Texas-sized surprise: High school valedictorian says she is an undocumented immigrant

Yale University-bound with full scholarship, a 4.95 GPA, and 17 AP classes under her belt, Larissa Martinez stunned her audience by telling them that she and her family entered the US illegally from Mexico City in 2010.

David Goldman/AP/File
Kevin Morales, an undocumented immigrant, wears a T-shirt that reads 'We Just Want A Better Life' during a protest in Douglasville, Ga., in May 2011, to oppose Georgia's law cracking down on illegal immigration and a policy that bars illegal immigrant students from the most competitive state colleges and universities.

During her graduation speech, valedictorian Larissa Martinez revealed a secret she'd long kept from her schoolmates at McKinney Boyd High School in McKinney, Texas.

"I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in the United States," she declared. "This might be my only chance to convey the truth to all of you that undocumented immigrants are people, too."

Yale University-bound with full scholarship,  a 4.95 GPA, and 17 AP classes under her belt, Ms. Martinez could have delivered what she called "the traditional Hallmark version of a valedictory speech." Instead, she revealed that she and her family fled Mexico City in 2010, leaving her abusive alcoholic father behind, in hopes that America would offer a better life. Martinez, then 12 years old, and her family came to the US on a tourist visa with a little bit of luggage. Her mother cautioned her against revealing their status as undocumented immigrants.

"School became my safe haven," Martinez said during her speech. After six years in this country and several drafts of her graduation speech, she finally decided to reveal her family's secret.

"[Larissa] said, 'What do you think?' And then I realized, that's what we are. That's what you are.... That's your story," her mother Deyanira Contreras told WFAA.

"America can be great again without the construction of a wall built on hatred and prejudice," Martinez said during her speech, referencing statements made by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. "You taught me that it's okay to be different and there will always be people willing to overlook those [differences] and accept you for being yourself," Martinez told her classmates.

She expressed gratitude to her classmates and to her younger sister and mother for their support. "While moms metaphorically move mountains for children, you literally moved countries for my sister and me," said Martinez. "That's why everything I do, I do for you."

Martinez's family applied for citizenship nearly seven years ago, but are still waiting for their applications to be processed. "They are my reason to live. So that's why I do it," Contreras said. "It's hard."

Every year, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school, often unable to attend college, work, or join the military. Like Martinez, they are described as belonging to the 1.5 generation – first generation immigrants who came to the United States at a young age and are culturally American, with more in common with second-generation Americans.

After another Texas high school valedictorian, Lara Ibarra, announced her academic accomplishments on Twitter alongside the fact that she is an undocumented immigrant, she removed herself from social media after she was harassed with racist messages. One person Tweeted a picture of what looked like a tip to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

With the threat of racist harassment or alienation looming, Martinez said she was nervous to deliver her speech. But upon learning of her secret, her classmates gave her a standing ovation. "A part of me feels like I was meant to do this," Martinez said about her speech. She intends to enter the pre-med program at Yale with hopes of becoming a neurosurgeon.

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