Friday wasn't just the first day of March, it also was the first day of National Coming Out of the Shadows Month, a series of events celebrating and urging individuals to be unafraid to publicly identify themselves as undocumented immigrants.
The movement started in Chicago on March 10, 2010, with a march of undocumented youth at the Federal Plaza.
Two years later, a group of undocumented University of Illinois-Chicago students is organizing another event Thursday in response to vandalism recently found on a poster promoting National Coming Out of the Shadows Month. The phrase written on the poster in red ink said "[Bleeping] illegals."
Yaxal Sobrevilla, a 21-year-old junior majoring in communications, had hung the poster on a bulletin board at UIC's Rafael Cintrón Ortiz Latino Cultural Center in an area she said receives a lot of foot traffic from students on their way to classes and to the center's computer lab.
The center's staff contacted Sobrevilla about the vandalism Feb. 20. She said she thought of the idea to host an event responding to the incident almost immediately.
"It's been a perfect opportunity to address what is happening with the issue of undocumented individual and bring people together to start talking about these very serious issues that we tend to ignore," Sobrevilla said.
Center director Rosa Cabrera, who reported the vandalism to her superiors and campus police, said she also wanted to find a way to turn the negative incident into a positive.
"My first reaction was, ‘How do you take this incident and turn it into an opportunity?' " Cabrera said.
So she met with a group of student leaders who came up with the idea to create a response poster with large yellow arrows pointing to the original vandalized poster accompanied with the words "THIS will NOT stop us."
"Every time I see something like this, whether it's in the schools, or in the community, or in the news, it just affirms how much work there is to be done," Cabrera said. "This is a nation with a lot of diverse people and the question for the university--for all of us--is how do we make people understand the value of diversity?"
Sobrevilla and three other UIC students from the Undocumented Illinois coalition wrote an e-mail to UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares inviting her to Thursday's event and urging the administration to take a stance against the graffiti.
"The message was clear and shocking; it has served as a reminder that many forms of hate, including in this case, xenophobia, are present at UIC," the e-mail said. "It reminds us all that the issue of undocumented immigrants is not an isolated issue, and that it is not a Latino issue, it is an issue that transcends nationality and ethnicity. It reminds us all that the work being done at the university is not enough."
Allen-Meares responded with an e-mail¬¬¬ that said she is "fully committed to maintaining a community that values the inherent worth and dignity of every person, while fostering an environment of mutual respect among its diverse members," language that is similar to text from the Reaffirmation of Equal Employment Opportunity statement that the chancellor releases each year in compliance with university policy and federal and state law. She also said she would redistribute the statement to the university in the coming months and that she could not make it to the event herself but would send a representative from the Office for Access and Equity to attend on her behalf.
The vandalism on the poster falls in line with the university's definition of a hate crime as described on the UIC website: "Bias, prejudice, or hatred must be the motivation for committing the crime as evidenced by such things as racial or other slurs, comments, actions, or graffiti."
Immigrant Youth Justice League co-founder Uriel Sanchez, one of the students who e-mailed Allen-Meares, said he would like to see the university respond to the incident more directly and more quickly.
"For the university to say that they will respond to it in a couple of months is troubling," said Sanchez, a 22-year-old junior majoring in biological sciences. "If the university were serious about security and about providing a safe environment to their students, they would have put out a statement within the week addressing it."
Sanchez, who was 2 years old when his family moved to the U.S from Mexico in 1993, said the university's lack of a specific response to the incident sends a message that hateful speech against undocumented students will be tolerated by the administration.
"I pay for my tuition out of my own pocket. I've worked for so many years--my parents have worked so many years to try to get us here--and the fact that I'm going to be treated as less than other students, that's a slap in the face."
Still, Sanchez said he is proud to be a student at UIC.