Austin valedictorian says tweet 'wasn't made to mock anyone'

Mayte Lara, speaking during the Crockett High School graduation.
Mayte Lara, speaking during the Crockett High School graduation.

Mayte Lara, a high school valedictorian in Texas whose tweet revealing she is "undocumented" went viral, is responding to critics.

In an interview with the Austin American-Statesman, the 17-year-old said she should have been more cautious about her word choice but said there seems to be a misunderstanding of what she was trying to communicate.

“The reason I posted that tweet was to show others that you can accomplish anything, regardless of the obstacles you have in front of you,” she said. “It was a common trend on Twitter to highlight your success through a tweet like that, and I saw many other students from across the country doing the same and sharing the things they’d overcome, so I thought I’d share mine.”

READ: Meet the girl behind the tweet, with full text of Lara’s statement here.

Lara said she was unprepared for the backlash she’s received.

“After seeing all the harassment going around, I thought it was best to just deactivate my Twitter account, in attempts to ignore the harmful comments,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to Twitter, I’ve realized that social media is filled with so many mean people who always have something to say. But I just want everyone to understand that my tweet wasn’t made to mock anyone. I just wanted to show that no matter what barriers you have in front of you, you can still succeed. And I do pay taxes, have a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) which allows me to work and study here, and I have a Social Security number.”

Lara, who not only graduated at the top of her class but also served as class president for the past two years and as the National Honor Society president, said she has lived in the U.S. most her life in Austin for 15 years. She says one of her greatest hardships is overcoming “the stereotype of people like me."

She went on to say, "Many people think that people like me can’t be successful. We have all the odds stacked against us, and I think it’s important to highlight the fact that anything is possible, regardless of your status. I’ve accomplishment things that most people wouldn’t think a person with my background could have, and I’m proud of that.”

She says she wants to become a resident and then a citizen “at any given opportunity” but said it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“Also, a lot of people think that because I used a Mexican flag emoji I’m not grateful for the opportunities this country has given me,” she said. “I’m extremely grateful. The only reason I used that emoji was to show that I’m proud of my heritage and to show that we can do great things. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love this country and the doors it’s opened up for me.”

The original tweet, which Lara deleted, said: “Valedictorian, 4.5GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I’m undocumented.” She graduated with honors Friday from Crockett High School.

Lara’s tweet went viral, with 20,000 likes and more than 9,000 retweets, including a barrage of negative and sometimes profane comments lodged against her, most calling for her to leave the country and angry about her University of Texas scholarship.

“I didn’t want all this to happen,” Lara told the American-Statesman Wednesday. “My tweet wasn’t made to mock anyone. I just wanted to show that no matter what barriers you have in front of you, you can still succeed.”

The criticisms keep coming.

DACA is an immigration policy that calls for deferred action for certain young people who came to the United States as children to enable them to work and study in the U.S. legally. Lara said she is afraid. She fears her family will be hurt and wants the attacks to stop. She has taken down her social media accounts and has been avoiding media, some of which have come from other parts of the country in search of her.

In a statement issued to the American-Statesman, UT spokesman Gary Susswein said federal privacy laws prevent the university from discussing individual students but addressed the scholarship.

“In accordance with state law, Texas universities — including the University of Texas schools —have for decades granted two-semester tuition waivers to valedictorians of Texas public high schools, without regard to their residency status,” Susswein said. “State law also does not distinguish between documented and undocumented graduates of Texas high schools in admissions and financial aid decisions. University policies reflect that law.”

Lara’s supporters, including some Austin district officials, have rallied around her.

“This is an individual who overcame big obstacles and achieved at high levels; that seems like the American dream to me,” said Ken Zarifis, president of teacher labor group Education Austin. “She has the right to be proud of herself.”

Trustee Paul Saldaña, who represents the area of Austin where Crockett is located: “I was deeply troubled to hear about the online bullies that recently trolled the social media account of Crockett High School’s valedictorian after she disclosed her immigration status. Sadly, there is nothing more un-American than denying compassion and decency towards a young student who has clearly demonstrated a commitment to academic excellence and education to improve the economic future for herself and family.”

Of the nearly 84,000 students in the Austin school district, there are 387 high school, 396 middle school and 1,670 elementary school students who are immigrants. The district does not ask the residency status of its students or their parents.

The district’s student services provided DREAM Act assistance to 5,053 students or former students from June 18, 2012, to Aug. 26, 2013. The DREAM, or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, legislation would provide a path toward legal status to immigrants who came to the U.S. without legal authorization as children, if they attend college or serve in the military.

Last year, Superintendent Paul Cruz, and multiple school board members, took photos holding signs that said, “I am an unafraid educator. I work with and for undocumented students.”

Online, others encouraged Lara, as well.

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