Like hundreds of other college freshmen on the Main Line, 19-year-old Liliana Velásquez is excited for the school year. But while other students at Montgomery County Community College might plan on joining a sports team, Velásquez’s extracurriculars will include promoting her new book.
Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas was published in May. In the book, she describes her escape to the United States, traveling over 2,000 miles from her hometown in Villaflor, Guatemala, to the Arizona border. She also details her adjustment to her eventual Pennsylvania home and what it was like attending Lower Merion High School and Central MontCo Technical High School.
Velásquez’s journey is not rare: According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection report, 59,692 immigrant children were caught traveling unaccompanied along the southern U.S. border in 2016.
“Before [publishing the book], I was nervous when I talked to people,” says Velásquez, who learned English in school. “But now I’m not—I don’t feel shy to talk in front of people.”
Now comfortable in front of a crowd, Velásquez has spoken in front of hundreds of people, at bookstores, churches and Spanish groups, says her book editor, Mark Lyons. This fall, at the Friends Council of Education’s annual teacher conference, Lyons and Velásquez will host a workshop on recording immigrants’ oral histories. “People love this kid. She’s just amazing,” Lyons says. “And they have all sorts of questions, and she loves answering them.”
Lyons hopes they can eventually get Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas into classrooms to serve as a catalyst for discussion on immigration. Professors at Cabrini College and Texas A&M will have include it on their syllabi this year, and the Spanish department at Lower Merion High School is still deciding where in their curriculum to use the book, which has Spanish and English versions on opposite pages.
While local teachers deliberate over her book as an educational tool, Velásquez also sees it as a therapeutic tool. “I feel like I put everything in the book, and I feel like my mind can relax a little bit. I can focus more, and I did focus more, on my studies,” she says.
Focusing on her studies was difficult at Lower Merion, with challenging classes and too many days of sitting alone in the cafeteria, says Velásquez. When she simultaneously enrolled in technical school, she met new friends and enjoyed the work in her health occupations classes.
“I really liked tech school. I was focused on thinking more about the future, what are you doing, and I really liked it, all the classes there,” says Velásquez, who hopes to have a career in nursing so she can one day help those in her village.
That’s a long way from her initial dream of working in North Carolina, where her brothers reside. Over the years, Velásquez has fought hard in courts to gain a green card, which was granted in 2014.
Now, the student whom Lyons called “a ravenous and disciplined self-teacher” is making her way in academia. She calls continuing her education “unbelievable,” even though she’s a little nervous about classes and not seeing her foster parents as much.
Nonetheless, she says, “I feel lucky and happy because I can do this and I have the opportunity to continue my education.” As she does so, she hopes to continue having an impact on some truly challenging topics.