“Where are you from?” is generally an easy enough question to answer – unless you are Mayra or Miriam Medina Macias, 22-year-old twin sisters who are seniors at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Technically, they are from Mexico, since that’s where they were born. But at age 5 they moved to be near family in Colorado and then to Austin, Minn., when they were 10. So are they from Mexico? From the United States? From a small town in rural Minnesota or a big city? The answer to all of these questions, it turns out, is “yes.”
“I feel like both cultures really embody me,” Miriam said. As one might expect with twins, Mayra agrees. “I have bits and pieces of both that make me up,” she echoed.
Adding to the complexity of their identities is their recently changed immigration status. Until last September, Miriam and Mayra were undocumented immigrants. Unlike their American counterparts, they couldn’t legally work or apply for federal financial aid, making tuition unaffordable. They couldn’t get a driver’s license and couldn’t live off campus because they had no renter’s credit.
But they could apply to college, and Miriam did so through The Common Application. She hadn’t considered Augsburg specifically, but when she received a letter from them indicating she might qualify for full tuition, Miriam encouraged Mayra to apply. Both sisters were accepted and started attending classes in the fall of 2010.
Their parents, who had moved from Mexico primarily to secure a better education for their children, were supportive. “There wasn’t ever really doubt in them, which helped us not to have doubt ourselves,” Miriam said.
New work status
Although officially college students, it was possible that their status as undocumented immigrants would mean that they wouldn’t be able to legally work in the United States after graduating. “Maybe that fear did cross our minds,” Miriam said, although returning to Mexico to work was a backup plan, she added.
That fear was replaced by relief in June 2012 when the Obama administration announced an initiative called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA offers a renewable, two-year reprieve from deportation, and it also offers work authorization for those who qualify.
Mayra and Miriam’s DACA applications were approved, and the women joked that their “DACAmented” status means that they will be able to put their degrees to good use when they graduate in April.
They will likely have plenty of options: Mayra has a triple major in communication studies, film production and studio art, while Miriam has a double major in communication studies and studio art, with a minor in youth and family ministry.
In fact, both women are already employed in Minneapolis and may stay on at their current sites after graduation. Mayra is an entry-level paralegal at Igbanugo Partners Int’l Law Firm and Miriam is a chiropractic assistant at Lake Street Chiropractic.
Breaking down stereotypes
When they aren’t working or studying, Miriam and Mayra are creating art, particularly ceramics, photographs and paintings. For their senior show last fall, they focused on questions of identity – Mayra with a photography exhibit entitled “Am I Illegal?” and Miriam with a series of self-portraits done in acrylic paint called “Reflejos.”
Mayra’s exhibit included the faces of 20 Latinos ages 18 to 30. Several people from diverse cultures participated in an artist-led discussion about stereotypes of illegal immigrants.
“This project really made me re-evaulate my own stereotypes that I have about other people, and how quick we are to judge and classify,” Mayra said. “That’s not helpful to us because those stereotypes put up this wall for us to actually get to know someone and who they really are.”
Although their personal experiences have been primarily positive, both Mayra and Miriam are aware of wider cultural stereotypes that paint illegal immigrants as short, uneducated, dark-skinned people with broken English, they said.
“We hear all the time, ‘You don’t look Mexican, you don’t sound like you’re Mexican,'” Miriam said. While that doesn’t feel insulting, she said, “it just shows you how people are quick to generalize.”
Miriam’s exhibit challenged those generalizations by placing her portrait within backgrounds that included an American flag and a city skyline as well as a Mexican flag with an Aztec calendar. “I’m not from one place,” Miriam said.
Susan Boecher is an Augsburg art professor who teaches photography and who worked with Mayra and Miriam on their projects. “[They] are dedicated students … who are passionate about family and culture,” Boecher said. “They used issues of identity and culture to produce really compelling artwork.”
While most students focus simply on getting an assignment done, Miriam’s and Mayra’s work engaged viewers and fostered a greater dialogue, something Boecher considers very rare among student artists.
“It takes a unique student to be doing that much self-examination,” Boecher said.
Although the twins’ exhibit is no longer on display, their reflection continues.
“I’m at a point right now where I want to see the world in a different way,” Mayra said. “I want to see people more with love, I want to see people with compassion, I want to see people for who they are instead of having this first impression.”