Larissa Martinez was introduced to Donald Trump the same way millions of people her age were: via his hit TV show, The Apprentice. “I used to think he was so cool,” the eighteen-year-old recalled. That initial impression didn’t last.
It’s been seven years since Martinez first laid eyes on the presumptive Republican nominee’s impossible coif while sitting in front of her family’s television set in Mexico. A lot has changed for both Trump and Martinez. Trump has gone from reality-TV star and business mogul to a presidential candidate. Martinez moved from Mexico to McKinney, where she excelled in academics and eventually became the valedictorian of McKinney Boyd High School’s class of 2016. But during her valedictory speech in June, Trump was still on her mind.
In light of the GOP candidate’s comments that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and drug dealers, Martinez was moved to make a remarkable admission. At the commencement ceremony, Martinez told the audience of graduates, parents, and teachers packed into Prestonwood Baptist Church a secret that she’d long been carrying: she is one of the nearly two million undocumented immigrants living in the state of Texas.
“The most important part of the debate and the part most often overlooked is the fact that immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, are people too,” Martinez said in her speech. “America can be great again without the construction of a wall built on hatred and prejudice.” Her speech quickly went viral.
“With everything going on politically, I knew it was the best time for me to tell everyone,” she recently explained to Texas Monthly. “I was going to be speaking to the largest audience that I’d ever seen. I couldn’t think of a better time to do it. There would never be another time where that large of a crowd would be listening to me. Sometimes I feel that here in McKinney, it’s easy to forget about all the things that affect our country.”
And once “cool guy” Trump’s escalating hateful rhetoric was the final straw for Martinez. “To him and to the people who support him, the moment you say you’re undocumented, or as they like to call us ‘illegal aliens,’ they just shut down,” she said. “They stop listening. To them, just being undocumented, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you’ve overcome or how hard you’ve been trying to become an American, it doesn’t matter.”
Martinez’s speech might have challenged Trump’s stereotype of an undocumented immigrant, but her story could be an even more powerful lesson on the state of immigration in the United States. In 2009 Martinez and her family began preparing to come to the U.S. For a year, Martinez and her mother began squirreling away money and secretly packing their belongings. In the summer of 2010, Martinez, her mother, and her younger sister boarded a plane to Dallas. Their tourist visas allowed them each six months of legal residency in the United States.
What Trump seemingly doesn’t understand, though, is that Martinez and her family weren’t trying to game the system—they had begun the process of trying to immigrate legally more than two years before their move to Texas. Martinez’s grandfather, a U.S. citizen, sponsored the petition to allow Martinez, her mother, and her sister to come to the United States, where they would seek permanent citizenship.
“When we moved here, they tell you that if you go to the immigration office and tell them you’re in the country, that you live inside the U.S., it’s supposed to go faster,” Martinez recalled. “We gave them our information, and they told us they were working on cases from 1996 at that time. When I went back last December to check in on my case, they were still working on cases from 1996.”
Despite their legal limbo, the family moved in with an aunt in McKinney, and Martinez enrolled in Cockrill Middle School as a seventh grader. “I didn’t know anyone, and my English wasn’t very good back then,” she said. “Participating was difficult. I didn’t like raising my hand or saying things in class. I was always self-conscious of saying things wrong. I would just sit there in the back, trying not to bring attention to myself.”
By the time she enrolled in high school, Martinez was beginning to stand out among her peers. In one class, a teacher showed students how to calculate their grade point averages. When Martinez showed the teacher her GPA, the teacher assured her that she’d calculated it incorrectly, and rechecked it only to get the same result. “Knowing my background and where I am from, there are people who will subconsciously assume that it’s not possible that I can be smart,” Martinez said.
Her peers were equally skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated by the quiet young woman who was coming for their place at the head of the class. “I think the rudest comments came from classmates,” she said. “They would never say it to my face, but I would always hear that people would say that they were better than that wetback, that beaner. They didn’t know [I was undocumented], but because I’m Mexican they assumed I was undocumented, and they used it as a derogatory term.”
Throughout high school, Martinez lived with the constant fear that she or her mother could be deported back to Mexico. Even so, Martinez continued to excel in high school. After her freshman year, when class rankings were released, she started to believe that she could be the valedictorian. Her academic success continued, and the summer before her senior year, Martinez and her mother boarded a Greyhound bus—they’re not able to fly—and headed to New Haven, Connecticut, to visit Yale University. It was the first time she’d ever been to the East Coast.
When she got to campus, she and her mother spoke with an admissions officer about the application process. “We asked if it was even worth it for me to apply to Yale because I am undocumented, or if there was no possibility of me getting in,” she said. “I was assured that Yale didn’t care about that. That if I showed resilience and hard work and had everything else that they required, then my status wouldn’t matter.”
It didn’t. By the end of her senior year, her 4.5 GPA earned her a full-ride scholarship to Yale, and a few months before graduation, Martinez learned that she was at the very top of her graduating class.
Martinez says that outside of a few snide tweets and conservative blog posts, the response to her speech has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages on Facebook and Instagram from people contacting me to congratulate me,” she said. “I haven’t had a single person directly message me or go out of their way to say something hateful to me.”
She doesn’t have much time to dwell on Donald Trump or her own viral success as she prepares to head to Yale in the coming weeks, where she’ll be one of only sixty incoming freshmen selected to participate in a special summer program that allows them to take classes early. In the fall, she’ll begin taking prerequisites for the pre-medicine track, double-majoring in cognitive science and political science.
Martinez ultimately wants to become a neurosurgeon, but she wants to use her college years to learn about the American political system. “I know this might be my last opportunity to really learn about politics. Yale is known for their political science department, so I feel like it would be a wasted opportunity if I didn’t,” she said. “If I’m going to spend the rest of my life learning about medicine, I also want to be able to participate politically.”
But even as she earns her degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, Martinez is still stuck in immigration purgatory until her case is resolved. Martinez is not eligible for citizenship under the DREAM Act, which extends only to immigrants who came to the United States before 2007, though she is currently looking into other visa options. Should Donald Trump be elected to the presidency in November, her future becomes decidedly more complicated.
But for now, she’s preparing for a bittersweet send-off to New Haven. “Sometimes I can’t believe how far we’ve gotten, how far we’ve come from where we started,” Martinez said. “It’s exciting, but I’m sad knowing that I’m going to leave my mom. We’re more than mother and daughter. She’s my best friend and I’m hers,” she said. “It still hasn’t really even dawned on me that I got into Yale. I’ll be sitting there watching with my TV and I’ll say, ‘Hey, Mom, guess what? I got into Yale!’ And we always both laugh. It’s going to be difficult, but we’ve planned for this. We’re ready.”