Shattering the Silence Undocumented Twins Share their Story
Brizzia and Maria Munoz Robles learned from a young age to never reveal their true identity, never talk about where they came from, never tell anyone where they were born.
When they crossed the border on a bus at age 5, they had to remember fake names. Their parents told them to stay inside, even to skip school, whenever immigration police came to town. Never open the door for strangers because it could lead to the whole family being deported back to Mexico.
“My mom said, ‘If you tell anyone, they’re going to call the police,’” Brizzia said. ‘“And they’re going to come knock on the door and we’re going to have to leave. We are not going to have anywhere to go.”’
Maria said she never told her best friend in Gardnerville, Nevada, that she wasn’t a citizen. Brizzia said she couldn’t say the word “undocumented” out loud until this year. They choked down their sadness when people made cruel jokes about immigrants, even when a fellow cross country runner said they should be good at jumping walls and running.
Both learned the art of the dodge. They avoided the subject of where they were born. They lied that they didn’t have time when friends questioned why they didn’t get a driver’s license after turning 16. And last year Maria never told her freshmen year roommate that she and her sister were part of the first group of undocumented students accepted to Notre Dame.
Then, this year — inspired by Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., a month before his death — they shattered a lifelong habit of silence in the most public way possible.
Brizzia and Maria were born in Zacatecas, Mexico. They have few memories of life there before leaving. They both remember their grandparents’ house as being overcrowded with their father’s eight siblings and their families. Brizzia recalls being hungry often and her mother peeling the skins off of beans so her children could eat them before they had teeth. Maria remembers that females were not respected in that environment; the twins had to stay in their room when male visitors came over. Both recall their mother’s admonition not to talk to men when they were sent to buy milk in the store in their small town.
Their father often left to do construction work in America. Their mother didn’t say where they were going when she took her three daughters on a bus to leave Zacatecas. Each was given a toy action figure to keep them playing quietly and told, “This is your new name.” Brizzia remembers how nervous her mother acted and how their scared little sister cried at the border checkpoint. They made it through, an experience the twins said their family does not discuss.
The family stayed for a time in Carson City, Nevada, before moving into the garage of their father’s boss in Gardnerville until he could build his own house. The girls knew growing up that they weren’t welcome in the U.S. because their parents kept them inside for weeks at a time whenever ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers did random checks in town.
“I did feel kind of unwanted,” Maria said. “I wasn’t sure how to take it as a kid, until I got older and it became clear why.”
They struggled in first grade because they couldn’t understand anything the teacher said. Through Head Start, the twins took English as a Second Language classes after school and became fluent in a few years. At home, their Spanish-speaking parents insisted they answer in English. They learned to tell people they were from Gardnerville to avoid suspicion.
“I remember one time, we were in art class,” Brizzia said. “This girl asked where we were born. I didn’t want to lie to her because she was my friend. I told her Mexico. She was like, ‘Oh,’ and she understood that was a bad thing. She said, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.’”
By junior high school, the twins had begun to excel at schoolwork. They played instruments — flute and saxophone — until they had to give up Honor Band to make room for AP Chemistry in high school. But trying anything new was always a risk. Going out for the cross country team led to new friends but also to more questions about where they were from.
Classmates and friends did not realize that their jokes or comments stung. The runners and their coach called one stretch “Border Patrol.” A student making a video in government class pretended to question them about their status, solely based on their color.
“We kind of played it off,” Maria said. “But all those things reminded me that it’s bad to be undocumented. Actually the term was ‘illegal alien.’ It implied I was doing something wrong just being there.”
College did not seem like an option to the twins despite being top students. They figured they might go to a nearby community college because financial aid would not be an option. “I was really motivated to do something to make my mom and dad proud,” Maria said. Their options changed in 2012 when President Obama created DACA status, which they soon received.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, status means they can legally work in the U.S., granting temporary cards that must be renewed every few years. DACA status also makes it easier to attend college, which is why these students are often known as DREAMers, the acronym of failed federal legislation to permanently legalize young immigrants.
Maria suggested they join QuestBridge, a program that helps low-income and first-generation students go to college. When their QuestBridge counselor saw that Notre Dame had just adopted a policy to admit undocumented students, she encouraged them to apply. The twins flew out in April of their high school senior year for an expenses-paid program called Spring Visitation that invites top students likely to be admitted.
Both said Notre Dame had a conservative reputation but felt like a real community. “After visiting, we were contacted by several faculty members who knew about our situation,” they later wrote. “It was the only school that directly reached out to us. The guidance we received gave us a sense of comfort and support that we’d never had when it came to our futures.”
They graduated in spring 2014 as the first twin valedictorians of Douglas High School. Both were accepted at Notre Dame and offered enough financial aid to make it possible. They were interviewed by local and national media, and decided not to mention their DACA status, noting that their hometown seemed so proud they were going to Notre Dame.
Brizzia and Maria landed in different residence halls on campus. As first-semester freshmen, they just tried to fit in. They had seen rude and racist comments from Notre Dame students on Facebook posts, but they decided it was just a few loudmouths.
Brizzia told her roommate about being among the first group of undocumented students, hoping to give the first impression “before anyone told her anything bad.” Maria overheard some conservative comments from her roommate and chose not to say anything.
