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Everyday Acts of Resistance: Centering Mexican, Undocumented Immigrant Children & Youth

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez University of Maryland, College Park


Guest Blogger: Yesenia Garcia-Murillo, PhD candidate, DePaul University; Bernadette Sánchez, PhD, University of Illinois at Chicago; Lidia Y. Monjaras-Gaytan, PhD candidate, DePaul University and Grevelin Ulerio, PhD student, DePaul University 


December 1, 2023

In this week’s blog Garcia-Murillo, Sanchez, Monjaras-Gaytan and Ulerio share insight from their Chicago-based study exploring the “critical junctures” in education for undocumented Mexican immigrant youth as well as the impact of adult mentors. By highlighting key moments of oppression in their educational journey and ways they benefited from the support and guidance of adults, this study demonstrates the everyday acts of resistance immigrant youth engage in and how we as adults can best advocate for them as they navigate the school system. These experiences of immigrant youth racialization and discrimination have been more recently documented in education resesearch as well and the failure of schools to address them. The research by Garcia-Murillo and colleagues is relevant for multiple disciplnes and connects with much work in sociology and education as well as psycology, especially the focus on supportive adults in schools.

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website. 



By Yesenia Garcia-Murillo, Bernadette Sánchez, Lidia Y. Monjaras-Gaytan and Grevelin Ulerio

Throughout the U.S. educational pipeline, immigrant students who are undocumented (i.e., immigrants who do not have citizenship, permanent-resident status, refugee status, or any of the temporary statuses provided by the U.S. government for long-term residence and work) are subject to institutional and interpersonal oppression (e.g., prohibited from speaking Spanish, treated as scapegoats, and experience verbal abuse). These forms of interpersonal and systemic oppression limit the developmental opportunities for undocumented immigrant children and adolescents. Despite these adversities, immigrant students who are undocumented engage in everyday forms of resistance, which include covert actions that undermine power and enable them to persist in the educational system. Mentors and resilience may help undocumented students navigate the educational system and resist oppression. For example, prior research shows that mentors, other caring adults, and peers are integral in the college application process of undocumented students. 

In our study, we examined two research questions:

  • What are the critical junctures in education in which Mexican, immigrant students who are undocumented experience oppression?

  • How do natural mentors and other adults support Mexican, undocumented immigrant students to overcome and resist oppression in their education?

How We Conducted Our Study

One-on-one interviews were conducted between 2014-2015 with 17 Mexican immigrants who had undocumented or DACA status, in which they provided retrospective accounts about their education in the U.S. The participants (age ranged from 18 to 27 years, the average age was 22.06) were recruited from two community-based organizations in Chicago; and they were between 1- and 10-years-old when they arrived in the U.S. from Mexico. Participants were asked to recount significant events that took place in their education, particularly related to their immigration status and educational milestones, from arrival to the U.S. to the present moment, and to reflect on adults who supported them during these significant events. In reflecting upon adults, participants were asked to identify natural mentors:

Think about any of these adults who are not your parents or somebody who raised you, nor a boyfriend or a girlfriend. Are (were) any of these adults someone who you can count on to be there for you, who believed in you and cared about you deeply, inspired you to do your best, and really influenced the things you do and the choices you make?

If participants answered “yes,” they were then asked about the ways these adults were supportive in their education. The questions were about the events that took place in their education and how they benefited from their guidance and support.

Key Findings

Participants reported multiple critical junctures during their education journey in which they experienced oppression:

  • Developmental milestones and school events: experiences that mark a developmental or significant stage in school in which the participants’ undocumented status threatened the milestone (e.g., field trips in middle school, internships or scholarship opportunities, the transition to high school, obtaining a driver’s license).

  • College application process: the ineligibility for federal financial aid or in some cases, not being able to enroll in college at all.

  • Unforeseen life events: life events that compounded their undocumented status, disrupted their education (e.g., house fire or flood, changing residences multiple times during academic year, FBI raid).

  • Incidents of direct/indirect racial discrimination: experiences of discrimination (due to their race/ethnicity or immigration status) that took place as early as elementary school and continued throughout their education when determining which high school to attend; during the college application process; and in their interactions with professors, classmates, or financial aid advisors.

Every participant reported at least one natural mentor, such as teachers, athletic coaches, religious figures, bosses, family members, and school counselors; and the number of mentors ranged between one and five. Besides mentors, some participants reported other adults who helped them resist oppression in their education, and as such, we report those examples.

Mentors and other adults helped participants resist oppression in their education by providing:

  • Emotional support: mentors provided empathy, genuine concern, and/or encouragement.

  • Instrumental support: tangible or practical aid (e.g., helping with college applications,  paperwork, or assignments; giving rides to interviews; or tutoring in English).

  • Role modeling: looking up to and being inspired by important adults and mentors who overcame challenges in their own lives.

  • Advocacy: requesting resources or utilizing their power (e.g., an elementary teacher advocated for a participant to be switched to a gifted classroom to promote her academic development).

  • Social Capital: connecting participants to resources, information, and opportunities (e.g.,  a professor forwarded a student’s resume to a colleague that resulted in the student being offered a summer research position).

  • Financial support: monetary support (e.g., paying for college tuition, college application fees, extracurricular activities).

Conclusions and Implications

This study is an important step in understanding the oppression experienced by Mexican students who are undocumented during critical junctures throughout their education, and the ways in which they resist this oppression with the support from mentors and other adults. Adults in school- and community-based settings can be trained on the needs of undocumented children and adolescents, the policies that limit their developmental opportunities, how to support and advocate for them, and the resources that are available to them as they consider, access, and navigate education.

Note: This blog post was originally published in the Society for Research and Adolescence, titled. The research article and a full citation list can be viewed [here

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Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S., Ramirez, G., Garcia-Murillo, Y., Sanchez, B., Monjaras-Gaytan, L., & Ulerio, G. (2023, December 1). Everyday Acts of Resistance: Mexican, Undocumented Immigrant Children and Adolescents Navigating Oppression with Mentor Support. Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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