My Written TEDx Speech: Why Engaging Your Community In Your Struggle Story Can Change The World
November 2019, Evansville, IN- Cindy Petrov Alfaro, J.D.
On November 8, 2019 I flew from Vancouver, WA to a small town in Indiana. I called this place home for most of my life. I was chosen to speak as a TEDx speaker for this year, and although the verbal speech did not go as expected, I was pleasantly surprised. Nonetheless, I want to share with you my full written speech. Note that I am talking about how LAWTINAJD.com changed my life, how YOU- the audience- changed my life. How WE are changing our community. Although we have many trailblazers in this new world of social media law advocates, I believe my story is different because of engagement through vulnerability. I hope you feel empowered after reading the speech. I’ll be posting the link to the video as soon as it is available on the TEDx official YouTube page.
My name is Cindy Petrov Alfaro. I am a Latina woman, an immigrant from El Salvador. I was the first person to accomplish many achievements in my family and community. The first in my community to graduate from college in the United States, with two separate bachelor's degrees, and attend law school. The first in the history of Indiana University attend and graduate from law school as a Temporary Protected Status recipient (also known as TPS). I was accepted to all the universities and colleges I applied to.
I earned 13 awards in the 8 and a half years of higher education, one of these was the Elite 50 award given to 50 graduate students out of 8,100 student professionals. I’ve held 16 different jobs while in school, seven of those were legal professional positions, 2 were fellowships. I am the CEO of my own company and I am on my way to being part of the 2% of Latina attorneys in the U.S.
My brother is an engineer and works for a large international company. My mother graduated with a master's degree in social work, my father is an engineer, and each owns their own small businesses.
I do not feel comfortable talking about my accomplishments to anyone, let alone in a public format. In fact, this whole time, my stomach felt queasy and nauseous. Why? Because I think stories like these, are a disservice to our community. Did you feel empowered when I told you about my accomplishments? I didn’t and I didn’t feel a connection to you at all.
I don’t agree with sharing one-dimensional stories like these because it is a disservice to our community, especially for our brown and black youth.
This format of success story only showcased a very small view of what it took to reach these achievements.
Many of you may have heard the term “success story,” we see them often on social media platforms where our friends, families or colleagues share with us about their most recent achievements— from graduating university, to obtaining a license, to earning awards and more.
What you really need to know about me is that I was probably the child you donated a toy to at Christmas time. I was the immigrant child who needed their first winter gear which was donated to the Salvation Army, or a member of that low-income family whom you donated a food pantry item to during the holidays.
I did not meet individuals that looked like me who were in places of power or privilege, let alone anyone who had a successful career.
If I saw someone with a successful career, they either did not look like me or they were a fictional character in a movie. The first time I met an attorney and I looked at his company profile online it was like looking at an ivory tower that seemed unreachable.
Their long list of achievements only showed me a one-sided look at what it meant to become successful. Perhaps the social constructs of my life in the U.S. were different because of my ethnicity, culture, and low-income class but it was difficult to ever imagine myself as anything else.
Although my parents encouraged and gave me every possibility to earn my degrees, it does take a village to raise each other. It’s not until we see each other’s raw stories that we can accept our humanness that builds a connecting bridge into the future.
I was born in El Salvador, which is in Latin America. My parents survived the civil war of the late 1980s, and I was born right at the end of the war. My mother worked herself up from poverty to become a military nurse, and my father put himself through school to become an engineer.
Our family had earned a spot as a middle-class family, with the biggest house on the block in 1999. When my father was laid off by his company, he established a small food market in the lower level of our three-story home. Gangs had invaded our country after being deported from the U.S. to El Salvador in the 1980s.
My family’s food market quickly began being targeted by a gang, and they began to steal from and threaten my parents.As a nine-year-old child, I saw my father on his knees with a gun to his head begging for his life, while our maid snuck my brother and me through a bolted door to keep us safe.
After that attack, my father sought a visa to the U.S. hoping the gangs would forget about us when we returned to El Salvador. Visas were miracles to receive in 1999, today it is nearly impossible to get a visa.
To get a visa, you had to prove financial wealth and stability, while also paying steep application fees. Visas are not for the poor. They are for the privileged. My grandmother had attempted to receive a visa 6 times and had been denied.
When my mother applied for a visa in 1993, she was approved by showing extensive documentation of her stability and income.
