Newly naturalized, the leading family of Latino Memphis votes in their first U.S. election

It took 25 years for Mauricio Calvo and his wife, Yancy Villa-Calvo, to become American citizens and vote in their first U.S. election, but they didn't wait to get involved in their community. They are longtime Memphis advocates working to amplify the voices of Latinos and spark civic engagement.

Through their individual work and passion — Calvo is executive director of Latino Memphis Inc. and Villa-Calvo is a visual artist — they work to strengthen the city for all.

Villa-Calvo said she is encouraged by the ‘blue wave’ in the August 2 primary elections and her husband said many Republican lawmakers are doing good things for the state and region. They will continue to push forward and encourage more people to get involved, too.

“One of the reasons we became citizens was to be able to vote,” Villa-Calvo said.

“I believe people are very upset about what America is becoming and how it is being portrayed. People are saying, ‘No. This is not us. We need to show this is a country of opportunity and [a] welcoming country.’ There is a wave of people who are trying to reinforce this message to our community and to the larger nation,” she added.

The couple grew up in Mexico City and came to the U.S. as students to attend Christian Brothers University. They met on campus, got married and chose to establish a home, life and family in Memphis. They spent 25 years working their way from one visa to the next and renewing every year, until they received legal permanent residency status.

However, even legal permanent residents can have their status revoked and be deported, and the anti-immigrant messages they heard in the 2016 election cycle sparked deep concern. Villa-Calvo said they did not feel safe and realized the uncertainty was having an impact on their three children, the oldest of whom was afraid her parents could be taken away.

“They felt it could happen to us too,” she said.

The day after Donald Trump was elected President, the couple applied for citizenship.

A personal photo celebrating the couple's first time voting. (Submitted)“With the new administration, we felt we needed to push faster and push harder,” Villa-Calvo said. “We’ve always been involved, but now we wanted to be more involved. The only way we felt we could make a change, a more systematic change, was by voting and influencing people to continue to be, or to become, civically engaged,” she said.

Even before they were sworn in as naturalized citizens in April and voted in the recent primary, they both were deeply involved in strengthening and improving Memphis for all residents. They each serve on numerous boards, and volunteer for several community agencies, organizations and initiatives.

Calvo said he plans to run for the Memphis City Council District I seat next year. Villa-Calvo is one of three Memphis artists gathering resident feedback for the development of Memphis 3.0, the city’s new master plan.

“We made a choice a long time ago that Memphis was our home and this is where we want to grow and raise our family,” Villa-Calvo said. “Right now, it is time to work and plant and water everything, and hopefully in a few years we will see if it was worth it.”


The Road to Citizenship

Calvo has served as executive director of Latino Memphis since 2008. The organization provides services and programs including legal assistance, mentoring, case management and youth leadership development. The organization also works to create systemic, community-wide change by elevating the voices and contributions of Latino Memphians.

Related: "ICE Storm: Immigration officers target Latino families, worry Shelby County Schools"

In 2015, there were 69,787 immigrants living in the Memphis metro area, according to a report released earlier this year by Latino Memphis and New American Economy.

The report, “New Americans in Memphis” found that foreign-born residents accounted for 5.2 percent of the population. They opened businesses, bought homes, sought higher education, and created and preserved jobs. In some instances, they did so at higher rates than non-immigrants.

If our community is to succeed, everyone needs be included and everyone needs to be successful,” Calvo said.

Achieving citizenship is a long process. Even legal permanent residents, also known as “green card” holders, must live in the U.S. for three to five years before applying for naturalization. There are additional barriers immigrants face, whether they are undocumented or lawfully in the U.S.

“We come from a position of privilege,” Calvo said about he and his wife. “We have education, resources and some connections. We are established and we have children who are American citizens, and we can only imagine how difficult it is for people who do not have any of those things.

Quite frankly, it is a very unfair system.”


Art and Revitalization

Painting was an avenue for Villa-Calvo to share and highlight the beauty of Mexico and all it has contributed to the world. But, during the 2016 election cycle, she was drawn to do more.

“It became even more imperative to use my artistic voice to be very vocal about what is not right and the attacks that were targeting our community, specifically Mexicans,” she said.

Related: "Video: Memphis GEMS engagement uncovers what makes Memphis rare"

Villa-Calvo created the art installation “Barrier Free” to spark conversation about the impact of barriers in society. “I realized through art there is a platform for conversation about the difficulties everyone is having,” she said.

The installation has been displayed across the country and at the Brooks Museum of Art. In September, it will travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and from October through December, it will be at the Art Museum at the University of Memphis. The piece features photos of diverse local families and notes of hope tied to a stretch of chain length fence. Mirrored cut-outs of family scenes represent the tensions faced by deported family members

Yancy Villa-Calvo's "Barrier Free" installation.

In the future, she’d like it to travel to communities within the region that are more insulated from the challenges many Memphians face. “I want to say ‘Hey, look what is happening, have empathy and do something about it,’” Villa-Calvo said.

She is one of three artists embedded in Memphis neighborhoods who are engaging residents and sparking conversation about the city’s strengths and needs. The feedback she collects will help in the development of Memphis 3.0.

Related: "The intersection of art and urban planning makes Memphis 3.0 a multimedia strategy"


She takes an ‘asset’ approach to her work – asking residents to tell her about gems in their neighborhood.

“There is so much need and so little resources, but on the flip side, there is so much opportunity with what is happening in some of our organizations, happening nationally, and what we creatively can do,” Villa-Calvo said.

“We are a large city with a large population of poverty and how do you break that cycle? That is a big question, and it is not unique to Latinos. There are way too many African Americans and white people going through the same thing,” said Calvo.

“There are people who have it so difficult and think, why would I vote? Why would I care? It is not going to make it change,” he added.


Beyond Politics

There are 15,000 jobs available in the Memphis region, “despite all of the immigrants working here. When people say ‘these people are taking our jobs away’ it simply is not true," Calvo said.

“It is education challenges, transportation challenges and laws that don’t give people a second chance [and] are actually preventing people from getting jobs. It is pointless to blame a specific group because no one is taking jobs away. We need more people,” he added.

Latino Memphis is a non-partisan organization. Calvo said he personally supports the work done by many Tennessee Republicans to move the state and Memphis forward, including Gov. Bill Haslam and State Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis) who proposed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

Related: "College success starts with open doors for local Latino students"

“Rep. White will be the first to tell you this is not about immigration. It is about economic opportunity, which strengthens communities and brings people together,” Calvo said.

He is concerned about the impact Tennessee House Bill 2315 may have when it goes into effect in January 2019, as it bans sanctuary city policies and requires local law enforcement to ask about immigration and citizen status.

“It will be pretty impactful for the community, and I don’t know how we can prepare for it because there is so much uncertainty about how it will unfold,” he said.

Calvo predicts a lot of time, energy and money will be spent fighting the constitutionally of the bill in court, when instead, those resources could be put to better use.

“Collectively, as people of goodwill, we need to come together. We may not agree on every single topic, but overall we need to recognize our common humanity and find solutions that make sense for the majority,” he said.


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Read more articles by Dawn Neuses.

Dawn Neuses is a transplant Memphian and part-time freelance journalist from the Midwest who spent the past year exploring her new home in the Mid-South. Dawn was a reporter for 20 years, covering everything from education to community activism, and enjoys learning something new from every person she meets.