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Born in Peru, Lorella Praeli became an activist at a young age when she stood up to middle school bullies in her small Connecticut town and, in college, came out as an undocumented immigrant. Within a few years, she became known as one of the foremost and fiercest youth advocates working to pass the DREAM Act, which would offer protections for undocumented youth. Though she became an American citizen in 2015, today, Lorella continues to fight for change and build power among immigrants in the U.S.
Meet actress, activist, and author Diane Guerrero who brought us the story of activist and DREAMer, Lorella Praeli. Diane tells us the story of her own family’s experience with family separation and how we can all have hard conversations about immigration.
DIANE GUERRERO Once upon a time, there was a girl who courageously spoke up for immigrants and inspired others to stand alongside her. Her name was Lorella.
GUERRERO Growing up in Ica, Peru, Lorella wanted to run and play like other kids, but there was one problem: She only had one leg.
In 1990, when Lorella was two, she was hit by a car, and doctors had to amputate her right leg above the knee. When she was three, her parents took her to a hospital in Florida to get a prosthetic leg.
Walking with her crutches and new leg, she wobbled and stumbled. She fell and scraped her hands. She often cried. People rushed to help her, but her father stopped them. In Spanish, he sang: “If you get up, you’ll fall. If you fall, you’ll get up again.”
So, she wriggled and climbed and struggled until she was back on her feet–each and every time.
One day, Lorella would use these lessons to teach others to stand up for themselves, too–and to get back up no matter how many times they fall.
GUERRERO I’m Diane Guerrero. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Lorella Praeli.
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GUERRERO As a child, Lorella spent a lot of time in Tampa, Florida. There, the warm coastal breeze rustled the palm trees, and the sun glistened on the gentle waves of the bay.
But Lorella didn’t spend a lot of time in the sun. Usually, she was inside the hospital, staring up at the buzzing, white fluorescent bulbs and listening to the doctors speak in English.
Each time she grew too big for one prosthetic leg, she had to be fitted for another. It was hard to get the exact right fit sometimes. She also had to meet with special doctors who taught her exercises to make her stronger and help her learn how to walk better.
All those trips to the U.S. were expensive, though. Eventually, her parents realized that the best way to get Lorella the things she needed was to go to the U.S.—and stay there.
GUERRERO So when Lorella was ten, her family moved to New Milford, Connecticut, where Lorella’s aunt lived.
New Milford was so different from Ica. Everyone there spoke English, and the icy winters made Lorella’s teeth chatter.
There were other differences, too. Lorella and her younger sister Maria were the only Latinos in their elementary school. Sometimes the kids in their classes made fun of them because they had brown skin and spoke Spanish.
Lorella loved to learn, though, and she quickly became fluent in English. But no matter how hard she tried to fit in, kids still teased her.
In middle school, one of Lorella’s classmates started writing mean things about her online. She called Lorella “peg leg” and “border hopper.”
When Lorella read these things, she felt hurt and angry. But she was determined to do something about it.
So, she printed out screenshots of all the online bullying and took the copies to the school police. School officials figured out who had made the comments and Lorella’s bully had to apologize.
But one apology doesn’t take the pain away…
GUERRERO The bullying Lorella experienced haunted her. She wondered if there was a way to prevent the same thing from happening to other kids.
When Lorella was in high school, she learned about a special anti-bullying program offered by the Anti-Defamation League, a national anti-hate organization that works for justice and fairness. With Lorella’s help, they brought the all-day program to her school. They even invited Lorella to share her story in front of the entire tenth-grade class.
As Lorella looked out across the dark auditorium and the hundreds of students, her body trembled. When it was her turn, she bravely stepped into the bright lights of the stage and approached the microphone. And then, she told her fellow students what it was like to be an immigrant, to have a disability, and to be bullied.
When she finished telling her story, her heart felt full.
“Is there anything else I can do?” she asked an ADL staff member.
Yes! they told her.
And so Lorella launched an anti-bullying program at her school called Names Can Really Hurt Us. The program created a space for students to share their stories and talk about how much harm gossip, name-calling, and harassment caused–and how even one student could make a difference. And she continued to tell her story in her own community and beyond—including in front of the Connecticut State Legislature!
GUERRERO As graduation approached, Lorella was filled with excitement. She wondered where her next big step might take her.
However, as she filled out college applications and financial aid forms, there was one number she didn’t know: her Social Security Number—a number given to all citizens and legal residents of the United States.
She brought her forms to her mother Chela and asked her about it.
“No tenemos papeles,” Chela said. “We are undocumented.”
Lorella’s heart sank. We are undocumented? she thought.
That meant they didn’t have the proper documents to live in the United States legally. It meant they could be deported, or sent back to Peru. It meant she couldn’t get a driver’s license. It meant she might not go to college.