By a miracle, my father, brother and I were granted visas. On October 2, 1999, my family and I said goodbye to our family members and tearfully walked into the airport.
We didn’t know we would never return. Our country was hit with a devastating set of earthquakes, and my parents were faced with the difficult decision to overstay our visas because of the extreme difficulties we would face if we returned. My family never imagined staying in the U.S. but this is our home.
As an immigrant in Southern Indiana, I did grow up with privileges other children like me did not. I did not have to cross the border but flew into the U.S. on a visa. And in 2001, the U.S. president provided us with humanitarian relief to work and study legally in the U.S. I also attended private school most of my life and had the financial support of my parents through all my life. However, my family and I faced racism, hate crimes committed against us, financial struggles and people questioning our legal status.
In the winter of 1999, when my father tried to enroll us in school, his limited English prevented him from enrolling us in the proper school grade. I was held back a year. That was step one to feeling different. I was a tall kid, believe it not. Looking different, being taller, and not speaking English were some of the many struggles I would face that first year. During that year, I didn’t understand much of anything and my brother and I were the first Latin American students in the history of the school.
In sixth grade, I learned that Americans called me “Hispanic” or “Latino,” and that I was a “minority.” I had never learned those words, and my family didn’t understand these concepts. All our lives, we were just people. People that were a variation of human skin pigmentation, with the identity of being Salvadoran. The day I was told by my sixth grade math teacher to uncheck “white” as my race and check “Hispanic” because I was a “Minority” was the day I felt powerless for the first time in my life. I was 12 years old.
Reading you my achievements are again, a one-sided look that didn’t serve anyone with the ability to learn from my difficulties or struggles. The majority of people around me did not know the struggles I faced from a young age into adulthood.
Once we arrived in the U.S., most people do not know that my parents worked two jobs each throughout my childhood to make ends meet. I barely got to see my parents. I got F’s as grades in primary school without the support of an English speaking parent; teachers just passed me through school. The first time I received a C was because of a teacher named Mrs. Hoffman. She believed in me and that was a catalyst in my education because that’s when I learned I could believe in myself.
Most people do not know my father put himself through school in El Salvador and graduated as an engineer, but coming to the U.S. meant that his education counted for nothing. My father was the income provider for my family while we were in school. His wrinkled hands stained with oil and paint tell stories of working 12 to 18 hours a day to create his small business and make sure we had enough.
Most people do not know that my father was almost killed by police due to racial profiling, and we had to overcome this fear as a family. His only flaw for being stopped was driving while being brown. Three patrols and two K-9 units were called because my father was driving a brand new truck, and apparently he didn’t fit the physical appearance of a man who deserved to have such a vehicle. They tased him many times with three tasers burning his skin, and nearly killing him.
Most people do not know that my mother suffered a severe accident while working at a hospital that left her with six herniated disks and unable to walk for three years, so I had no choice but to run our household at the tender age of 13 years old. I was responsible for bathing and feeding her, while taking care of my younger brother.
Life was already difficult, but adding in my legal status complicated great aspects of my life. As a TPS recipient, I knew that I had a legal status and the privilege of not getting deported from the U.S., but when college acceptance letters started flooding our mail, and it was time to choose one— schools began taking away their scholarship offers because they did not understand what my legal status meant. Being on TPS (SLIDE TO DEFINE) meant that I was stuck in limbo. I couldn’t return to my country, and I was not fully accepted in the U.S.
No, you just can’t naturalize or get a green card after living here for 10 years. It doesn’t work that way, and we’ve lived in Southern Indiana for 20 years.
Most people did not know paying tuition out of pocket was a family effort where we all worked multiple jobs because our legal status kept my entire family from receiving federal or private loans. Sometimes, my parents went from having enough to counting cents to pay the electric bill or that I had to go to food pantries, but I never told them because I didn’t want to worry them. We believed in education so much because “they can take everything from you, but never your education.”
Most people do not know how I had to fight to receive in-state tuition for three months before attending law school because students with the authority to work and pay taxes legally in this state are not able to receive in-state tuition.
Most people do not know I had to overcome sexual and domestic abuse in college and law school, and I deal with a daily physical disability that is not seen.
Everyone has their struggles- from finances to sexism, and racism. But for most of my life, I lived in a place of fear of not sharing my story because I did not imagine someone else could relate to it. I saw my story as a shameful, powerless, unworthy way of life.
