As I walked in the office of Liliana Javier Zamora at the end of September 2023, she was helping a young girl who was new to the school and her mother gather resources for local healthcare.
The student had arrived in the state a week before.
Her office is welcoming with fabrics, artifacts, and buckets of dulces (a traditional candy), all representing the many cultures now found in the Morganton community.
When she smiles at the student, I can tell the student and her parent feel welcomed.
“We all have the American dream,” Zamora said.
‘I was just a kid trying to fit in, trying to learn the ways and get used to things‘
Born in Mexico City, Mexico, Zamora arrived in Morganton when she was 11. Knowing only the basics in English, she started sixth grade at Liberty Middle School, which at the time, she said, “had only five Hispanic (students) in the entire school.”
Zamora was paired with a fellow bilingual student, who showed her the ways of everything, she said. Slowly her confidence built in this new environment.
She went on to attend Robert L. Patton High School, and by that time, she remembers school as fun. She enjoyed learning, and it was easier to embrace all of the opportunities around her.
But, as her senior year rolled around, reality struck. Her peers were meeting with counselors, getting their driver’s licenses, and preparing for college.
“As an immigrant, I did Driver’s Ed, but I couldn’t go get a license because I didn’t have a social (security number),” she remembered.
Zamora says her senior year was a very hard time for her, dealing with the realization that many of her dreams would have to come to a temporary halt.
She graduated and worked as a babysitter.
All of that changed on June 15, 2012, when DACA was announced. DACA stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” and it allowed people who came to the United States as children and met certain guidelines to request consideration of deferred action for 2 years, subject to renewal.
Zamora’s request for DACA was granted, and with it she again found the hope that she could pursue her dreams.
‘It was tough, and it took me a little bit longer than most people, but I did it!‘
Zamora got a job and her driver’s license, but most importantly, she was now able to pursue her dream of higher education at her local community college.
In her last semester of community college, she found out she was pregnant.
Hers was a high-risk pregnancy, and she welcomed her son into the world at 32 weeks. Adrian spent his first 100 days in the hospital, and the first three years of his life he was in and out of surgeries, doctors visits, and therapies.
Zamora had stopped out of college, but once Adrian was healthy, she started working part-time at Walter Johnson Middle School in the cafeteria.
But she found herself doing more than just serving food to the students.
The middle school knew, Zamora said, that she was one of the few billingual staff members. This was when she started working as a translator for students, parents, and sometimes teachers.
She finished community college, receiving her associates degree in the arts.
‘I have a thing for helping people‘
Soon after, the school hired Zamora as a parent educator, a position she has had for three years now.
“Our main purpose is to connect the families and engage them with the school, and be that person that they trust,” said Zamora.
She sees her life story reflected in the students and families she serves, who come to the U.S in search of a better life, with their families knowing little about American culture.
“I tell them my story,” she said. “I’m like ,’Guys, I came here not knowing any English or knowing any ounce of the culture. I’m like, if I did it, you guys can do it, and you can do it way better than me.’”
Zamora’s empathy with her students — she calls them “her kiddos”– is strong. She understands their frustration and reminds them to be patient with themselves.
She reminds people how Latino culture is warm and inviting, and how her kiddos thrive in environments where that can be felt — like in her office.
For newcomers at the school, she said, it is important they are greeted with people who can fundamentally understand their needs. Representation, she believes, is key to curating an environment where students can thrive and excel in all aspects of life, not just education.
“Just to know that there’s someone who has the same skin color, that there’s someone who understands their culture — and American culture — creates a much bigger bond,” Zamora said.
Same goes for the parents. Zamora encourages parent involvement, but can empathize with the difficulties and challenges that may come with acclimating to the American school system.
She has a phone dedicated to communication with parents, keeping in constant contact and staying up to date with schedule changes, car rides, and more.
‘That’s my dream, if everybody could just put themselves in the other person’s shoes and think of the differences’
Currently, because of legal challenges, initial DACA requests and related employment authorizations are not being granted, according to this website.
Zamora worries for the future of her students, and she strongly encourages them to advocate for themselves and to not lose sight of their dreams.
“Just do well in school and improve on things, learn English,” she tells them. “Don’t get in trouble and prove that you need a chance, prove that you deserve a chance, and that it’s all worth it.”
Zamora’s primary goal is to educate surrounding communities about the struggles many immigrant families face.
“When all you want is for you and your family to have a better life, that’s all you want,” she said.
As she walked around the school, it was clear just how much Zamora’s students love her. Dozens of kids stopped to give her a hug and to chat with her about their day.
The excitement you can see in these children’s eyes is undeniable.
And in Zamora, they see a helper and a leader.
Her leadership in her schools and this community bridges a gap between different cultures, creating space for students and parents to advocate for their dreams.
She leaves her kiddos with this message:
Volando alto sin olvidar de donde vengo.
I fly high, but I’m not forgetting where I came from.
Stick to your roots and stay grounded is her advice.
Here are resources about DACA.
Here is a podcast about parent educators, featuring Zamora.