Jessica Morales Explains Why Racist Florida High School Yearbook Photo Hits Close To Home

Immigration "Joke"
Naples High School seniors dress as Mexicans, showing fake green cards to a border patrol "agent" in this inset of an official, school-approved high yearbook. Jessica Morales

Jessica Morales one of the Latino students offended at Naples High School when a page of their yearbook was plastered with images of white students parodying undocumented Mexican immigrants crossing the border. Parents were offended too, and one news outlet quoted Morales’ father as changing the joke “racist.” Morales doesn’t like to think about the details of her father’s arrest for a driving-related misdemeanor, his possible deportation and the immigration hearings that require him to disappear to Miami every few months. Yet as a high school senior, she started to to divulge parts of her story in college applications. When I first read about the incident, I noticed that Morales planned to attend my alma mater, Middlebury College. I invited her to talk about the incident in her own words.

"While I’ve hinted at the struggles of having immigrant parents, I’ve never talked about it in detail to anyone, not even my closest friends. My perspective changed recently when I noticed that my peers take their rights and freedoms for granted. My parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s, and my family is [of mixed immigration status]. I couldn’t help but feel appalled that other students were okay the “joke” in my yearbook, a distasteful photograph depicting an offensive stereotype. Some are saying that it was just kids having fun and it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. With my personal experiences, it’s impossible not to be offended.

In 2008, I had to deal with the arrest of my father and be out of touch with him for months. Driving with an expired license for anybody else in Florida would result in several fines and require a trip to the DMV to renew a license. Yet for my father, it led to a month of jail time in Collier County. Officials there contacted [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] (ICE) over the issue of his immigration status. He was later transferred to the Krome Service Processing Center in Miami, where he spent another month away from his family trying to proceed with convoluted and lengthy court procedures that prevented me and my siblings from seeing him for weeks.

At home, it was chaos. My mother scrambled to borrow money from family and friends in order to afford an expensive immigration lawyer and court fees just to have a judge consider his case. At the same time, bills were piling up and money was needed to pay for the simple everyday things like food. Even the judge was confused about why he was detained for so long over something minor. He thought thought that the deportation order was unwarranted. At the time, I was really confused by the whole situation and didn’t really understand it. Now, I am grateful that my family survived the ordeal.

My father was finally released, but his deportation case is still pending. Every few months, he visits Miami to renew his work permit. He’s spent thousands dollars of his hard-earned money -- he’s a landscaper -- simply trying to fix his immigration status and legally belong in a country that he has considered his home for the past twenty-five years. Others might look at immigration as a “joke,” but that’s not what I see. For me, this is an issue that has plagued not only my family, but millions of others. It disappoints me to see my peers make light of such a serious issue.

Our education system and society has a whole has failed to eradicate the ignorance that ultimately perpetuates thoughtless stereotypes and I firmly believe that allowing “jokes” like these to slide hurts everyone in the end. The degree of the offense is more than just about a silly picture, but the underlying meaning. As individuals, we need to actually consider the consequences of our actions and spread awareness to bring about change for the improved treatment of minorities, especially for those who are afraid to do so."

The school district responsible for Naples High School  issued an apology following negative publicity of the photo. 

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