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Marilyn Alvarado ’16: Immigrant Advocate

“My dad is Honduran and my mom is Salvadoran. I’m the last of five siblings and the only one who was born in New York,” says Marilyn Alvarado ’16. “Immigration has always been very central to my life.” At John Jay, this experience led her to an internship with the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project (U-LAMP), created by Associate Professor Isabel Martinez, Ph.D., and then to immigrant advocacy, including working with the Safe Passage Project and the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Through ASAP, she reunited an immigrant family, a story covered by the Washington Post.

“My dad is Honduran and my mom is Salvadoran. I’m the last of five siblings and the only one who was born in New York. Immigration has always been very central to my life.” —Marilyn Alvarado ’16

How did you get involved with U-LAMP?
I had my own lived experience navigating the immigration system from a really young age—having to translate documents for my parents. So, when I heard about this organization that was helping predominantly Central American youth, I immediately gravitated toward it. Dr. Martinez wanted me to be a part of U-LAMP, but it didn’t have funding at first and I couldn’t work for free. My last year at John Jay, she came to me and said there was funding. I was going to be a paid U-LAMP intern and we were both really happy.

What was it like working with U-LAMP?
The people I met at U-LAMP could have easily been my family members. I served as an interpreter for folks who couldn’t speak English and was a liaison to unaccompanied minors adjusting to a new country. It can be very traumatic navigating these systems as a child. Some of our clients were as young as five.

“I was able to help with the reunification of a Guatemalan woman who was separated from her child for two and a half years.” —Marilyn Alvarado ’16

What was it like working with children that young?
I worked with a five-year-old boy from Honduras. His mother had experienced significant trauma. He was such a sweet kid. Sometimes when his mom started crying, he would hold her face in his hands to make her feel better. Other times, he’d run around the office and play with toys, just like any other kid. I figured out that he loved talking about his favorite foods. His eyes brightened up when I mentioned baleadas—a traditional Honduran dish with a tortilla, refined beans, cheese, and eggs. After I left the program, I found out that he won asylum, which was really heartwarming for me.

Marilyn Alvarado
Marilyn Alvarado

Can you share a career highlight?
At ASAP, I was able to help with the reunification of a Guatemalan woman who was separated from her child for two and a half years. We did not know if she was going to be re-detained when she came back, even though her lawsuit stipulated that she could return. I prepped her with everything I could think of, even with the uncertainty of the outcome. Luckily, the reunification at the airport was a really smooth process and a heart-touching moment. Then came the heavy work of repairing the relationship with her son at such a formative time in his life.

“Food is the one thing that brings us all together—food is universal, food evokes comfort, food is that little piece of home that brings us happiness.” —Marilyn Alvarado ’16

What are your hopes for the future?
I decided to step away from immigration work because I was experiencing severe burnout from directly handling so many traumatic cases. I still want to help my community and embrace my culture, so I’m going to go to culinary school. Part of being in the Central American diaspora is that you don’t really feel like you’re from here (the US), but you’re also not from there (Central America). Food is the one thing that brings us all together—food is universal, food evokes comfort, food is that little piece of home that brings us happiness. I want to make a cookbook with my mom and share traditional Salvadoran dishes. In the future, I’d like to host a cooking class from Honduras. Just thinking about passing on these recipes is exciting to me.

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