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Driven To Dream: American By Birth, Ellie Calixtro Has Journeyed Far To Learn Who She Really Is

Elizabeth Calixtro was in the sixth grade in Morelos, Mexico, when she was nominated to guard the Mexican flag for a schoolwide assembly as the students recited the pledge of allegiance and sang the national anthem.

It was an honor, because it meant she was the highest-achieving student in school. Elizabeth, who goes by Ellie, looked forward to the recognition. But her appointment was met with backlash.

“I wasn’t a Mexican citizen,” she said. “It wasn’t my country, my culture.”

Ellie, 22, was born in Portland and raised in Woodburn, where her parents met while pulling weeds in a field.

Her father told her mother that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Both of Ellie’s parents had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, though Ellie’s father, Alfonso, became a legal resident under the provisions of President Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Throughout the years, some of Ellie’s half-siblings, who had been left behind in Mexico, also joined the family in Woodburn.

Of the nine immediate family members living in Woodburn, Ellie is one of three legal residents and two U.S. citizens.

Ellie’s citizenship has never been taken for granted in the Calixtro home. Born to a father who is illiterate and a mother who did not get past the seventh grade, Ellie strives to advance her family through education and advocacy. This spring, she walked in the commencement ceremonies at Willamette University, which she attended with a full-ride scholarship and served as the student body president her senior year.

She hopes to work in government and eventually run for office.

Ellie’s is an emerging face of today’s American dream — one that illustrates the complex human ramifications of immigration policies debated in buildings far removed from the families they affect.

When Ellie was 7, her mother received a phone call. Ellie’s maternal grandmother was ill, so she, her little brother and her mother moved to Mexico, where Ellie completed elementary school.

By the time Ellie was 11, she longed to be back in the United States.

“I felt for a long time, in Mexico, I didn’t really fit in,” she said.

So her family made arrangements for Ellie’s return to Oregon. Her father traveled to the border town of Tecate, Mexico, to pick her up. They took a bus to Riverside, Calif., then a crowded van to Woodburn, where one of Ellie’s older brothers picked them up at a parking lot of a furniture store.

At the end of the long journey was a two-bedroom apartment for Ellie, two older siblings and their father. One of the rooms was subleased to various tenants. Alfonso slept in the living room while Ellie shared the remaining bedroom with her siblings.

Despite the close quarters, Ellie often was alone in the apartment. Her siblings and father worked around the clock, she said, digging the family out of debt and sending money to her mother in Mexico.

Her mother and little brother, also named Alfonso, were saving for their return to Woodburn a year later.

In anticipation of her return to the States, Ellie had fantasized about home — how she would be welcomed at her new school instead of being singled out. She would simply belong.

Ellie’s expectations of home, however, were far from reality.

She didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the signs in the school hallways. The former highest-achieving student was now in low-level classes because of her status as an English-language learner. She remembers feeling especially frustrated by math classes that felt remedial.

That’s when she realized, “I’m neither from here nor there.”

Ellie remembers her first year back in Woodburn, the year of separation from her mother and extreme financial hardship, as one of the most difficult in her life.

Her memories include sobbing in a laundromat with her older sister, because they unknowingly put all their clothes in a dryer in which someone had dropped a lipstick.

Everything was ruined, and Ellie got through the rest of the school year with one black sweater, because the lipstick streaks were not as noticeable.

But there was no time for Ellie to wallow.

Her father needed her.

‘Echale ganas’

Alfonso Calixtro jokingly says that the closest he got to an education was walking past the school in his town growing up. He never learned how to read or write; he never learned to speak English.

So Ellie set aside her own struggles to become her father’s translator at 11 years old. He took her to offices such as the Oregon Department of Human Services and Social Security to talk to workers and fill out forms.

She diligently flipped through the Spanish-English dictionary her father found at a Goodwill thrift store to build and memorize sentences such as “This is my dad, and my mom is not here,” or “My dad doesn’t know how to speak English. I know a little bit.”

Once, Ellie and Alfonso were walking to the grocery store when they saw an injured kitten in the street.

