A Life-Long Dreamer Finds Her Voice
Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:41
Photo courtesy of Brianda Reyes '14
Reyes served as editor-in-chief of The Student during one of the busiest years of news in recent Amherst history.

The paper you hold in your hands would not be what it is today without Brianda Reyes. The Student’s former editor-in-chief has left an indelible mark on not just the paper, but on the college and perhaps even the country. That all this happened before she turned 20 is impressive. That this is only a fragment of her life as an undocumented immigrant, a dreamer and student is extraordinary.

Finding Fluency

“From the age of about three to about eight and a half I lived in Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua. Ciudad Juárez was known as the murder capital of the world for a couple years. We lived there, then moved back to my birthplace for a year, and then after that we came to this country,” she recounted. “We got a temporary three month visa and then we just stayed after it expired.”

Life in Dallas was tense. Though she lived in a community of people with similar backgrounds and shared stories, “there was still a constant every day threat of being deported or having my dad be deported.”

The dichotomy between community and alienation constantly appeared in Reyes’ life.

“When I came to America I only knew a few words [of English] and those words were ‘I don’t speak English,’” she said.

Though her largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood made this livable, “school was different. I was in a bilingual class, but everyone else in my grade spoke English and … I had no idea what they were talking about. I was afraid everyone was talking about me so I said, ‘I need to learn English and I need to learn it fast and I need to learn it well.’”

With the same drive that would infect each aspect of her work and passions, nine-year-old Reyes dove headfirst into the language, practically drowning herself in it. However, she wasn’t content to just have a second language.

She wanted to speak without an accent: “I figured if I had an accent people would make fun of me. So for all of fifth grade — the first year that I had here — I would just breathe English. … I would just sort of string together sentences that made no sense but that had words that I knew. So I would just say, ‘the cat eats a donut,’ because I knew those words and I could put them in a sentence. When I was in the car I … would just talk to myself, and my parents were a little concerned because they couldn’t understand what I was saying.”

Reyes picked up the language at an extraordinary pace, and by seventh grade had placed out of ESL.

Reyes also realized very early how much her parents had sacrificed to bring her to America and better her life. She would not let them down.

“English for me was the language that was going to get me where I wanted to be. I wanted to achieve the American dream. I wasn’t going to be able to do [that] with Spanish only and I knew it.”

A Happy Accident

Reyes’ first foray into the news was an accident, perhaps the most fortunate one of her life. A lazy high school counselor and a scheduling mishap landed her in a journalism class.

“It took me a while, but I realized first that I was good at it and that second I liked it, in that order,” she said.She became an impassioned interviewer and writer, loving “interviewing people, writing and telling a story and just crafting something.” She took more classes, learning about other aspects of publication like design and editorship. Editing made perfect sense to the aspiring journalist, and as she moved into higher leadership positions, she gained more autonomy to write the stories she wanted, including editorials. Her senior year, Reyes wrote her final editorial: “I Am an Undocumented Student.”

“I kept [my legal status] hidden for a while — about three years — because I didn’t want them to judge me, because I thought it was something I should be ashamed of,” she said.

Unfortunately, some of the fear she felt was justified.

After publishing the piece, “I started to get a lot of hate from people. I was ranked pretty highly in my class at the time, and people would come up to me and say, ‘I hope you get deported. That way I can go up a spot.’”

It was her first time dealing with the more incendiary aspects of journalism, but certainly not her last.

College had been on Reyes’ mind since she was a child, but her undocumented status was a problem. Publicly funded schools require proof of residence. Reyes would also need substantial financial assistance. Amherst, among other prestigious institutions, wasn’t on her radar until after talking to a counselor at a summer journalism program, who introduced the idea of private, small, elite institutions.

“I hadn’t considered it at all after I applied to it. I crossed my fingers and things fell into place,” she said.

Voice of the Campus

At Amherst, Reyes immediately gravitated towards the news section of The Student. She was promoted to co-editor in two months, and eventually ascended to editor-in-chief. Three stories headlined Reyes’ time in charge: an Association of Amherst Students election scandal, former professor Carleen Basler being accused of plagiarism and Angie Epifano’s story. Emmett Knowlton ’15, Sports Editor under Reyes at the time, testified, “her work for The Student seems to me among the most important work done by any single student on campus.”

The 2012 AAS elections saw a complaint that voting tallies had been leaked prior to polls closing. With the help of trusted anonymous informant “Q” and former editor-in-chief Nihal Shrinath ’13, Reyes broke the story, but not before an involved party threatened to sue. A lawsuit could have meant undue attention for her family, and possible deportation, but she went ahead.

