The premier publication for high-quality, hyperlocal news and announcements in Monmouth County, New Jersey.

Teen Scene

By Lori Draz and Madelyn Sanchez-Berra

Each month our young authors write, in their own voice, stories that will educate and inform fellow students and parents. If you are a teen who would like to write your story, contact The Journal. We’ll help you polish it up, so don’t worry, let’s just get to sharing.

This month’s author is Madelyn Sanchez-Berra, a 17-year-old senior at Red Bank Regional High School studying in the Academy of Engineering. She is a member of the National Honor Society, a volunteer at Lunch Break’s food pantry, and she has spent countless hours shelving books at the Red Bank Public Library. On Jan. 12, the YMCA of Greater Monmouth County honored two award-winning essayists at the 35th annual breakfast commemorating the legacy of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Madelyn shared her powerful essay that reflected on her struggle for identity and acceptance as a Mexican-American and her bravery to fight to save a group where she felt whole. Here is Madelyn’s story.

From a young age, I had succumbed to the fact that I was different. It was never apparent in my elementary and middle school years because I was mostly surrounded by fellow Latinos. But when a white man falsely accused me, a naive 8-year-old, of stealing his daughter’s bracelet and called me a “dirty Mexican thief,” it became clear that I was somehow unwanted in America, my birthplace, my home. From then on, I developed a complicated relationship with my identity and became fully aware of the fact that my journey towards achieving my dreams would be difficult.

When I finally entered high school, I locked in to my academics and accepted every opportunity that came my way. I started volunteering at my local library and the food pantry, I joined several clubs, I started wrestling in my junior year, and I completed two summer internships throughout high school. I was building up an impressive academic record not only to feel accomplished, but also to ultimately work toward a better future for my family and me. I wanted to prove to other people that I wasn’t a slacker or lazy or a thief – common stereotypes for Mexicans.

One club in particular made me feel most welcomed: the RBR Dreamers. In the Dreamers club, I felt safe, I was able to be myself, and my wildest dreams seemed to be at my grasp. I could make it into a selective school such as Cornell University, and I could become an electrical engineer. My internal conflict with my identity disappeared whenever I walked into my room. I beamed with pride knowing that I am a Mexican-American, that we have some of the best food, that we are hardworking and compassionate and take strength in our independence. In that classroom, I waved the Mexican flag with pride and shouted “Si se puede!” with every fiber of my being.

Then came adversity. In the summer leading up to my last year of high school, the Dreamers club advisor, Ms. Marisol Mondaca, informed me and other officers that our club could no longer be considered a club. At a school board meeting that took place on Aug. 16, 2023, a lone vote redefined our club’s status, and until another vote was taken at the subsequent meeting, our club was nothing, zilch, nada. After hearing the news, I was stunned. It wasn’t like this was an unlikely situation; in fact, this has happened before to the club because several parents at my school have a problem with a club that serves as a safe space for undocumented students and their allies. But I was angry because the decision reminded me of the fact that some people will never consider me an American, and therefore, I will always be viewed as something less than. I had been doing so well, developing pride in my identity, and then this came along.

But the other officers didn’t let that one vote stop us. We decided to tell our stories at the next board meeting in an effort to save our club.

That Sept. 11, 2023, I was anxious like never before. What if people judged me? What if the board still voted against our club? What would our members do if the club was dissolved? What would I do to mend my identity?

I stepped up to the podium and angrily read the speech I had prepared. In all honesty, I blacked out and don’t remember saying my speech, but I do remember how hot my cheeks felt as I recited my words and the applause that followed. I realized then that our club had a lot of support, and a couple of people who disagree would not trump the majority. 

When the next vote was taken, all but two people voted to let the Dreamers continue to be a club. We had done it! The RBR Dreamers were saved! The officers and I, along with our supporters, cried tears of joy. We had finally been acknowledged.

For most of my life, I have felt out of place in the world, never feeling Mexican enough or American enough. But this challenge that I was presented with strengthened my confidence in my identity as a Latina, and I feel more welcomed in the spaces I take up. I am a proud Latina who will always stand up for what is right.

Words fail to convey how deeply meaningful it was for me and my fellow officers to have such overwhelming community support as we testified that night. I am grateful to live in a place where we celebrate diversity, embrace our differences and see the inherent value of one another. Dr. King’s vision for a beloved community sets forth a challenge to each of us, to bring into reality a community that is inclusive, compassionate, and welcoming to all, that starts locally. 

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