“I’m only wearing this because I have to go to Immigration Court after this for my thesis,” Anahi D. Mendoza Pacheco says through a wide smile when we first meet. She has on a sparkly champagne scarf and a black and white textured blazer, pearl earrings too—perhaps a little dressy for the eclectic and brass-filled Café Algiers.\r\n
Because Mendoza is currently writing her thesis on immigrant criminalization, she goes to the Boston Immigration Court every Thursday and Friday. This mostly consists of watching “really sad cases,” Mendoza says solemnly.\r\n
At this point, I know only a few things about Mendoza: she’s a social studies concentrator in Quincy House and chair of Act on a Dream, a student organization that advocates for immigration reform and helps undocumented students at the College. But minutes into our conversation, I learn that her own experiences have been integral in shaping her extracurricular and academic pursuits.
“I’ve known I was undocumented since I was five,” Mendoza explains. “I came to the U.S. when I was four years old with my family from Mexico City. It was always something we talked about at family parties: ‘When is immigration reform going to pass?’”
Her undocumented status didn’t become a huge obstacle until later, when she wondered how she’d get from Southern California to Boston for college. She first heard of Act on a Dream from Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who reached out to the students he knew were undocumented and pointed them toward the group. Mendoza would come to co-direct the organization as a freshman.
On the job, Mendoza realized that undocumented students at Harvard “weren’t receiving the resources they needed.” In her time working with Act on a Dream, she has helped to create a handbook for undocumented students, hire an undocumented student coordinator, and set up a database with more than 2,000 scholarship opportunities.
But Mendoza’s involvement on campus certainly isn’t one-dimensional. As a freshman, she and her roommate, Reed E. McConnell ’15, decided they wanted to capture a voice that they hadn’t yet heard in the Harvard community. From that void sprung Manifesta, a magazine dedicated to the intersectionality of feminism and other issues, like race and religion, on campus. The magazine, according to Mendoza, was created “literally in [their] dorm room.”\r\n
The magazine started off with little support, but became a print publication during their sophomore year. “We felt like on-the-ground activism. Civil disobedience, that’s activism, but so is writing. You can see that with what’s happened with Manifesta,” she says, citing past articles that have achieved the type of consciousness-raising buzz they were looking for: one about Tyga’s YardFest appearance, another written by Asian American students about the October death threat emails.\r\n
Mendoza’s activist zeal hasn’t gone unnoticed. This summer, she received the White House’s “Champions of Change” award, and was invited to a reception at Vice President Joe Biden’s house in September. There, Vice President Biden called on Mendoza to make an impromptu speech about her work with Act on a Dream. He later apologized to her for the surprise, saying that he knew she’d do a great job regardless. “He was just so charismatic,” she recalls, beaming.\r\n
For all her success, it’s clear that Mendoza’s involvement stems from a genuine desire to serve. She mentions several times that she wishes Harvard students would stop worrying about “resume-builders.”\r\n
“Everyone has a path when they come [to Harvard], but I wanted to do what was really important to me,” she says. “I took the drive I felt in high school, and here put it towards ways in which I was just helping people.”\r\n
It’s unsurprising that Mendoza wants to do just that after college. She’s currently applying for an Immigrant Justice Corps fellowship, and plans to go to law school in a couple of years.
When our interview ends, we walk to the T together. She has to get to Immigration Court—it is a Thursday, after all.