Apples fall far from the tree

By Wilson Criscione, News Writer

Elena Calderon had a choice.

She could either stay in the orchards in Mattawa, Wash., and pick fruit with her family, or she could face the challenges that being an undocumented student brings, such as going to college without the help of financial aid and not knowing if any employers would hire a non-citizen.

“There was a time when I wanted to just give up,” Calderon said. “Like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go. Why should I go if I can’t get a job when I’m older? Or maybe I’ll just go back to Mexico.’”

It was her older sister, Cricelia Calderon, who led her to Eastern Washington University, where they took advantage of every opportunity given to them. Now, both Elena and Cricelia Calderon are building a life for themselves and hope to improve conditions for their parents who still work in the orchards in Mattawa.

As a child, Elena Calderon would sleep in bins in an orchard and wake up at 4:30 a.m. to help her family pick apples, cherries or asparagus. She would work for a couple of hours each day making money for her family. During elementary and high school, she would spend her summers in the orchards and fields where the bathrooms were dirty and water was seldom provided.

She saw many of her friends drop out of school to work in the fields full time. Without a social security card and without having to go to school, they had a job waiting for them.

Elena Calderon almost chose that path.

But her older sister made sure that did not happen. Cricelia Calderon was already going to EWU with the help of scholarships, and she made sure Elena Calderon knew she could do the same.

“She’s just been my mentor through everything,” Elena Calderon said. “If it wasn’t for her and for her pushing me, like ‘Hey, have you turned in your stuff, have you done this,’ I probably wouldn’t [have gone to Eastern].”

In her time at EWU, Elena Calderon won Ms. Eastern in the 2011 homecoming royalty pageant, with her platform being to raise money for low-income Latino students.

She earned her undergraduate degree in community health, and she is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health at EWU.

Cricelia Calderon currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works in an employment justice center after getting her master’s degree in public administration at EWU in 2012. She says that ever since she was little, she was very determined.

After seeing the conditions she and her family lived in, she started thinking about how to improve her parents’ situation in the future. She relayed that desire to her younger sister as well.

Part of the reason Elena Calderon is studying public health is because she hopes to one day improve working conditions for people like her parents. She would like to eventually get a job which would get her parents out of the fields. There is a need for people working in those conditions to be educated about safety, Elena said.

Their dad is 56 years old, and their mom is 54.

“That’s the reason, I think, I’m going to school in the first place. Just to help out my family. That’s my main goal,” Elena Calderon said.

Cricelia Calderon echoes that statement. After seeing her parents being treated unfairly at work, she said it motivated her to do everything she could to make changes for her family.

Both Elena and Cricelia have been active in pursuing the passing of the Dream Act in Washington state, which was just passed on Feb. 26 and gives undocumented students access to financial aid.

These efforts have brought Elena Calderon into the spotlight. After speaking in a rally for the Dream Act at Eastern, she was featured in an article in The Spokesman-Review. And on Feb. 21, Spokane news station KXLY interviewed her on camera about the adversity being an undocumented student brings.

Telling people she is undocumented is still scary, but not like it used to be.

She remembers how horrified she was when a professor once asked her about being undocumented in front of the class. She ran home crying.

While becoming a citizen would be ideal, she cannot easily do this unless she gets married to a citizen. She is able to work in the U.S. due to a work permit, but she says there is no real path to citizenship available to her.

Going back to Mexico is not an option, she said, due to the poor conditions. When she hears from members of her extended family in Mexico, they often report people who have gone missing or have been murdered.

“I don’t think I’d make it back if I did [go to Mexico],” Elena Calderon said.

She and Cricelia are determined to succeed in the U.S., and together, they have come further than they may have thought possible.

“It becomes easier for other individuals when someone walks an unknown path,” Cricelia Calderon said. “I think that encourages other individuals that, if their sister or cousin did it, they can do it too.”