Every year in the United States, there are many families who are separated because a family member is deported.
Deportation can be a result of a variety of instances, from committing terrorist crimes to being convicted of certain crimes.
Carlos Zelaya was 8 years old when his father was deported to Mexico.
His father’s deportation was a result of a drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence.
“Until the age of eight my grandma raised me, my dad was in the picture but he was an alcoholic and a drug dealer,” said Zelaya. “From what I remember my mom telling me, he broke her jaw, broke her arm and he would hurt me, my brothers and sisters.”
Beginning from age 8 until about 15, Zelaya never lived in one place for more than two years. He lived in various places along the West Coast, including Fullerton, Anaheim, Oregon and Washington.
There are many experiences that help define Zelaya as an individual today, he said, but a crucial moment that resonates occurred when he was 15 years old.
“I was unjustly thrown into a rehabilitation center, despite never having touched drugs,” Zelaya said. “My parents sent me there for two years because my stepfather and I had a troublesome relationship.”
During that time, Zelaya’s stepfather was training to become a California Highway Patrol Officer, and often used his training to physically harm Zelaya.
“When I rebelled against the degrading and humiliating treatment and sought help from my mother, she sided with him. She took the abuse further by trying to make me obedient through unnecessary medication which I refused to take,” he said.
Zelaya ran away from home and filed domestic violence charges against his parents. He said authorities did not believe him and as a result his stepfather sent him to a rehabilitation center in Mexico.
After two years of being incarcerated in a place that according to Zelaya was ran by drug dealers, he escaped.
“I hid for three months in Mexico; working and saving money to fund my return to California,” Zelaya said.
Eventually, Zelaya reached his grandmother’s house in Fullerton. Once back in the United States, he was unable to find an attorney for a person in his situation, so Zelaya represented himself in court.
“It took three months for the courts to vindicate me, thereby emancipating me from my mother,” Zelaya said.
After getting a full-time job at a shoe store, Zelaya wanted to get his life together and refused to be held back.
He tried enrolling at a local high school but was denied due to a shortage in credits.
“I persisted and found ACCESS, a community day school, which allowed me to continue my education at an accelerated rate. I took advantage of every resource available in achieving a diploma,” Zelaya said.
After two years with ACCESS, where he gained four years’ worth of credits, Zelaya graduated with a 3.5 GPA and was the keynote speaker at his graduation.
Zelaya went on to enroll at Fullerton College after graduation.
“Enrolling at Fullerton College was the next step towards the right path. The atmosphere, the constant progress, and the ability to look at a problem through various viewpoints, and come up with a plan of action astounded me,” he said.
Zelaya’s time at Fullerton College wasn’t always positive. He often had to sleep in his car or on friends’ couches, since he did not have a home.
Zelaya spent two years at a transitional housing program called Lake View Aisle during his time at Fullerton College.
“For about two years I was living in a transitional housing program for former foster youth. That program gave me stable housing. Somewhere where I could keep my things and not worry about them being stolen. Where I could sleep at night and not worry about having a roof over my head and having blankets to keep me warm,” he said.
Zelaya said if it wasn’t for the program he probably would have dropped out of school.
“It was really difficult. But either way I made it. I graduated with an A.A. in sociology from Fullerton College,” Zelaya said.
The field of sociology became Zelaya’s passion, he said, because it helped him understand some of the experiences he had in the past.
What he learned, he said, was somewhat therapeutic.
“One of the main reasons why it became my passion was because it helped me understand that a lot of things I went through weren’t necessarily my fault. In a way it has been therapeutic. There were a lot of things out of my control because of my age, because of my background. But now I’m older,” Zelaya said.
Zelaya is now a junior sociology major at Cal State Fullerton. He is also a Guardian Scholar at the university.
The Guardian Scholars program was established at CSUF in 1998, in collaboration with the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, to help former foster youth achieve their educational and career goals.
Zelaya currently works at the Fullerton College EOPS program and Orangewood Children’s Foundation.
Zelaya is also a project director for an event called Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week through the Volunteer and Service Center.
Zelaya, along with co-project director Mary Basco, help host a series of special events, such as exhibits, resource fairs and discussions to bring awareness to the issues of hunger and homelessness.
Basco said working with Zelaya on this event has been very amazing because he is dedicated to the cause.
“When I first met Carlos he seemed really upbeat and a really funny guy and then he turned into a super dedicated person who just has a lot of fire and a lot of drive for what he is doing and that’s really awesome,” said Basco.
Carolina Franco, a student assistant at the Volunteer and Service Center, also works with Zelaya.
She said he seemed like a really interesting character when she first met him last August during a retreat event.
“When I first met Carlos, I saw him interacting with other students and the conversations he was having so he just seemed really passionate about a lot of different issues especially education and impoverished youth,” said Franco. “He just seemed really outgoing and ready to dive right into what the Volunteer and Service Center had to offer.”
For Zelaya, directing an event like Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week was a way to make a difference in the community.
“My main purpose as to why I got involved was because I wanted to do something where I could reach out to my community and do something where I could use my own experiences to teach others,” Zelaya said.
In the future, Zelaya hopes to become a sociology college professor and continue to work with foster youth.
He said he wants to use his experiences to help those around him.
“I’m trying to do whatever I can to make sure that I don’t end up being just another statistic,” Zelaya said. “If I can help them get out of bad situations, if I can help them overcome whatever bad situation they’ve gone through, I’m willing to do it.”