In Norma Valenzuela’s office at New Mexico Highlands University, where she is an assistant professor of Spanish, she keeps a copy on her desk of a movie she frequently shows to her students.
The movie is “Harvest of Empire,” a 2012 documentary exploring the mid- and later parts of the 20th century, when the United States under some circumstances often encouraged immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries.
“The documentary talks about contributions that Mexicans and immigrants from other Latin American countries have made, and continue to make to the United States,” Norma Valenzuela said.
As one of five high-achieving sisters, three of whom arrived as undocumented residents to the U.S. from Mexico, she believes the United States should place more of its focus on the contributions.
The sisters said they were dismayed with “negative and misleading” images of Mexican immigrants and wanted to tell their stories.
“Immigrants are portrayed with such images of negativity,” Norma Valenzuela said. “I’m not saying there aren’t some bad apples, but to paint an entire culture with one discriminatory brush is wrong; it keeps stereotypes going, pitting groups against groups, and it is not helpful.”
All the sisters earned degrees from the University of New Mexico. Three became educators, and one an admissions adviser at UNM, while a fifth sister pursued a career in the private sector.
Jose Valenzuela, the 78-year-old patriarch of the family, first came to the U.S. as a young man in 1962, as part of the Bracero program, which was created during World War II to help the U.S. deal with a manpower shortage in agricultural production, and which ended in 1964.
Valenzuela later returned to the U.S. in 1979, bringing his wife, Jeronima and daughters Norma, Elisabeth and Mercedes to Albuquerque, where the family existed as undocumented residents for almost eight years.
Then, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which provided a legal pathway for millions of undocumented immigrants to be in the country and also created a path to citizenship.
In Albuquerque, two more daughters, Maribel and Lucy, were born.
Since then, the three eldest daughters have become naturalized citizens.
And just last year, Jose completed the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.
Jeronima Valenzuela, 61, is a permanent resident, and recently retired after 20 years of working as a custodian at the University of New Mexico.
Daughter Norma said, “In all areas and disciplines, immigrants have made tremendous contributions. And from a personal point of view, I am very proud of the contributions that myself and my family have made to the successes in this country.”
Growing up first in Albuquerque’s South Valley, and later in the North Valley, Norma and her sisters learned early the value of a good education.
Norma recalled that as a young girl, she, Elisabeth and Mercedes accompanied their mother to clean homes. She said it didn’t take long for the work to make a lasting impression.
“I remember going with my mom and sisters to clean homes, offices, hotels, offices, clinics, or to do yardwork,” Norma said. “Through these experiences, we learned that type of physical labor was not for us.”
“At the same time, our mother and father instilled in us the passion and love for our own language and culture,” she said. “And seeing how arduously our parents worked, we understood the importance of pursuing an education.”
After earning her associate and bachelor’s degrees from UNM, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in Spanish from Arizona State University, Norma went on to become a college professor and academic adviser.
She has since mentored many students at UNM, Arizona State and Kansas State, she said.
One student she advised, Sandra Valdez, said in a telephone interview that as an undergraduate student at Arizona State University, she saw a lot of herself in Norma Valenzuela.
“I was also a first-generation student born in Mexico, and the first one in my family to graduate from high school,” Valdez said. “I struggled at first, but because of Norma caring so much for myself and her other students, I was able get through and succeed in college.”
Meanwhile, Elisabeth Valenzuela, 43, after earning her bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees from UNM, later worked as a higher education adjunct professor, and as a teacher and principal in the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Elisabeth said that though there was no DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program when she was young, she deeply identifies with today’s “Dreamers,” who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children. Today, their immigration status in this country remains in limbo.
“For most of these kids, the only country they’ve ever known is this country,” she said. “For these students who see themselves as Americans, I think they should get amnesty and receive status as legal citizens of the United States.”
Maribel Valenzuela, 37, noted she was the first of the sisters to be born in the United States. She earned a master’s degree in political science from UNM and is now working in the private sector.
Maribel, who lives in northern New York state, said she encounters many misconceptions about immigrant families, noting that many of the contributions of immigrants to this country are often not recognized.
“I share my family’s story as often as I can to as many people as I can in the hopes that people will see a different perspective about immigrants,” she said.
Mercedes Valenzuela, 42, said she was 3 when her family came to Albuquerque in 1979.
“When we were growing up, it was in the shadows,” Mercedes said. “We never talked about citizenship. Our mom told us to never say anything, keep it a secret, because if we didn’t they would come and pick us up and deport us.”
Even though she and her sister Elisabeth became citizens in 1995, Mercedes said she still carries her U.S. passport everywhere she goes.
Mercedes received her master’s degree in Spanish literature. She later taught Spanish and English as a second language at Albuquerque Public Schools.
“My objective has always been to help my many students understand that they come from a great civilization and culture, and from people who did great things,” she said. “I always tell them to follow their dreams and don’t let anything stop them.”
Lucy Valenzuela, at 29 the youngest sibling, said she works as an admissions adviser at the University of New Mexico.
While recognizing the sacrifices made by their parents, the sisters also credit the influence of family friends Matthew, Andrea and Rita Padilla, who mentored and offered scholarship support to them.
“I would also love for people to understand the sacrifices that some people make to come here to this country to follow their dreams,” she said.