Roman Battaglia introduces Elizabeth Villanueva, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 18.

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A Shocking Epiphany: A Mexican woman finds hope in the classroom

by Roman Battaglia

At 18, Elizabeth Villanueva left Mexico for the U.S. to reunite with her mother. She now uses her experiences to teach and create a safe space for immigrant students in Meadowview.

A Shocking Epiphany: A Mexican woman finds hope in the classroom

by Roman Battaglia

Elizabeth Villanueva is usually prepared for the philosophical discussions she has with her students. In one specific discussion, Villanueva found a new connection with her students that hearkened back to what she went through as a child. It ignited a fire within her.

I had this community circle, when we’re talking about hopes and dreams, and half of the class was crying and in fear because their parents could be deported,” she said. “That’s when I transformed myself, like ‘Oh my god! They’re opening up.’”

Elizabeth Villanueva stands with her kindergarten teacher.

Elizabeth Villanueva stands with her kindergarten teacher.

In 1995, Villanueva emigrated from Mexico when she was 18 to reunite with her mother who came here illegally seven years earlier. She now teaches Spanish for native spanish speakers at Luther Burbank High School in Meadowview and was recognized as the district’s teacher of the year in 2016. The school has a diverse student body and has seen an increase in the percentage of English learners in recent years. That number went from 19 percent to almost a quarter of all students from the 2015 to 2016 school years.

One of the ways Villanueva tries to help students is by being open. She believes by making herself easy to talk to, more students will be willing to come to her if they need help. They ask her for help with everything from finding an immigration lawyer or counselor to connecting with resources in the Sacramento area.

She starts by asking her students simple questions.

“[I] tear down the walls that sometimes separate teachers and students,” said Villanueva.

“I try to allow myself to see it so the students can perceive me as another human being in the classroom.”

Elizabeth Villanueva

Villanueva was inspired by a teacher she had when she first moved to America, Miss Montoya. 

“If we were absent, my sister and I, she would be asking, ‘Where were you yesterday? Why were you not here?’ She opened the doors of her room for us to go there during lunch. That was the safe space for many of us English learners.”

Villanueva does the same thing for her students. During lunch period, her classroom is filled with students seeking a safe space.

Down one of the school’s long, open air hallways is an inconspicuous office that once held a vibrant program aimed at helping immigrant students. 

A T-shirt design of a butterfly

The DREAMers resource center holds artifacts from past fundraisers. This shirt was designed by a student and a DREAMer at the school for one of those fundraisers.

“I was working with representative from Sac City College and then Sac City College students. And with their help, we were able to establish this DREAMers resource center,” she said.

Villanueva took a look around the office. She pointed to multicolored butterflies hanging on the walls.

“We did a fundraiser with those butterflies right there. And we did another fundraiser with the shirt right there. The design was created by one of the students, one of the DREAMers.”

There are “Know Your Rights” pamphlets and information for immigrant students, alongside hopeful quotes students can take home. But now the office appears abandoned. The butterflies collect dust and inspirational quotes sit waiting for somebody to pick them up.

“Unfortunately, the college programs didn’t have any funding to continue with that project and the school and the school district didn’t have any funding either. So now it’s just another empty office,” Villaneuva said. 

The Sacramento Unified School District is amid a budget deficit and doesn’t have as much funding to support programs Villanueva has advocated for. 

Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said in a press release in 2018, “While I had hoped that the Board and I would be able to expand some of the very small investments we have made in recent months to promote an Equity, Access and Social Justice agenda for our students, unfortunately, those investments will not increase significantly.”

As part of its social justice agenda, the district established itself as a “safe haven” in 2017, expanding protections for immigrant students and families and training staff  how to interact with these students. But “safe haven” means something else for Villanueva than it does for the administration.

Elizabeth Villanueva stands in front of the classroom.

Elizabeth Villanueva discusses the days’ philosophical quote with her students. The quote is about education rights.

“As a teacher it’s different for me because I’m with the students on a daily basis. So, my concept changes, because I’m right there.”

Villanueva said it’s often hard for teachers to get that first push to help students. 

She said to help their students, teachers should ask what kind of resources the school has, either with counselors or other teachers. “Then they can reach out to the district level or the teacher unions. All teachers unions have a lot of resources nowadays. They are also providing ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops, which is helpful when reaching out to other community members,” she said.

“Do what you can with a time and a space you have. Teachers need to be reasonable.”

To start a recent class, Villanueva asked students to discuss a philosophical quote about the right to an education. She said it’s part of her goal of humanizing her curriculum. By talking through tough issues, she opens herself up as a person who students can trust with issues of their own.