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‘Reward at the end of the journey’: Mexican-born NHS grads become U.S. citizens
Posted 2/3/23

Rafael Mancera and Janneth (Rodriguez) Clay holding small american flagsChildhood friends Janneth (Rodriguez) Clay and Rafael Mancera graduated together from Newton High School in May 2012. 

In December 2022, the pair graduated together again. This time, from a course to become U.S. citizens.

Both Clay and Mancera immigrated to Newton from Mexico as young children and their story is similar to many.

Their journey

Clay came to Newton with her family at only 6 months old. 

“The American dream for my parents was for us children to achieve our highest potential, that being economically, rights, liberty, and education,” Clay said. “Something I would not have had a chance to do in our country of origin.”

Growing up, Spanish was the primary language of their household. Clay says she struggled in preschool and elementary school at first. She was shy and often scared as she did not fully understand everyone else and nobody fully understood her. She can recall being made fun of for her lack of understanding or socioeconomic status.

Clay went to Slate Creek Elementary and has fond memories of her English Language Learners teachers.

“The wonderful teachers were what made me succeed,” Clay said.

While also challenging, being bilingual brought opportunities. Clay remembers soaking in the English language and in turn, helping translate for her parents and other English language learners in the community.

Translating between languages is still something she does in her job as a medical sonographer.

“The relief on their faces when someone speaks Spanish is so rewarding,” Clay said. “I remember a particular student had moved here in middle school from Mexico and I was already fluent. I was able to help her feel welcome.”

When asked what she would tell another student in a similar situation, she said to not give up. The process took her 29 years, nearly the length of her life.

“This is what your family brought you here for, or you brought yourself for,” she said. “To give yourself a better life, and I promise you the reward at the end of the journey is beyond rewarding. Anything is possible, ‘SI SE PUEDE,’ especially in this great country.”

Further, she advises starting with DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy as a starting point to get an education, a driver’s license and have work authorization before continuing the path to citizenship. 

Mancera was also born in Mexico. His family moved to Newton in 1998, when he was 4.

Mancera’s family chose Newton since they had other family here already. They arrived with not much more than could fit in their family car. 

Growing up, Mancera only spoke Spanish. 

“Even in Pre-K I’m told that while I didn’t understand what was going on, I was always happy to be there,” he said. “I believe it was around Kindergarten when I picked English up. Kids learn languages easily and so I don’t really remember struggling on that front.”

Learning both languages came with its own challenges, including losing his ability to speak Spanish fluently, as his brain would go back and forth between languages, sometimes requiring long pauses.

As a teen, Mancera picked Spanish up again which would come to his advantage at Newton High School as he studied French.

“Both are romance languages and have many similarities when it comes to grammar and vocabulary,” Mancera said.

Being bilingual came in handy as Mancera entered the professional workforce later in life.

Mancera’s advice for anyone who is working toward citizenship is simple: stay out of trouble.

“You never know when a certain extralegal action can come back to bite you,” Mancera said. “While some crimes are worse than others, you never want to give the government a reason to question your integrity. Also keep records of where you lived, worked, and save, save, save money!”

The path to citizenship can be expensive when accounting for legal and government fees.

Life as citizens 

Now with their official citizenship, Clay and Mancera have the right to vote, travel and avoid the ongoing fear of deportation.

“I am able to give my children the life my parents wanted for us,” Clay said.

Mancera looks back at his time in Newton with pride.

“Honestly Newton was a great place to grow up,” Mancera said. “There’s a huge Hispanic community there and I have nothing but fond memories of my time in USD 373 as a student.” 

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