“Ultimately I think we did the right thing by publishing the story. I got my first real taste of public hatred, and it made me grow a thicker skin,” she said.

Mere weeks into the start of the 2012 fall semester, Reyes was called into an administrative meeting, where faculty cited concerns of plagiarism in then-professor Carleen Basler’s academic work. Reyes interviewed both students and administrators to tell a holistic story of the popular professor’s violation of academic honesty. Neither side was satisfied with Reyes’ article, thinking her either too harsh or too kind.

“People thought I had humanized her in a way that she didn’t deserve.”

Reyes recalled a friend’s supportive words: “If half think you’ve done too much and half think you’ve done too little, added up you’ve done just right.”

Breaking the Silence

Nothing Reyes had done previously would fully prepare her for Epifano’s story of sexual assault and subsequent disparagement by campus administrators.

Upon first receiving the story she recalled, “I turned off the TV, read it two or three times and then I called my mom, and I explained to her the story that I had gotten, and I told her that I knew exactly what I needed to do, but that it was extremely scary because I knew that Angie was making really powerful accusations that would have repercussions for people on campus.”

The article immediately garnered half a million views, was shared by people around the world and investigated by other journalists. In the ensuing media frenzy, Reyes was in constant contact with news outlets, many of whom asked about Amherst’s specific problem with sexual assault, “as if it only happened here,” she said.

“Across the country people were saying that this was similar to their experience. So I felt that it was doing a disservice to Amherst by painting it as though it was the black sheep of the colleges, but it was also doing a disservice to all of the other survivors.”

Not all of the attention Reyes received was positive. Alumni questioned her journalistic integrity. Ignorant comments about rape were posted on Epifano’s article. But it was worth it.

Reyes believes that the publication of the article contributed to the beginning of the drive for change in sexual misconduct policies on campus.

“I do think that the newspaper had a role in the things that are happening today. Before, there was no fire, and I think Angie’s article gave at least the students here the fire that they needed to push hard and to not take no for an answer,” she said.

Dreaming

With all that was happening at school, traveling home was a welcome relief — had the trip not been a three- day train ride. Getting pulled aside by TSA risked deportation, so Reyes took the train home rather than fly. It wasn’t just cramped seating and strange people that bothered Reyes most about the train, but “that for three days I was just reminded of everything I couldn’t do.”

She has made this trip four or five times over the years.

In 2012, Obama opened applications to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Reyes’ undocumented status had a temporary fix, and she is currently under deferred status. She can fly. She can get a job. The differences between her and citizens were slowly fading.

Her anchor through all of this was Noah Gordon ’14, and together they make the best couple on campus. Now planning their move together to New York City, they had their first date during orientation week their freshman year and have been together since.

“Brianda’s my favorite person on Earth. That’s pretty obvious. She’s my best friend. She’s my girlfriend,” Gordon said.

“Even though we’re very different, even though our behaviors are very different we’re very similar in our outlooks on life. How we feel about people. We enter a given situation and come out of it thinking the same thing.”

At the same time, Amherst still felt a little isolating. Gone were her fellow undocumented dreamers from Dallas, or so she thought.

Her status wasn’t known to many people here: “I was afraid that people would see me differently. I didn’t want to be the undocumented immigrant.”

However, after receiving an email asking if she’d like to be part of a reading of “DREAM Acts,” telling the stories of young undocumented people in America, she agreed despite acting being wildly outside her previous experiences. In that cast she met other people in her situation.

“Knowing that they existed, knowing that I wasn’t alone was amazing,” she said.

Her performance in the reading reflected her excitement, moderator Professor Ilan Stavans saying, “[With] a commanding stage presence that makes others feel comfortable, she’s a dreamer in every sense of the word.”

An Indelible Mark

I asked Gordon to describe Reyes off the cuff: “Brianda consistently amazes me more than any other person I know. She came to this country when she was nine. She learned English by middle school; she taught herself. Top of her class in an underfunded high school. The fact that she wound up here after all of that. I think it’s really, really amazing, and she’s astoundingly humble about it. She honestly doesn’t believe that it’s amazing even though to any outside observer she’s conquered more than any single person has in a lifetime.”

Anchor
Comments
Richard Horgan (not verified) says:
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 14:40

Does she, and-or Noah, have jobs lined up in NYC? If yes, are they with a media organization?

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