“When you first meet people, it’s always in the back of your mind that they’re going to ask you where you’re from,” Maria said. “When you don’t share that huge part of you, and you just keep it in, it feels like you’re not being truthful or honest with someone else. It’s a burden that you have to cover up who you really are.”
Then in January, they met with Father Hesburgh, the former Notre Dame president who died in February. That meeting was set up by Juan Rangel ’15, who last year won the Rev. A. Leonard Collins, C.S.C., Award for his efforts to help Notre Dame students. Rangel wrote a recommendation on how to support students of high financial need, founded the Student Coalition for Immigration Advocacy, and was instrumental in Notre Dame’s decision to accept undocumented students.
During their meeting, the twins said Father Hesburgh talked about his decision to accept female students in 1972. “He said, ‘I proved everyone wrong that it was going to be a bad choice,’” Maria said. “And he said, ‘You guys will make this University proud as well.’ When I heard that, I took it to heart.”
“I thought, this man who everyone looks up to, he supports us. Then I think other people will support us and realize we’re not illegal aliens — that we’re humans — here trying to make a difference at the University.”
Soon after the Hesburgh meeting, Rangel set up a dinner for the DACA students with Dr. Luis Fraga, co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies, who urged them to share their status and story with other students.
“I told them I knew they were grateful to be here, but that they have the opportunity to help the University grow,” Fraga said. “To the extent that they share their stories, they can help us better and more deeply understand the experience of immigrants. That is a gift to the University.”
It was time.
The twins were enrolled in a one-credit issues class focusing on immigration through the Center for Social Concerns. They had decided to co-write their final paper, and at first they wrote a generic piece about immigration policy.
All ready to hand in the generic article, the twins reconsidered. The weight of conscience and words of Father Hesburgh and Dr. Fraga hit home. They ditched the generic piece and wrote their personal story, speaking openly about their status as undocumented students on campus. At the teacher’s urging, they allowed it be printed in The Observer, the school newspaper.
It was a courageous move, in some ways similar to the hard path gay and lesbian people travelled in coming out of the closet over the last few decades. But the choice was not easy. Some friends had advised against it. Other DACA students were afraid to join them as co-authors. Most hadn’t told their friends and feared the inevitable backlash.
“I felt rejected,” Maria said. “I was kind of pushy about it and angry, but then I realized they’re not comfortable yet. They don’t have a twin sister to help them through the ordeal.”
Telling their family was even more difficult. They were concerned about their sister in high school. Their parents were reluctant. “I kept telling my mom, ‘If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?’” Maria said.
They were a little surprised that the reaction to The Observer article was all positive. Putting a human face on the immigration debate seemed to help some students reconsider knee-jerk statements like “they’re taking our jobs” or “they came for free benefits.” A number of faculty members emailed offers of support.
Maria and Brizzia were feeling confident when a University staffer asked them if he could shop the article to larger newspapers. They said yes, and soon The Washington Post wanted to publish the article in May.
Brizzia said she was excited at first but then realized, “Oh, that’s nationwide.” She worried about her parents, that an article in the Post would be “like putting a bullseye on them, and they might get deported.” Their parents left the choice to them. The twins had already given the government their information when they applied for DACA status and financial aid, so it didn’t make sense to deport the family now.
They decided to publish.
“After it ran, my dad told us he was really happy about it,” Brizzia said. “A person he worked with, who is really conservative and always talked bad things about immigrants and Mexicans, that man came up to my dad and said, ‘I cried when I read your daughters’ story. I’m really proud of all they’ve done.’”
Friends at home began posting the article on Facebook. The local paper picked up the Post story and ran it, too.
Still, as expected in a year where presidential candidates have spoken of deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants and ending birthplace citizenship, there were nasty comments, too.
“I think it was good for me to read the negative comments,” Maria said. “At first, I was really hurt and said I wasn’t going to cry. But then I felt all that hate … that people felt this strongly about me being here. It was kind of a hill that I needed to overcome. Now when I tell people, I’m not scared. That fear has really left me.”
Over the summer, Maria said, her former roommate, the one she never told, sent her a message: “You deserve to be here and I’m so proud I had you as my roommate.”
This semester, the twins are roommates and both study chemical engineering. They said coming out of the closet about their DACA status has felt like lifting a burden off their shoulders. Brizzia said she’s no longer afraid to tell people or talk about herself. Maria said “it’s not terrifying any more” to share her true identity with others. Their relationships feel more genuine.
“They represent the best of American ideals and American hopes and the American dream,” Fraga said of the twins. “I was inspired by their courage. It gives me hope for the future.”
Wanted or not, they are now recognized leaders on campus. They met with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor when she visited campus this fall. The election season has them both concerned but ready to respond, as some candidates have chosen to demonize Mexican illegals.
It’s hard to make Brizzia and Maria Munoz Robles that villain. They want other students to discuss immigration, to ask questions and get to know them. They are putting a face on an abstract challenge, transforming “illegal aliens” into fellow students.
“I don’t think I’m a leader,” Maria said. “I feel more like I’m someone who will help the other students get to the same spot where I am. Just me and Brizzia alone, we’re not enough. But I feel if everyone else comes along, we can get more done.”