spending half of his life in the U.S. has overall been a positive and peaceful experience, but he has heard of others having problems with police and of being exploited by employers.
“I haven’t had bad experiences with the police or with employers, I have heard of other people having many problems but I personally haven’t. I’ve generally lived a very peaceful life,” said Tovar. “This is a beautiful country, those who work for it achieve what they want and there is opportunity for everyone.”
Pedroza said she is passionate about helping the undocumented Hispanic community to attain citizenship, and explained that the first step in that process is teaching them confidence.
“What I’m doing is teaching them the process, “ said Pedroza.” The first step is confidence. Being a Latino in East Texas is tough enough. I give them confidence in every class and I help with questions about history, geography, civil wars, presidents, ex-presidents, and current administration about both parties.”
Over the past year and a half, Pedroza said she has served over 300 people through her classes. Along the way, various individuals have helped her by offering a space for her to teach, including in restaurants and churches.
“I know what they are suffering, I want to see a difference but in the right way,” said Pedroza. “I want to show the city that we are here to collaborate and to work together with them, we are not against them. We respect the city we expect to be respected as well. This is a huge community and we are growing fast. This is why I have the passion and why I care.”
Pedroza explained that a huge barrier towards gaining citizenship is costs, and she is working with organizations to provide packages that including funding and legal aide for the process.
“I have a vision and a mission, I see potential and I see an opportunity, said Pedroza. “Sometimes the hardest time is the best time to do it. I know in this community we have good people.”