TRUCKEE, Calif. — Marlenne Carrillo still remembers being told to put the bag of Oreo cookies back on the grocery store shelf.
“Something as simple as Oreos,” she said. “We couldn’t even buy that because we didn’t have enough money for groceries. I just remember being upset.”
As a girl growing up in Truckee, Marlenne’s life was thrown into turmoil in 2013 when her father was deported, forcing her mother to make a living for her and her three older brothers by working two jobs during the week and another during the weekend.
“Once he was deported, it was a lot more difficult to handle five children on my own,” said Carrillo’s mother Graciela Gonzalez, through a translator. “It was a difficult time. It was really hard on all of us, but that also served as the motivating factor for Carrillo to continue her studies.”
Now at age 21, Carrillo is finishing a prestigious congressional internship in Washington D.C., recently shook the hand of President Joe Biden, and in the spring will be the first member of her family to graduate from college. Plans are then to attend law school with an eye on becoming an immigration attorney.
Feeling out of place
Carrillo was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in the Tahoe-Truckee area after her parents moved for work.
She spoke Spanish at home and knew English outside of it, but said she never felt like she fit in anywhere.
“I felt out of place a lot when I was younger,” said Carrillo. “I was always speaking Spanish at home but it was never formal. So, when I’d go to school some of the Mexican kids would make fun of my grammar. That, honestly, was the root of the insecurity that I had with my culture because I wouldn’t speak Spanish the same.
“To be fair, the Mexican community brings their own people down sometimes by saying you are whitewashed or you’re nor Mexican enough for this,” she added. “You know, what is Mexican enough?”
At around the age of 12 her father was deported. Already having a difficult time, Marlenne’s grades fell as her home life imploded around her. Her mother, who used to stay at home, picked up two jobs during weekdays.
“It was a difficult time,” said her mother. “There was a lot of depression because they were used to having their father around, specifically the younger ones, Marlenne and her brother.”
Carrillo would only see her in the morning and for an hour after school.
“All I remember is they started pulling me out of class to go to support groups,” said Carrillo. “In my head I was like, ‘They’re just doing this because I’m a nice person. They want to check up on me and they do this to everybody.’ I never realized it was a support group because my dad was deported. I wasn’t doing good.”
Her father was sent to prison for roughly two years said Carrillo before being deported to Mexico. All the while, she lived the fear that the same may happen to her mother, and what may become of her and her brothers, all of which were born in the US.
“People in the community don’t know how big of an issue it is, and how they just come in and it becomes this huge fearful thing,” she said, adding she knew roughly 10 other kids that had parents deported. “My mom could be deported any day. It’s a terrifying thing.”
While her mother fought to keep the family afloat, Carrillo continued to struggle academically until one day the fighter that her mother said she always saw in her daughter was revealed.
Carrillo said she was in eighth grade working with a councilor to pick her classes for freshman year of high school. Because she had a friend already taking the class, Carrillo insisted on enrolling in honors English.
“I thought I could do it, and she pulled me aside and she just told me ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea for you,’” said Carrillo. “In my head I was like ‘OK, she’s just looking out for me.’ Then when I got to high school I realized like, damn, she really brought me down. She didn’t believe in me. I get it, my grades weren’t good, but for me was a trigger point.”
Carrillo would go on to post a 4.0 GPA her freshman year. She’d later meet Truckee High School teacher and director of La Fuerza Latina, Craig Rowe.
“All I knew was that he was this really intense teacher,” said Carrillo.
La Fuerza Latina helped provide Carrillo with resources and gave her a community. By the end of high school and with the guidance of Rowe, she’d land scholarships and become the first member of her family to go to be accepted to college.
Carrillo enrolled at San Diego State University, and now in her senior year is one of 25 undergraduates across the nation to be selected to head to Washington D.C. to serve as a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Intern.
“(Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) applied when she was younger and she didn’t get in,” joked Carrillo. “It’s just a very selective program. I did not expect to get in.”
Carrillo, who is studying political science and Chicano studies, said she never thought she’d be accepted to the program and when a phone call came asking for her to confirm something on the application, she thought nothing of it.
“I asked them when do we find out if we were accepted,” she said.
The voice on the other end responded by saying he was confirming the application because she had already been accepted.
“I started crying,” said Carrillo. “The first person I texted was Mr. Rowe.”
First time in D.C.
For the past few months, Carrillo has been working with U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, from California’s 34th congressional district, and his team.
She’s spent her first time in the nation’s capital taking 90 minute subway rides from her home to work, and then sitting in on briefings centered on topics like immigration and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — subjects near to her heart.
“I feel like I’ve always been into community work, activism, and politics my entire life, but I started realizing everything I’ve done has been me working toward getting my dad back,” said Carrillo. “That’s a super emotional and intense thing to realize. I was trying really hard to become what I thought was successful and to support my family, but I realized that my dad being deported still affects me to this day, and I realized everything I’ve done has actually been done for me to be able to bring my dad back.”
Carrillo said she didn’t see her father until five years after he was first deported.
“It was hard not seeing him after five years,” she added. “He wasn’t the same. He’s working everyday, getting older, getting more tired and everything.
“Every time, no matter how many times I’ve seem my dad, every time I see him I always cry because it’s not the same,” she said. “It gets harder and harder for me because it makes me realize the years are moving and I have to do what I have to get done.”
While she’s called her time in Washington a “great experience,” it’s also been eye-opening in terms of the political process.
“I’ve always been on the path to becoming an immigration attorney and to go to law school,” she said. “It kind of more solidified me not wanting to go into politics. I thought at some point that I would run for representative, and then I saw how slow it was and how sometimes ineffective it can be. We’re so disconnected.”
Though somewhat soured from her time in the nation’s capital, Carrillo said the past few months have been beneficial in helping to learn more about herself.
“I’ve learned to become more understanding,” she said. “When I speak with constituents or when I’m responding to letters, it’s very eye opening to have these people be reaching out. It’s just very deep to be able to hear other people’s stories, and it’s impactful. It reminds me of why I do this.”
Working toward a better future
Carrillo will now prepare to for graduation in May, and said she plans to then apply for law school in 2023.
“It makes me very proud of her, seeing that she’s in that position,” said her brother Luis Carrillo. “She could have gone down a completely different path. It’s a motivating factor for myself to see myself as well to see my sister doing that.”
Following law school, Carrillo said she wants to work as an immigration attorney with an aim at criminal justice, civil rights, and employment law reform.
“I know she’s going to do good things with her life,” said her mother. “I know she’s going to move forward in spite of everything that has happened to us. She’s a fighter. It’s a good way of putting it for our people specifically. Especially with all the struggles we go through in the Latin community. She just wants to help other people in a similar situation as ours.”