Alfonso insisted that Ellie call 911, despite the fact that she didn’t know enough English to describe the situation.

When a call taker answered, all Ellie could do was repeat the word “kitty.”

“Literally, that’s all I could tell them,” Ellie said.

This childhood memory exemplifies the kind of father Alfonso has been. He never allowed his daughter to give up, even if it made sense to.

A phrase he often tells his daughter is, “Echale ganas,” which Ellie translated as meaning “push through.”

Whether it was for official documents, running errands or saving kittens on the road, Alfonso needed Ellie to learn English as quickly as possible.

“I turned into a little adult,” Ellie said.

So she pushed through, practicing with a childhood friend and taking advantage of the free books offered at the Woodburn Public Library. Ellie was in mainstream classes by the seventh grade.

Once Ellie was in seventh and eighth grade, she began to blossom, said state Rep. Betty Komp, her principal at French Prairie Middle School. When Betty saw Ellie in the lunchroom, she was always chatting and socializing with friends, she said.

The privilege to protest

Ellie’s earliest memory of her life as an activist is passing notes in the school bathroom as an eighth-grader. She was organizing a student walkout to advocate for immigrant rights.

That day, she walked out of school into the parking lot and joined the swarm of high schoolers who were walking toward Interstate 5.

The walkout gave Ellie an opportunity to let out her frustrations from experiencing racism, being separated from family and the constant fear of deportation.

She was angry.

“I’m pledging allegiance to your flag, which is also my flag, but you don’t accept me,” Ellie said.

Her first taste of activism, she said, was empowering.

Betty said she remembered the walkout in 2005, but that she was not aware that Ellie was behind it.

“I’m not surprised,” she said. “She’s very strong-minded.”

Alfonso planted fearless persistence in his daughter. He also can be credited for showing her what it means to stand up against the status quo.

Alfonso started taking Ellie to the union meetings at Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, or PCUN, when she was about 13.

Abel Valladares, program coordinator for CAPACES Leadership Institute, remembers seeing the young teen for the first time at a meeting regarding the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would establish a path to citizenship for qualifying youths living in the U.S. illegally.

“I remember Ellie being the littlest, shortest person,” Abel said.

Even then, Abel noticed in Ellie a charisma and ability to rally people around a cause.

“She was fearless the way she was outspoken,” he said. “She didn’t have the fear of being wrong.”

Today, Ellie is a lot more knowledgeable on current events, immigration policy and academic research. She can speak more articulately on her position, but her motivation for activism and advocacy has not changed since that walkout in 2005.

She can be found volunteering at fundraisers for CAUSA, Oregon’s immigrant rights organization, and at the Capitol, after legislation such as this year’s passage of a bill allowing certain undocumented youths to pay in-state tuition at Oregon public colleges.

In summer 2011, Ellie reconnected with her former middle school principal to serve as a legislative intern.

She helps ensure the Latino community in Woodburn understands the voting process and can read ballots.

As a high school senior in 2008, she stood up in a crowd of thousands at the Salem Armory to ask presidential candidate Barack Obama his stance on education for immigrant students.

Early on, Ellie became aware of the stakes of policies affecting immigrants that were being discussed in Salem and Washington. They’re issues that affect the family’s daily life.

In the recent legislative session, for example, the passage of a Senate bill allowing for short-term driver’s cards without proof of legal residence meant one of her sisters, who relies on an ice cream truck for income, could remain in the country.

And those personal stakes are what continue to drive Ellie.

With the privilege of citizenship and the opportunities of an education, Ellie is seen as the bearer of hope in her family. She doesn’t take that responsibility lightly.

“You are the one with papers,” Ellie said. “You are the one who speaks English … the one who can go to the rallies without fear.”

Betty said she hopes Ellie will continue on her path to become a public official.

“I’m hoping when I’m ready to leave my position as a state representative, she’s ready to take it over,” she said.

The long shot

For a long time, Willamette University was Ellie’s dream school.

