Finding a seat at the table
April 9, 2015
Eight — nights in jail, one for every time they caught him at the border.
Six — students sitting at “the table for outcasts” back when he couldn’t speak much English.
Three — younger siblings watching him become the first in his family to finish college.
One —undocumented immigrant named Jose Salazar.
He lets out a soft laugh as he mentions that he was only eight years old when he, his younger brother and his mother spent a night in jail each time they were caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
“They put us in a room, and he told the immigration officer that one day he would become president of the United States,” Maria Arenas, Salazar’s mother, said.
Although she knows that her son — an undocumented immigrant, a full-time employee, an engineering student at a four-year university — may never actually become president of the U.S., she is proud of her son’s most recent achievement.
Come June 1, Jose Salazar will officially take office as president of the Associated Students Inc. at California State University, Long Beach.
“I feel like I belong to Long Beach, because I was raised here,” Salazar says with a gentle grin that — like Salazar — doesn’t quit.
Clad in a pastel-colored, button-down shirt that rests beneath a gray suit, Salazar shares his tale of searching for acceptance in the U.S.
After making it across the border on their ninth attempt, Salazar and his family spent about two months in Arizona before moving to Long Beach. He began middle school where he was one of very few who spoke only Spanish.
“Everyone used to bully me and push me around,” Salazar said, describing his experience at Newcomb Academy. “I remember I was such an outcast that we had a table just for the outcasts and I was one of those, there were six of us.”
These days, Salazar frequently sits at a table with the leaders of the student government at CSULB. Over the course of the past year, he has served as the ASI senator of engineering; in this role, Salazar learned that he has a passion for serving his fellow students.
“At the end of the day … it’s not about friendships,” Salazar said. “It’s about getting work done.” He said that, although he has been lucky to become friends with many members of ASI, he plans to focus on his job before his friendships while he is president.
ASI President Joseph Phillips has already begun the process of preparing Salazar for the official transfer of power.
In the wake of leaving a mark by overseeing the opening of the campus’ new Dream Success Center for undocumented students, Phillips watched as Salazar vied for the executive office, still butting heads with the rejection he experienced as a child.
“On the campaign, he faced a lot of racism, a lot of bad comments, and he just kept going,” Phillips said. “Everyday he was out there tabling, even though people were saying that stuff. I’m proud of him.”
Phillips said Salazar never takes no for an answer, no matter what his “status” is.
“[Being undocumented] might have been something he [campaigned] on to say, ‘Hey, I’m this person, this is who I am,’” Phillips said. “And that took a lot guts … a lot of people don’t really come out and say, ‘Look, I’m undocumented.’”
Finding his place at the head of the CSULB student body, Salazar says he feels obligated to inspire young individuals who also struggle to belong.
He draws strength from his mother, who brought him to the city he calls home — no matter how many times they were sent back, she didn’t settle.
“There is always good and rough times,” Arenas said. “But for me, [Jose] will always be … noble, responsible, educated and polite. He can reach his goals because he believes in himself.”
*Photos by Michael Ares