With all of my stresses and struggles as a brown, immigrant woman, I had adults in my life expect less of me. Although I did have some community members uplift me through my life, the majority marginalized my family and me through small actions.
Some of these actions came in the form of Americans yelling at us instead of trying to understand our accent as we struggled to find an apartment to rent and connect our electricity. These actions led my parents to enroll us in private school because an American made a comment that “immigrants were coming to only take advantage of the system,” and they wanted to prove otherwise. Sometimes racism looked like my high school counselor telling me that people “like me would never make it to higher education.” The moment I remember the most, however, was when my high school English teacher told me that “I would never get anywhere with my writing.”
I did not see Latinas in positions of power well until my early twenties, but most were second and third-generation Latinas who kept their stories to themselves. Movies only portrayed my fellow Latinx as maids, field workers, or criminals. I did not have anyone else to look up to similar to me, and that feeling of feeling alone did not disappear until this year.
In my personal life through prayer, one day I felt different. Something inside me awoke and declared that my struggle story was not a story of shame, but it was a story of thriving success and empowerment. So, I decided to openly share several of my raw struggles online. I began painting what I thought defined me, and I took the broken pieces of my story to build a pathway for someone else to find their way.
When you decide that being vulnerable, despite being scared, is ok- that’s when you can engage a community and help it thrive. Being vulnerable is for the brave. Let me say that again, being vulnerable is for the brave. It is already difficult to live in this world, but if you can take your story of “brokenness,” and use it to empower others around you, it can be powerful enough to close gaps across cultures, ethnicities, and inequality.
We know everyone has an ending in this world, but words can live on for generations. If we are not going to invest in our community by engaging them in those conversations, your thoughts and ideas will not continue on. You won’t live on. You will fade into eternity.
We need to open up to create a culture that is not afraid. If you are in a position of power, be aware of the privileges you hold, and the pillar you are in your community. Come into any space, and ask yourself “how can I be a better impact on a person’s life regardless of who they are?” You may be surprised to find out that they will help you grow in turn because in the end, we are all learning from each other.
I am a believer that when we embrace learning through each other’s stories and failures, we can come-up with innovative ways to rise above our circumstances.
After sharing my story online, within a few weeks thousands of followers began liking, commenting, and messaging me of how openly sharing my personal struggles related to their story and community. I began receiving tearful messages from students who had given up hope in becoming something more in their community, I saw my community begin to change, and open up.
We can control our own narrative, and not let anyone else control our legacy. Some of you may think it’s radical to share personal and difficult moments with a stranger for fear of judgement. However, when you own your narrative and carry your struggles as battle scars, the fear will fade. I’m still afraid today, but I’m speaking to you- the person that needs to hear that even as I’m terrified of being here - you can do it, too. It’s time for our community to no longer be afraid, and share more of who we are.
My online posts turned into weekly featured stories on social media about others in my profession, and now I have guest writers who are volunteering to share their pathway to law school.
I began interviewing Latinx law students and attorneys on the video to share monthly stories- providing Latinx youth with the opportunity to learn how someone else achieved their dream. Writing and talking about our Struggle Stories has made our success more attainable to my community. From California to New York, I didn’t know someone in Minnesota needed to hear these stories, and they now have many concrete role models.
My community in the legal field is connecting online to share resources, engage in movements, collaborate together for events, and more. My Latinx community can see law school as reachable.
Lastly, I want to share with you a moment that has not left me since I began preparing myself for this talk.
In the spring of 2015, I had just lost my grandfather and received my grades from my first semester of law school. I was failing law school, and I was on academic probation.
I met with a partner of Barnes and Thornburg, in one of the most prestigious law firms in the nation. This mentor is an African American man who makes hundreds of dollars per hour. He took an hour with me, and told me how he had a 1.5 GPA after his first semester of law school— he gave me words of wisdom, and said that his success story was not overnight, and nor would be mine. Without meeting him, I would not be where I am today.
I would have given up on my dream of graduating law school, and become another statistic or stereotype Latina. Instead, he showed me his pair of mended wings and walked me through the many ways he failed before he learned how to fly.
So tonight, I want to challenge you to share your Struggle Story with your community, and engage them in conversation— discover the power within your own story, and become a mentor to youth in your life.
I am brave. I am strong. I am a survivor. I AM RESILIENT. I am Cindy Petrov Alfaro, J.D., I am a human. WHO ARE YOU?