The Immigrants’ Daughter

By Ambar Pardilla

Wendy Bonilla

Wendy Bonilla discusses how her own experiences as a Latina living in Los Angeles shaped her advocacy for Latino and immigration issues in D.C. (Photo by Ambar Pardilla)

When Wendy Bonilla was growing up in Los Angeles, she saw how her father, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador because of the country’s civil war, struggled to learn English. While her parents built their own business, creating colorful neon signs, Bonilla heard stories about the mistreatment her father faced at work for not understanding English.

Bonilla tried to ignore the insults but she eventually decided to suppress her roots—refusing to speak in Spanish and rejecting her Salvadoran culture. It wasn’t until her last year as an undergraduate, when she met her “hard-core Salvadoran” best friend, that Bonilla began to accept herself and her heritage.

“She taught me that it was okay to be Latina, to be Salvadoran, to be different from everybody else. The negativity that I grew up seeing and hearing didn’t define me,” Bonilla said. “I defined who I was and the type of Latina that I was going to be and I define how people were going to portray me in society. So it wasn’t until then that I really started to embrace my Salvadoran side.”

Bonilla, now 26 and in her second year at the Washington College of Law, has not only come to embrace her experiences as a Latina but carries her culture in her activism for Latino and immigration issues as president of the Latino/a Law Students’ Association (LALSA).

Along with other activists, Bonilla worries about the actions President Donald Trump and his administration will announce that affect undocumented immigrants, including the potential stripping away some of the protections they have, and Latinos, especially concerning their access to education, across the country.

But for Bonilla, who previously worked as a legal assistant helping people petition for their relatives once they were sponsored by an employer, the possibility that Congress could pass legislation that will limit family petitions troubles her.

“Removing the accessibility to be able to unite families is one of my biggest fears because the way it’s set up right now we don’t know if one day Congress will decide we need to get rid of this or we need to get rid of that,” Bonilla said. “The elimination of the pathways to reunify families is what, at least personally, conflicts me and makes me terrified.”

Although Bonilla always knew that she would attend law school, after seeing her sister, who is an undocumented immigrant, lose out on opportunities because of her lack of legal status, she made it her mission to understand the issues immigrants face and become involved with causes in the immigrant community.

Following her first protest in California, where she fought against in-state tuition increases that would have impacted undocumented immigrants and their ability to afford to go to college, Bonilla discovered different organizations like UnidosUS and started to show up at advocacy workshops for immigration issues.

Bonilla then continued the activism that she started in California as she commenced classes at law school. But in the beginning, Bonilla felt that she didn’t belong and turned to LALSA for encouragement.

According to its webpage, LALSA, which was known as the Hispanic Law Students’ Association (HLSA) from 1984 to 2006, “provides a forum for Latino/a issues, both international and domestic, that are important to current students of the American University, Washington College of Law (WCL).”

As president of LALSA, Bonilla has tried to “foster an environment where the rest of the Latinos on campus would feel welcome in a support network and always have somebody to go to.”

She has overseen the organization’s mentorship program, which pairs upperclassmen with first-year students, response to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) decision, which developed into a teach-in with the university’s Immigrant Justice Clinic for students to understand their rights, and fundraising efforts to collect scholarship funds for high school students to apply and attend college.

“Being a part of LALSA is honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in law school because it makes me feel like I’m actually giving back to my community,” Bonilla said. “I feel like it’s addressing a lot of the issues that I saw growing up but didn’t think of until I was way older and actually began to comprehend.”

Along with the support Bonilla has found within LALSA, she has also felt a sense of comfort among the Salvadoran community in Washington, D.C. Bonilla said that she jokes with her parents that she doesn’t miss home because of all the Salvadorans around her.

“I may not have my family but my culture is throughout the city,” Bonilla said.

From marching at protests to writing letters, Bonilla has pushed for her two passions with immigration and education. She hopes that reforms can expand access to education for Latino students and undocumented immigrants like her sister, who would “go to college tomorrow if she could.”

According to Bonilla, misunderstandings about Latinos in the media develop into negative depictions of who they are, including their contributions to their communities.

“I would really like to push for positive highlights of our community and our contributions as well as really educating the public as to who Latinos are, that we don’t all come from Mexico, that there’s so many countries, there’s so many communities throughout the United States alone where you can find people from all of these countries,” Bonilla said. “Not everybody knows where people come from, they don’t know the difference or they don’t bother to know the difference and I really like to see that change.”

Throughout her adolescence, Bonilla said she struggled with the misconceptions surrounding Latinos and doesn’t want “to see other Latinos and Latinas as they grow up see the negativity associated with being who we are because of something that’s written in the media that we just can’t get rid of.”

“People should really stop assuming that Latinos aren’t aware of what’s going on out there. They shouldn’t underestimate the power in our voices,” Bonilla said. “Instead of talking down on them, it’s better to understand where they’re coming from and to really get to the root of why a lot Latinos have immigrated here and have stayed here and why, despite all the negativity that’s said, we still remain.”

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