I feel my phone vibrating in my pocket, but I ignore it. I’m interviewing Alfonso Calderón, one of the survivors of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were shot to death at a high school, and I don’t want to interrupt while he’s speaking. His hair is dancing in the wind, and his words are full of passion, intelligence and outrage.
Alfonso is 16 years old. He was born in Spain and has been living in the United States for 10 years. He speaks English and Spanish fluently, and along with his schoolmates from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School he helped start the Never Again movement. The group is advocating for effective gun control policies that would prevent students from being massacred while in school again.
In a nation where there are more firearms than there are people, this objective sounds almost impossible. Not for Alfonso. I asked him why he was different. Because he and his classmates lived through something few people have experienced, Alfonso said.
In the afternoon on Feb. 14, Alfonso was leaving his drama class at Stoneman Douglas when a teacher pushed him back into the classroom. Within a few seconds, he was locked inside a closet. He could hear Nikolas Cruz, the gunman, outside, firing on his classmates. Alfonso spent four hours in that closet. His shirt was soaked with sweat as he texted a goodbye message to his parents.
Alfonso will never be the same, he says, and he wants America to never be the same, either. On the day that we spoke, he was getting ready to go to Washington to deliver a speech to lawmakers, and he assured me that he has a new life mission: Prevent more mass shootings like the one he lived through. I believe in Alfonso Calderón.
I also believe in Yarely and Aracely Duarte. The twins from San Diego are only 13 years old, but last year they endured the most horrifying experience of their young lives when immigration officers detained their mother and father. “They stood in front of Mom, grabbed her hands and said she was under arrest,” Aracely said. “We were afraid, and sad. We had heard about this on the news, but we didn’t think it could happen to us.”
“My first reaction was to cry,” Yarely said. “My mother, who has never done anything bad in this world, was arrested in front of me. One of my heroes.” But the sisters’ tears were followed with resolve. They and their two older brothers campaigned to make their parents’ case known, and managed eventually to get them released. Now they’re helping other kids whose parents have been arrested in immigration raids.
They have a message for President Donald Trump, who has attempted to cast immigrants as criminals: “We are not criminals; we are not evil,” Aracely said. “We are all human beings,” Yarely said.
Yarely, Aracely and Alfonso have followed, maybe unknowingly, in the footsteps of the Dreamers, the young women and men brought to the United States by their undocumented parents who have challenged the president and lawmakers to pass sensible immigration reform. They’ve refused to remain silent, and they use social media to push for change. They’re also impatient with those who make excuses for the status quo, and they’re absolutely convinced that they will win.
As I finished my conversation with Alfonso, my phone kept vibrating. I said goodbye, thinking how unfair it was that this charismatic teenager had such a heavy burden to carry. I don’t know anyone else like him. If the future of the United States is in the hands of people like Alfonso, Aracely, Yarely and the Dreamers, we will be fine. They are rebels, and they are not seeking personal gain from their message of change. These young people speak for all of us, and they inspire me.
I finally took my phone out of my pocket and checked my messages. I froze. A gunman had been reported at a restaurant near the university where my son studies. I felt panicked, until I remembered that my son wasn’t there that day.
(Watch my interview with Yarely and Aracely in Spanish here.)