Standing in the Indiana State House a few weeks ago, Dani Calderon was overwhelmed for a moment.
She had accompanied a group from Dubois County invited by State Senator Mark Messmer to attend a committee hearing on Senate Bill 138. The bill would have given undocumented students access to in-state tuition and funding. However, it failed to pass the Senate Education Committee.
Several of them were given time to speak to the committee about their personal experiences in support of the bill. Unfortunately, Dani was not one of them. However, her story was entered as testimony along with several other students from Dubois County.
For the 18-year-old Latina, the moment could have continued to be overwhelming. Except Dani stepped back from it to realize the importance of what she was there to speak about.
It wasn’t just about her. “I was like, ‘Dani, you’re not doing this for you, you’re doing this for the Latino communities,'” she said.
Words of encouragement speak new realities into existence for those who receive them. Dani cherishes a moment as a sophomore at Southridge High School when such words allowed her to see herself in a new perspective.
“Dani, I see so much potential in you. You know, you have to exercise that potential because I can see you as a leader,” she remembers it so clearly.
Looking back it is easy to see highlights early in Dani’s life that reveal the essence the school guidance counselor, Mrs. Jenny Fowler, seemingly spoke it into existence with her kind words.
Dani was the last of her three siblings to come to the United States. She lived with her grandmother in the El Salvador town of La Ygriega after her parents, Pedro and Patricia, headed to the United States. They were seeking more opportunities for their children to grow and succeed. She was about three when they left, and it wasn’t until she was seven that they could bring her to Dubois County.
“I missed my grandmother terribly,” Dani said about the move away from her grandmother, who had raised her while her parents visited sporadically.
The summer she arrived in Dubois County, Dani made an older friend as she attended summer school. She didn’t speak any English other than the numbers her father taught her while visiting El Salvador, and Dani was concerned about going to the new school where she didn’t know anyone. However, her friend had a sister in the same grade, so she assured Dani that she would be okay because she could stick close to her sister.
Unbeknownst to Dani, there were four second-grade classrooms at Huntingburg Elementary, and her guide was in a different class. “So I followed her, you know, and then I got to the classroom, and I just found a random seat — they were assigned seats –and the teacher was like, ‘um, sweetie, this is not your seat,'” Dani explained. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me. I almost started crying, but I was like, no, I have to be strong.”
She was ushered into the correct classroom a moment later, where the confusion continued as her teacher completed the lunch count. He asked if she would like chicken for lunch. “It was so funny because I didn’t really know any names or foods or whatever,” she laughed.
Her teacher struggled through asking her until he finally said ‘pollo,’ the Spanish word for chicken. “I was like yeah, I like chicken, and I was thinking like a restaurant or something that I was really going to love,” Dani said.
Later at lunchtime, she realized it wasn’t what she expected.
Ms. Cheryl Dexter, an English as a Second Language instructor, worked daily with Dani using flashcards and other tactics to teach her English. Within about a year, she learned the language and began to do well in school.
Dani became more aware of her parents’ hard work through her own struggles. “I saw the way they struggled working at the factories,” she said. “That really impacted me.”
So much so that in fourth or fifth grade, after seeing her exhausted mother come home from work and make dinner one more night, she pulled her older sister, Diana, aside and told her they were going to start helping. “I’ve been cooking ever since,” she said.
Seeing the opportunities her parents created for her and her siblings, Dani dedicated herself to school — she’s been a 4.0 student since fourth grade. She’ll be heading to the Kelley School of Business to study business management and finance this fall as the next step in her success journey.
She doesn’t want anyone to think that her life growing up wasn’t good, just that her parents worked hard to make it good. But, that hard work weighed on their bodies. Her mother’s hands were devastated over the years of work. She has been told there is a small chance surgery could restore 30 to 40 percent of their use. However, with the high cost of medical care in the United States and their hard work mainly behind them, Patricia and Pedro returned to El Salvador for their health needs when Dani was about 14.
Dani remembers her mother crying as she came to Southridge Middle School to sign paperwork to remove her from school. Patricia knew she was taking opportunities away from her daughter.
And Dani had fallen in love with her life, her school and her country by then.
“This was my country,” Dani said. “I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to go to college. I wanted something better for me.”
In the beautiful simplicity of her town in El Salvador, those opportunities had been pulled from within her grasp.
As their daughter wallowed in the schools there, her parents saw Dani’s dreams for success begin to fade, and they realized the hard work wasn’t done. So her parents decided to return to the U.S. to continue in the local factories to ensure Dani could achieve what she had been working for since arriving.
Dani settled back into school and continued excelling. When Mrs. Fowler spoke those words of new perspective into Dani’s story, she took them to heart.
“I feel this is my calling,” she said.
Whether in front of her youth group at church, leading the Latino Club at Southridge, reaching out to cook dinner for her tired parents, excelling in school, helping new Latino students as she was helped when she first arrived here, or standing in front of the legislators at the State House, Dani knew she could do it.
She was there for others who were not as fortunate as she was through no fault of their own. While she was naturalized soon after arriving, she stood there for those immigrants brought to the United States as children who now bore their parents’ dreams for their success on their shoulders but were not as fortunate as she.
“I can’t imagine leaving my dreams behind just because I couldn’t get into college or I couldn’t afford to pay for it,” she said. “Someone needs to speak up for those people that can’t or are afraid to.”
She was honored to be there.
“I am upset that it didn’t pass, but we are not going to stop there,” Dani said. “We are going to keep going until we get those students the opportunities they deserve.”
Dani lives with her brother, Jonathan, for now. Her father went back to El Salvador in 2020 and her mother returned in 2021 a few months before Dani turned 18.
At first, Dani was upset, she felt abandoned and wondered about what hardships she would have to face without them. Her brother has welcomed her into his home and the hardships have been overcome though. She isn’t upset anymore.
“I realized that I can’t be selfish,” she said.
Dani considered all her parents had done for her and who she had become because of them. They are her inspiration.
“They have helped me all of these years,” Dani said. “Now it is my turn.”