Suddenly, many strange things from Lorella’s childhood made sense. In Peru, Chela was a psychologist, but when they moved to the U.S., she worked as a housekeeper. And whenever they needed to rent a new apartment or buy a car, Chela always asked Lorella’s aunt to sign the paperwork.
They needed people who were citizens or legal residents to help them navigate the world while they hid in the shadows.
They were helpless on their own.
GUERRERO Finding out her immigration status was a blow. But for Lorella – her education was too important. So she decided to submit her college applications anyway. She just left the Social Security Number blank, and when the applications asked about her residency, she checked “Other.”
One day, a thick envelope arrived in her mailbox from Quinnipiac University, a private school in Connecticut. She tore open the envelope and found she’d been accepted and was awarded a full scholarship.
But Lorella was still afraid. What if her classmates or teachers found out she was undocumented? Some people thought undocumented immigrants were bad people or criminals. Worse, if the government found out, they could deport her.
This fear followed Lorella throughout her time at school. One night, when she was a junior in college, she was feeling particularly vulnerable about her status. Her housemate Tim asked her what was wrong.
“I don’t have papers,” she blurted out.
Lorella expected Tim to be shocked.
Instead, he held her gaze gently and said, “So what?”
He told her that who she was didn’t change just because she was undocumented. And she realized Tim was right—Lorella was Lorella. And she always would be.
GUERRERO Supported by her friend Tim, Lorella called an organizer at United We Dream, one of the largest immigrant youth organizations in the United States. He invited her to the organization’s annual gathering in Kentucky.
When Lorella got there, she stepped into a huge room full of people… people just like her. Groups of young people clustered together, talking and laughing. Some were speaking Spanish, some were speaking English, and others were speaking languages from all over the world. Many of them were wearing T-shirts that said, “Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic.”
They looked happy, and none of them looked scared.
Lorella didn’t understand how they could be so fearless. But then, she realized, they were building a movement, together. They weren’t alone, and they weren’t going to hide anymore.
As the gathering went on, Lorella’s courage grew, too. This is my country as much as anybody else’s, she said to herself. And she was going to fight for it.
GUERRERO About a month later, Lorella got a call. The mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, wanted her to come to an important press conference about undocumented students. What Lorella didn’t realize until she got there was that they expected her to be SPEAKING at the event!
Many questions raced through her mind: Do I come out as undocumented or not? What does it mean if I do? What does it mean if I DON’T? She had one moment to decide—and she went for it.
She walked up to the podium. Stood behind the microphone in front of the crowd… and she told the reporters that she was undocumented.
“For years, I learned to be quiet and to live in the shadows and hide,” she said. “I am done standing on the sidelines.”
With that, Lorella launched herself into a life of fighting for the rights of young, undocumented immigrants all over the United States.
GUERRERO At her university, Lorella cofounded a group that helped pass laws that would make college more affordable for undocumented youth. The organization also advocated for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would offer legal residency to qualifying immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Lorella encouraged undocumented students like herself, who called themselves DREAMers, to speak out.
“Without our stories, there is no cause, and there is no fight,” she said. “Without sharing our stories, there is no reason why someone would want to pass the DREAM Act.”
The work was hard, and there were a lot of setbacks. But, after graduating college in 2011, Lorella moved to Washington, DC, and worked full-time as an activist, trying to convince members of Congress to push for changes to the U.S immigration system.
GUERRERO In the midst of this whirlwind, Lorella had fallen in love with her friend Tim, who was am American citizen. They got married, giving Lorella a different path to American citizenship.
Lorella’s citizenship ceremony was held at the National Archives, a building that holds America’s original founding documents. And it was presided over by President Obama himself!
President Obama faced the crowd, which included Lorella and 30 other soon-to-be citizens, each of them holding tiny American flags.
Obama told them, “We don’t simply welcome new immigrants . . . . We are born of immigrants. That is who we are. Immigration is our origin story.”
As Lorella looked around, she realized that while her dream was coming true there were still others in the shadows. She longed for all undocumented immigrants to have this opportunity. And she would keep fighting until they did.
GUERRERO Today, Lorella continues to fight for her dreams and to empower DREAMers.
In 2020, Lorella chose a phrase to guide her in the year to come: “Soy el poder dentro de mi,” which means “I am the power within me.”
It reminds her to listen to what is in her own heart and gut—and to recognize the deep power that she has—and that we all have.
“You’re going to have many falls,” Lorella said. “What says the most about who you are is your ability to get back up and fight.”
Today’s episode was hosted by actor, author and activist Diane Guerrero.
This podcast is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media.
Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Victoria Gruenberg, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Katie Sprenger. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music and sound design by Elettra Bargiacchi and final mix by Mattia Marcelli.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!