Meet a DREAMer who never let his status get in the way of education

On the first day of fall semester of 2012, the Florida International University campus was crawling with eager freshman.

Missing from their ranks, however, was Tómas Monzón, a graduate of South Miami Senior High’s Class of 2012. Monzón was surfing the web, watching his friends post on Facebook about how excited they were.

Only a few months before, Monzón was planning to move to his hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina after graduation, the place he was born and where he lived until age 6.

He was a DREAMer expecting to return to his mother country 11 years after his parents, Marcelo Monzón and Maria Guaitima, took advantage of a three-month visa waiver to visit Miami.

Marcelo Monzón had worked for Telefónica, but could only do odd jobs such as painting and installing flooring while Guaitima left her job as an accountant to clean houses.

“What I did, it wasn’t for me. Every sacrifice that we made was for Tomas,” Guaitima said.

After their visa expired, the family stayed, and Monzón became a DREAMer, the name associated with undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States and kept here illegally by no fault of their own.

It was only a year or two later that he finally began to understand the consequences.

He was forced to learn English, make new friends and he could not return to Argentina to see his grandparents.

“He suffered, especially at school because he couldn’t communicate very well,” Guaitima said. “But my son is very persistent. In three months he was out of ESL (English as a Second Language).”

In elementary school, Monzón knew his situation was different from others, but he did not think much about it. As an average-sized boy, he was occasionally bullied in school, but no more than others and not because he was an immigrant.

During his senior year, Monzón decided to move back to Argentina rather than remain in the United States undocumented.

“I legally wanted to do the right thing,” Monzón said. “It was the righteous thing to move back to Argentina. I am outgoing and adventurous, and I thought of moving back as pursuing an adventure elsewhere.”

Despite his plans, his teachers and counselors at South Miami continued to encourage him to stay and study. While it frustrated him that they could not appreciate his plan to return to Argentina, Monzón said, “It was a beautiful thing and a beautiful memory to receive so much support.”

“My son was my rock, my support. I cried every single day.” Guaitima said. “He deserved the chance to do something. It was tough.”

Only a few weeks after graduation, while watching a report on CNN, Monzón first heard about President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Also known as DACA, it grants a two-year visa to children brought to the United States by their parents as minors.

That changed his plans, but it would still take four to five months for Monzón to get his student visa and all of his documents, making it impossible for him to apply to college for the fall semester.

Rather than wait a year to enroll, Monzón decided to audit classes, which involves sitting in classes and doing all of the work without credit.

Because Monzón did not have documents, he also could not own a car or have a driver’s license, so he rode his 26-year-old bicycle five and a half miles from his Glenvar Heights home to the FIU south campus for every class.

“I got it (the bike) at a flea market in Hialeah,” Monzón said. “The rims were not perfectly round and there was a considerable amount of rust on the tires, but everything else worked well. I spent some money upgrading it by swapping out the tires, saddle, stem shifters and handlebars.”

It took him about 35 minutes each way and on the nights when he had late classes, he would get home around midnight.

“I had my bicycle equipped with lights, and I had been cycling already for several years,” he said.

“He is always trying. He has a passion.” Guaitima said. “I felt terrible. My son really wanted to learn.”

Because they were junior-level courses, Monzón has not yet had to retake them, but expects he will have to.

“Doing something worthwhile was a sure way to go,” he said. “I have always been motivated in the pursuit of education. It is not because I am an immigrant. My parents have always encouraged it. I have always liked the concept of learning. It was just something that clicked with me.”

To his parents, education was everything.

“The only thing you have to do is study,” his mother said “Education is the main thing in life. You can do better, be better and help others.”
Dr. Fred Blevens, Monzón’s professor at FIU, has known him for four years.

“He was a delightful guy,” Blevens said. “Smart. Very, very funny. Unusual. You don’t find them asking to take classes off the books. It was a surprise. He sat in all three of my classes and wanted to be treated like all of my other students with tests, quizzes and homework. He outperformed most of the students and was highly motivated. His ambition, drive and interest are extremely commendable. I would like to see him come back to FIU and take my classes again on record.”

Blevens also said that in his 20 years of teaching he has only had a few students sit in on his classes and no one else has ever told him they were a DREAMer.

As a young child, Monzón was interested in the typical dream careers, from an astronaut, secret agent or movie star to a writer. As it turned out, he was not that far out with the latter.

When Monzón was in middle school, his school had a morning announcement program.

He came up with an idea to create a two- to three-minute show where he would show funny clips from the Internet and make jokes, sparking the interest in journalism he had held since he was eight.

In high school, Monzón joined the television production program, where he learned more about editing, sources and how to interview people, all of which helped cement his interest in the field. Later, when Monzón was auditing university classes, he chose classes such as News Literacy, Intro to Journalism and News Reporting.

Once Monzón graduates university, he hopes to immediately get a job at a magazine, news studio, or any other media outlet.

Monzón is currently working at the Pinecrest Community Center and financial aid office at Miami-Dade College, while attending its Honors College at the Wolfson campus. He dedicates his spare time to the college’s newspaper “The Reporter,” where he aspires to be an editor.

“Tómas has been working with The Reporter for about a year now,” said Manolo Barco, media advisor. “He started out as a briefing writer, then moved up to columns and will be a forum editor this upcoming fall. He always turns in his stories on time. He is progressing well and rapidly. His enthusiastic attitude sets him apart from the rest of our staff here. I am excited about his future.”

“There is no greater solution to the problem than pursuing education.” Monzón said, addressing the issue of the DREAMers. Because he is a part of the honors college Monzón does not pay for tuition.

Even though Monzón, after DACA, now has a Social Security number, a driver’s license and a student visa, his future is not certain. He needs to renew the visa every two years and is not allowed to leave the country. While he barely remembers Argentina, he has managed to keep in touch with the culture.

“I miss my grandparents and I only have vague memories of my extended family sitting down to eat,” Monzón said.

DACA itself will only remain if the next president decides to continue the program. Should it be eliminated, Monzón could be forced to return to Argentina, and leave his family here behind, including his American-born sister Sophia Monzón, who is 11.

“We used to hang out and talk a lot. Our relationship is very deep,” Sophia Monzón said. “I look up to him a lot. He’s very popular but in a different way. He doesn’t care what people think of him.

“He actually pursues his dreams.”