To be 21 years old, undocumented, gay, and a resident of Jewell, Ore., population 994, takes some brass, but Ulises Olvera wins hearts and minds with a quiet confidence and winning smile.
Originally from Michoacan, Mexico, Olvera and his mother and sister moved to Jewell in 2000 to join Olvera’s father who had migrated earlier to work as a dishwasher at Camp 18, the logging museum and restaurant that defines Elsie, Ore. When he migrated, Ulises was seven years old and spoke only Spanish.
“Jewell is a great place to grow up,” he said, “because everyone knows everyone.”
That’s an understatement. The K-12 Jewell School is the only school in the district and it has a Seaside, Ore., address because Jewell no longer has a post office. There were 16 people in Olvera’s high school graduation class. When he was a senior and his youngest sister was approaching pre-school, Olvera knew who would teach her and who would mentor her because he had had the same teachers and role models. “Knowing who would be in her life every day keeps me connected.” And with three younger sisters, now 6, 11 and 18, the connections have been unbroken for 12 years.
The small town atmosphere might beg the question: Which is harder? Being gay or being undocumented in a town of 994 people? For Olvera, neither classification seemed to get in the way.
“My mom’s first real concern was knowing I had to learn a new language,” he said. “For me, I always knew it would be a struggle. I worked to blend in with classmates, but as people got to know me as an individual, they encouraged me and supported me. I was accepted for who I was. Being gay and being undocumented just didn’t seem to matter.”
Friends who embrace you when you are seven and who grow up with you in a supportive and loving community are often immune to the bigotry and intolerance found in larger communities, but the fear parents have for their gay children is universal.
“My parents are Roman Catholic and my Dad worried that I would be the black sheep of the family,” he said. “It also mattered that I was the oldest of his children and the only male. I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I knew I had to be myself.”
Olvera also knew that education was the path to a better life, but for him, the path was financially daunting. His parents weren’t able to help and because he was undocumented and didn’t have a Social Security number, he couldn’t apply for federal aid. He couldn’t even get a driver’s license.
This is when life got really interesting for Olvera. While he was being shut out of the system that badgered him for being “illegal,” he was embraced by the gay community and found financial support in a $5,000 scholarship awarded by the Pride Foundation. That scholarship, which Olvera will use next year when he transfers to Portland State University, cracked open a world of opportunity and second chances.
Olvera is now a full-time student at Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus. He works two jobs, at Jack in the Box and at the Queer Resource Center at Rock Creek. He serves on several student committees while he studies for a degree in psychology. The major might change, but his interest in a career in student development is firm.
He said, “I have gotten to know Mandy Ellertson, Josh Peters McBride and Lida Rafia (all employed in the student leadership area at Rock Creek) and they are my mentors. They are why I want to focus on student development and work with college students. I want to become a mixture of these three people.”
The possibilities of Olvera reaching his career goals improved significantly last June when President Barack Obama announced a new policy that means current undocumented students who meet certain requirements are eligible for renewable two-year deferments of any action that could lead to deportation. It also means the right to apply for a work permit and a driver’s license.
“My first thought when I heard the news was that I had to call my dad,” he said. “Everyone was excited and happy. We talked about the fact that more good things would come, but we still had to work very hard. I’m already a role model and my parents are very proud of me and of what I’ve accomplished.”
When asked what advice he would give a younger version of himself, Olvera said, “Never give up. Stay true to yourself. And as Dory says in “Finding Nemo,” keep swimming.”