In eighth grade, Geraldine Ledezma didn’t know she was undocumented. She was just a teenager who wanted to go on a school trip to Spain.
When her parents said no, Ledezma persisted. All her classmates at Collinswood Language Academy were going, and her teachers were hyping it up — even helping her find ways to make going less expensive. But her parents still refused.
“I was just really upset because I was like, ‘No, we're doing fundraising, you don't understand, I will find the money,'” she said.
Then, her parents sat her down. It wasn’t about the money, they said. You can’t travel. You can’t do certain things.
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“It was really hard for me to even understand it, just because that's not a subject that we had ever touched before, or that I had even really heard about in school or came up with my friends,” she said. “It was always kind of like a joke, but it wasn't something like, ‘Oh this is my reality.’ So I didn't really know how to handle it.”
Four years later, Ledezma is graduating from South Mecklenburg High School.
She’s come to terms with her undocumented status and is protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, which allows her to drive and work, and protects her from deportation.
Critics have called DACA an amnesty blanket for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally, but supporters say the program gives limited protections and is only applicable to a small group of people. President Donald Trump announced last year that the policy would end, but court injunctions have allowed DACA recipients to keep their legal status.
Ledezma's journey to graduation hasn't been easy. Her mother brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a toddler; her father was already in the country at the time. She has two siblings, a sister in fifth grade and a brother in kindergarten, both of whom were born here.
Attending South Meck was a culture shock for Ledezma. Both her elementary and middle schools were small, tight-knit and primarily other people of color, with few white students. South Meck, on the other hand, has around 3,000 students, with white students being the largest racial group at 35 percent; Hispanic students are at 34 percent.
Ledezma said that sometimes her classes were filled with other students of color, but said sometimes students get "unlucky" and can be the only one in their class.
“If you're sitting in a table where nobody looks like you when you do school projects or stuff like that, it seems like you kind of have to show them that you're smart enough to be in that class with them,” she said. “They don’t trust you as much.”
On "Day Without Immigrants" last year, Ledezma said white students yelled slurs at some of her classmates who had walked out. South Mecklenburg Principal Maureen Furr said she didn't hear the language.
Though Ledezma said that day displayed the clear tensions within South Meck, most issues are more subtle, like a substitute teacher who once told an ESL student to stop speaking Spanish.
Ledezma said she’s been lucky. A friend's father was sent to a detention center in Georgia after getting a speeding ticket. He was the only person in the family who worked and took the children to school. Now, her friend is in danger of failing out of school because she has no way to get there.
These are the issues Ledezma wants to speak out about.
During her freshman year, she got involved with Urban Promise, a faith-based education and literacy center that offers ESL classes, after-school programs and summer camps around Charlotte, primarily serving people of color.
That's how she met her mentor, first-grade teacher Claudia Margaroli, who has known Ledezma for a little more than a year. She said she’s inspired by Ledezma every day, by her hard work and perseverance even when the odds are stacked against her.
Ledezma speaks at various panels and forums about immigration issues, including this year’s Charlotte Women’s March, where she addressed immigration policy. In the fall, she plans to attend Lenoir-Rhyne University. She wants to be a teacher, but her end goal is to run for political office and work toward improving educational equality in Charlotte.
“I'm so excited to see everything that she's going to accomplish,” Margaroli said. “I'm so excited for her future, because I know, there's no part of me that doubts that Geraldine is going to change our world.”
About this series
The Observer asked readers and others for suggestions of standout graduates. Today, we start a series of stories about students who illustrate a range of accomplishments, including some who overcame significant obstacles.