By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — A junior at New Bedford High School, Denis Rodriguez lives with his parents and three siblings: ages eight, three, and two weeks. The family attends Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church, where Rodriguez teaches ninth-grade Confirmation class. He dreams about going to college and majoring in English, as well as political science, maybe with a minor in philosophy.
Yet Rodriguez is not your average 17-year-old. The undocumented teen has spent much of his life living in the shadows.
Born in Siguatepeque, Comayagua, in Honduras, Rodriguez was six months old when his father left home in search of a better life for his family.
“I did not see my dad for seven years,” said Rodriguez. “He first went to California where my grandmother lived, then to Florida to work in agriculture, and finally to New Bedford where he found better work in construction.”
In September 2005 his young wife and seven-year-old son retraced his footsteps, embarking on the perilous journey to America.
“My mom and I left everything behind in Honduras and were definitely in harm’s way,” said Rodriguez. “It was a dangerous journey, but I saw it as an adventure.”
Yet one frightening experience remains etched in his mind.
“We were somewhere midway to Mexico, and it was the middle of the night,” he said. “We were running through a forest to get to a road where a car would be waiting for us.”
But the police had been alerted.
“They were looking for us, and they found us,” Rodriguez said. “We ran faster, but my mom tripped on a tree branch, and someone tried to take me away. But I ran back toward her; and we kept running and made it to the car.”
The family was reunited one month later, but it would take years to mend the separation.
“I liked living in New Bedford, but I had my ups and downs,” said Rodriguez. “My dad used to be an alcoholic and that affected me in many ways. I was very shy and couldn’t communicate with him, and we were very distant.”
But their relationship changed when the family went back to church after a long absence.
“When I was in ninth grade, I did my first retreat with the youth group,” said Rodriguez. “Then I realized different things. Scars and pains came out, and little by little they went away.”
At the end of the retreat, there was a gathering for students and their parents.
“I felt anxiety about my dad,” said Rodriguez. “When I saw him, I threw myself into his arms and started weeping. Everything started to improve.”
His father became the leader of Renovados En El Espiritu, an adult group that his mother also belongs to; and Rodriguez is one of the leaders of the Cristo Joven teen group.
“I facilitate different things,” he said. “I work with faith formation, do fund-raisers and I’ve preached to the youth group three times.”
Last weekend he served on the Christian Leadership Institute planning committee for the youth convention at Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth.
Rodriguez also is committed to working for change in immigrant status in the community, serving as regional coordinator of the Student Immigration Movement, which helps undocumented students throughout the state.
“Many students have come to this country at a young age, such as myself, but we are not privileged to many resources or opportunities like everybody else,” said Rodriguez. “I have a year-and-a-half before I head to college, but there is something holding me back. Any student that is undocumented may not benefit from tuition or financial aid.”
The mission of the Student Immigration Movement is to secure the right for undocumented youth to live freely and happily, as well as to grow and learn together. This year their Dare To Dream campaign aims to pass a bill in the state legislature that would allow anyone, regardless of immigration status, to benefit from in-state tuition and qualify for financial aid.
“Fortunately for me, I am part of this movement; and through them I have learned of opportunities that could help me reach college,” said Rodriguez. “But for others, though, this is not the case. They are not aware.”
Consequently, the nonprofit organization will host SIM Camp 2015, the largest undocumented youth gathering in the state, on April 10, 11 and 12 at UMass Boston.
“We bring people from different areas together to give them college access information and provide resources,” Rodriguez said.
During SIM Camp, their flagship training event, a new generation of immigrant youth leaders are prepared and trained to take responsibility for creating change in their communities.
“By choosing to take a stand for yourself and for your communities, you are choosing to deny the criminalization and marginalization that our families are subject to every single day,” according to the SIM Camp newsletter. “You are choosing to teach us and learn with us, and to be part of a journey that will change your life. You are choosing to join in a young but proud tradition of immigrant youth leadership that has already won huge victories and that is absolutely committed to fighting for dignified lives for all members of our immigrant community.”
The SIM Camp $35 fee will cover food, lodging, all materials and a T-shirt. To register, go to www.bit.ly/simcamp2015. For more information, call Rodriguez at 774-503-2984.