“Why are we here, Mom? How are we here?” is the question Lorella Praeli, American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) Deputy National Political Director and Director of Immigration Policy and Campaigns, once asked her mother about their status as undocumented immigrants.
Praeli, the Youth from Every Quarter speaker at Tuesday’s All-School Meeting (ASM), discussed the importance of power and choice, and her experiences both as a disabled woman and as an undocumented immigrant.
When she was just two years old, Praeli lost her right leg in the aftermath of a car accident.
In her speech, Praeli said, “My story goes back to when I was in Peru, where I was born. Two cars hit one another. One car came at me, and I was pinned against the wall, and that led to the amputation of my right leg, which led to many travels to the United States where I’ve had my medical treatment.”
For Adrian Lin ’22, the physical immediacy of Praeli’s accident made her story all the more important.
Lin said, “Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with having a missing leg, but I think it was a shock to everyone in the Chapel that she only had one leg. I feel like that just added to her story so much more and gave us a perspective into one of the greatest hardships she’s been through.”
Praeli explained that, because of her disability, which she referred to as a ‘diff-ability,’ she was cyberbullied in eighth grade through the online messaging service AoL.
“A year before I was was sitting in the seats of the freshmen in this room, I had these messages pop up on my computer, and they would say ‘pegleg106.’ I’d click on the profile and it’d say: ‘Lorella. Location: border hopper. Gadget: peg leg. Quote: Go back to where you came from,’” said Praeli.
Praeli continued by asking audience members to raise their hands if they would respond to her story about the loss of her leg by telling her, “I’m sorry.” The majority of the audience raised their hands, and Praeli invited them to question why they would respond in this way.
“What I want to tell you about people with disabilities, whether they be invisible or visible, is that you’ve got nothing to be sorry about, and that you being sorry for me actually is not building the kind of society that we want. Because what you communicate when you feel pity, or when you are sorry for someone who looks like me, is that there is something wrong with me. And there ain’t nothing wrong with me, y’all,” said Praeli.
Natalie Shen ’20 found Praeli’s message relatable and inspirational.
“One moment that really hit me… was when she was talking about how people open doors for her, or always tell her where the elevator is, and she’s like ‘I got it. I can do this.’ I definitely think that I was victim to putting sympathy or pity on those types of people, or just other people in general… So for her to be so strong and say, ‘I don’t need this kind of help. I will ask when I need help,’ I felt like that was super inspirational and that adds onto her personality,” said Shen.
Victoria Chen ’21 also found herself reevaluating her own response to these types of situations, following Praeli’s statements.
“She would say what happened to her, and people would just respond with ‘I’m sorry.’ Then, they’re just assuming that it’s a disadvantage, and I realized that I do that so often, too. When people say something bad has happened to them, I just say ‘I’m sorry,’ but I don’t know why I’m sorry. I’m just saying it since it’s that cliche response that we’re used to, and it really just means nothing. She really made me think about what I should really be saying in that situation,” said Chen.
During ASM, Praeli also discussed the difficulties stemming from her status as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.
One specific occasion that Praeli occurred during her junior year of college, when she was rear-ended while driving under a fake driver’s license.
“All of a sudden, I was shaking so much that I found myself frozen, and I could not dial for help. In that moment, I was on the side of the road, next to the highway, and I didn’t want to call 9-1-1, but what I wanted to do was to call someone who would tell me what I was supposed to tell the police when he or she arrived. I wanted someone in that moment to give me an answer. Do I show them my fake drivers license? What’s the story that I should tell today?” said Praeli.
This was not the only car trouble Praeli faced. While looking through her insurance documents, she discovered that she was paying too much for insurance on her car. Due to her undocumented status, Praeli had gone to a close friend to buy and insure a car for her family.
Praeli soon discovered that her friend ripped her off, and she was paying for three additional cars with her monthly installments.
“I didn’t feel like I could say anything because we were undocumented. And, ultimately, we weren’t the owners of that car, even though we had made a down payment. So I share that with you because that’s the experience that undocumented people face in the United States,” said Praeli.
Ultimately, Praeli realized that she had the power to help other undocumented immigrants in the United States, and she worked with former President Barack Obama to give 800,000 young immigrants work permits and protection from deportation. According to Praeli, anyone has the power to enact change, even if they’re young.
“Really, I want to talk to you about choice… Every moment, every day, you are confronted with a moment of choice. And the moment of choice for me in that moment was if I stay in the shadows, do I hide, and wait for someone to figure out how to fix this problem that I’ve got, or do I do something about it? And then, there’s this natural question of, ‘Can I do something about it?’ ” said Praeli.
Praeli continued, “You’re going to walk into rooms where people will look at you and they say, ‘Honey, you’re too young. I hear you, but you’re too young. Come and advocate when you’re older, or show me your degree first.’ You ever feel that way? ‘I’m not taken seriously because I’m too young’? And, well, okay, we’re young, but we’re going to get shit done.”