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Meet The Teen Whose Valedictory Speech Went Viral

bill zeeble
Larissa Martinez, standing by a celebratory balloon, her home-made Yale plaque, her graduation speech, and a childhood photo of her.

McKinney Boyd High Valedictorian Larissa Martinez went viral this month when she revealed her undocumented status in her graduation speech. The 19-year-old says her decision to talk wasn’t hers alone. 

She lives in McKinney with her mom and younger sister. After talking it over with her mother, she got the OK for her graduation speech.  

“I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States.  I decided to stand before you today because this might be my only chance to convey the truth to all of you that undocumented immigrants are people too,” Larissa told her graduation class.  

That speech rocketed across social media. It’s been seen by hundreds of thousands of people and sparked a feisty debate.

Larissa’s family left Mexico City six years ago, fleeing an alcoholic father. Other relatives were living legally in McKinney, so it became the destination. Larissa says anywhere in the U.S. would’ve been OK.

“When I was little and my grandmother would ask me, ‘Larissa what do you want to do when you grow up?’ I would answer, ‘Oh, I want to be an American when I grow up.’ So I mean I’ve always had this dream of America being a place where you could come with dreams and make them come true,” Larissa said.

It was hard. Larissa says her mom filled out papers to become legal and was told there was a 15-year wait. It might speed up because relatives were already here, she learned, but that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, the teenager identified with the plight of her mother.  

“I know what it’s like to live without insurance and to - every day -wonder what if my 10-year-old sister breaks [her] leg? Where are we going to get the money from or, like, how are we going to take her to the hospital?  What would we do? So I know what it’s like to not know,” Larissa said.

Then she added “the system is broken.” Now that a lot of people do know her story, her history teacher and mentor, Scott Martin, hopes it changes some minds of those who want all undocumented immigrants deported.

“She helped to open my mind more and she helped to open my heart more,” Martin said. “And I thought maybe if she could open some minds and open some hearts, people would consider being more open-minded and open-hearted.”

There is a system to help young, undocumented immigrants who are called Dreamers. DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, lets qualified students avoid deportation for a time. Larissa doesn’t qualify because she arrived three years too late. Miguel Solis, a Dallas school trustee who also helps train Hispanic leaders, says she should qualify.

“By her telling her story,” Solis explains, “I can guarantee you there’ll be a multiplier effect for even more undocumented students who know the system isn’t working for them, to come out of the shadows and say we demand something different.”

For Larissa, the next stop on this journey is Yale, a private school that can give an undocumented student a full-ride scholarship. She heads to New Haven in August

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.