She would drive through Salem and see the campus neighboring the Oregon State Capitol and think, “That’s my long shot.”

It was such a long shot that she didn’t apply.

Many of the educators in Ellie’s life were encouraging and supportive of her aspirations of becoming a Bearcat. But she remembers a few who told her it was too white, too difficult and too expensive.

“They made it seem like it was impossible,” Ellie said.

Ellie applied only to Western Oregon University, attracted to its small campus, more affordable tuition and broader ethnic diversity. She focused the rest of her energy on scholarship applications.

Among those was the Gates Millennium Scholars Program — a prestigious full-ride given to 1,000 students per year, according to its website.

The application required eight essays, which Ellie wrote while keeping in mind that she could reuse them on other scholarship applications.

She advanced to the second round. Then, one day in April, a FedEx package arrived at her home.

Inside was the life-changing news that she was a Gates scholar. She was free to attend any university that accepted her.

“I cried and laughed at the same time,” Ellie said.

A significant barrier to Ellie’s attending Willamette University had been removed, but the school’s application deadline had passed.

At her mother’s urging, Ellie called the university, feeling embarrassed and awkward.

A voice on the phone told Ellie that although admissions had ended, a Willamette admissions representative was scheduled to be at her high school the next day.

Ellie tracked down Ramiro Flores, associate director of admissions, and asked him to read her essays. He agreed.

Flores, who had already heard about Ellie through her high school counselor, quickly recognized that she was persistent and motivated — a natural leader. He saw her as an asset to the Willamette community — perhaps offering it more than the university could offer her, he said. He also was struck by Ellie’s mission behind her pursuit of higher education.

“It wasn’t about her, necessarily,” said Flores, now director of admissions at Willamette. “She wanted to go to college so she could come back to her community and make it a better place.

“I was impressed by her natural leadership, her maturity and her resiliency. Those are all qualities you either have or you don’t.”

In a rare diversion from the traditional application process, especially that late in the cycle, Flores helped pave Ellie’s way onto the red-brick campus. Ellie got in with yet another merit scholarship from the university.

“We did something extraordinary for a special person,” Flores said.

Ellie received almost $135,000 over four years from the Gates Millennium scholarship.

She started her freshman year without a laptop, and she and her mother sold homemade tamales door-to-door in her neighborhood and in parking lots and raised enough money to buy one in time for the spring semester.

The next several years, Ellie double-majored in politics and American ethnic studies, conducted and presented grant-supported research and started a campus chapter of CAUSA.

She studied abroad for a semester in Spain, during which she ran a long-distance campaign for her term as student body president, participating in debates via video chat.

Her friends posted signs and gave speeches on her behalf, eventually winning the absentee election and becoming Willamette’s first Hispanic student body president, according to a university spokeswoman.

Ellie’s campaign manager and best friend, Octaviano Chavarin, said he and many others didn’t think twice about running the campaign because Ellie was highly admired by her peers.

“Because it’s Ellie, things are going to get done,” Octaviano said. “People really took comfort in that and felt compelled to speak on her behalf. People really believed in her capacity for change.”

David Douglass, dean of campus life, said it was not unheard of that students run for office in absentia, because studying abroad is popular among Willamette students.

“But it really is unusual that she had such a passionate coalition of supporters,” he said.

While in office, Ellie regularly met with the university’s trustees and administrators, advocating for cultural competency, diversity and admission of students who live in the country illegally.

About 64 percent of the 1,966 degree-seeking undergraduate students were white in the 2012-13 school year, according to the university’s statistics, and 9 percent were Hispanic. About 13 percent of Willamette’s instructional faculty are a member of a minority group.

This fall, Ellie will spend the semester in Washington, D.C., on an internship through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Inc., an opportunity for which she delayed accepting her degree this spring.

Next year, she hopes to start graduate school, studying public policy and law. Her goal is the University of California, Berkeley.

This time, she’ll apply.

Sharing the spotlight

Much of what the Calixtro family taught Ellie has been about hard work and persistence, but they don’t skimp on celebrations when they are due.

