Faces of activism: The immigrant’s daughter
Law student works for immigrant justice
When Wendy Bonilla was growing up in Los Angeles, she saw how her father, who came to the U.S. from El Salvador because of the country’s civil war, struggled to learn English. While her parents built their own business, Bonilla heard stories about the mistreatment her father faced at work for not understanding English.
Bonilla tried to ignore the insults, and eventually decided to suppress her roots—refusing to speak in Spanish and rejecting her Salvadoran culture. It wasn’t until her last year as an undergraduate, when she met her “hard-core Salvadoran” best friend, that Bonilla began to accept herself and her heritage.
“She taught me that it was okay to be Latina, to be Salvadoran, to be different from everybody else. The negativity that I grew up seeing and hearing didn’t define me,” Bonilla said. “I defined who I was and the type of Latina that I was going to be and I define how people were going to portray me in society.”
Bonilla, now 26 and in her second year at AU’s Washington College of Law, has not only come to embrace her experiences as a Latina but carries her culture in her activism for Latino and immigration issues as president of AU’s chapter of the Latino/a Law Students’ Association (LALSA).
After seeing her sister, who is an undocumented immigrant, lose out on opportunities because of her lack of legal status, Bonilla made it her mission to understand the issues immigrants face and become involved with causes in the immigrant community.
Following her first protest in California, where she fought against in-state tuition increases that would have impacted undocumented immigrants and their ability to afford college, Bonilla discovered different organizations like UnidosUS and started to show up at advocacy workshops for immigration issues.
Bonilla then continued the activism that she started in California as she started her law school classes. But in the beginning, Bonilla felt that she didn’t belong and turned to LALSA for encouragement.
As president of LALSA, Bonilla has tried to “foster an environment where the rest of the Latinos on campus would feel welcome in a support network and always have somebody to go to.”
She has overseen the organization’s mentorship program, which pairs upperclassmen with first-year students and the group’s response to Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That response developed into a teach-in with the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic for students to understand their rights as well as fundraising efforts to collect scholarship funds for high school students to apply and attend college.
“Being a part of LALSA is honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in law school because it makes me feel like I’m actually giving back to my community,” Bonilla said. “I feel like it’s addressing a lot of the issues that I saw growing up but didn’t think of until I was way older and actually began to comprehend.”
From marching at protests to writing letters, Bonilla has pushed for her two passions in immigration and education. She hopes that policy reforms can expand access to education for Latino students and undocumented immigrants like her sister, who would “go to college tomorrow if she could.”
Throughout her adolescence, Bonilla said she struggled with the misconceptions surrounding Latinos and doesn’t want “to see other Latinos and Latinas as they grow up see the negativity associated with being who we are because of something that’s written in the media that we just can’t get rid of.”
“People should really stop assuming that Latinos aren’t aware of what’s going on out there," Bonilla said. "They shouldn’t underestimate the power in our voices. Instead of talking down on them, it’s better to understand where they’re coming from and to really get to the root of why a lot Latinos have immigrated here and have stayed here and why, despite all the negativity that’s said, we still remain.”
This profile is part of a series about student activists at AU written by students in Jane Hall’s Advanced Reporting class.