Ellie’s family is known for its parties — sometimes lasting until dawn — and they have been Ellie’s way of acknowledging the community that has shaped her.

Inside the Calixtro home a wall next to the entrance is dedicated to framed photos from Ellie’s quinceañera, a Latino tradition celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday.

She’s seen in a white, ornate gown, surrounded by family who traveled from as far as Mexico to celebrate.

Family and friends in the community sponsored the party bit by bit, paying for her tiara, her dress, the food, the DJ and the mariachi band.

She calls them her godparents — or madrinas and padrinos — which amount to about 40.

When Ellie returned from Spain, her mother threw her a surprise welcome-home party.

And to celebrate her graduation from Willamette University, Ellie hosted more than 150 people in the PCUN building.

Besides her family, mentors from middle school, teachers from high school and professors from Willamette University attended.

There was a mariachi band and a DJ, as well as a professional photographer.

Abel said the parties say a lot about Ellie as a person and a community organizer. She has always had a way of acknowledging those who have contributed to her success, in big and small ways.

“It’s not about you,” he said. “It’s about them. And you always celebrate.”

Octaviano also attended the graduation party with his family, and it ended up becoming one of his favorite memories of his friend.

The DJ was speaking to the crowd about Ellie and her accomplishments when she grabbed the mic from him to introduce everyone to Octaviano.

He also had graduated from Willamette, she told them.

“She shared the spotlight, which is Ellie in a nutshell,” Octaviano said.

A continuing legacy

These days, when the weather is warm, Ellie’s father, Alfonso, is like the pied piper in the neighborhoods of Woodburn.

“Paletero!” children shout as they sprint toward the lime green ice cream truck, filled with goodies.

They approach the window with wadded up bills and change in their hands, picking out Popsicle flavors and bags of chips.

The truck is the family’s main source of income, so summers come with high pressure to sell. Perhaps more important to Ellie’s and younger brother Alfonso’s upbringing, the truck also is a constant reminder of their father’s refusal to give up.

When Ellie was 15, the senior Alfonso was diagnosed with arthritis, leading to the eventual loss of his job as a janitor.

Soon, Alfonso started selling Mexican fruit bars on a bike, despite his wife’s worried resistance. Two summers later, he had his first truck.

“It’s his stubborn attitude about life and never giving up,” Ellie said.

Again, “echale ganas.”

Her mother, Ellie said, is unbreakable and won’t settle for less than what she deserves.

“I want to be her and do what my dad does,” Ellie said. “I get my wisdom from my mom and my strength from my dad.”

And now, Alfonso, 17, hopes to follow in his older sister’s footsteps.

“She always talks to me about racism and discrimination and things that she learns at school,” said Alfonso, who will be a high school senior this fall. “I try to see the world in a different way — in the way she looks at it.”

Alfonso is interested in architecture and graphic design and has his eyes on Columbia University and a couple of other elite art schools for his post-secondary studies.

Ellie smiles at the prospect of her brother attending an Ivy League institution, five years after she struggled to see herself at Willamette University.

But it is from his older sister that Alfonso has learned to dream big, he said.

“I’ve learned that I can accomplish anything,” Alfonso said. “She did it, I can do it too.”, (503) 399-6673 or follow at

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Name: Elizabeth Calixtro

Age: 22

Born: Portland

Raised: Morelos, Mexico, and Woodburn

Education: Willamette University, Bachelor of Arts in politics and American ethnic studies, expected to graduate in December 2013

Future aspirations: To work in government and run for political office

Causes: Immigrant rights, access to education, cultural competency and diversity

Earliest memories of activism: Organizing a walkout at French Prairie Middle School as an eighth-grader, attending union meetings at Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United, or PCUN.

Hobbies: Shopping and cuisine (“She shops till she drops but she doesn’t drop so she just keeps shopping,” best friend Octaviano Chavarin says.)

Other activities: Directed and acted in the Willamette University production of “Vagina Monologues.” Also choreographed and danced for the Willamette Dance Company.

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