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Morales’ Graduation Regalia Makes Statement; Now Part of Smithsonian Exhibit

Throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15), STLCC honors and celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of Latino Americans with Hispanic heritage. Following is the story of STLCC employee Jairo Javier Morales.

Jairo Javier MoralesFor undocumented immigrants, life in America is stressful, and filled with apprehension. Jairo Javier Morales can attest to that. 

“For most of my life, I've been aware and engaged in the uncertainty and fear of separation. We learn to live through it,” said Morales, student activities assistant II at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, who came to America with his family as undocumented immigrants in 2001.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program gave Morales the chance to work and go to college without fear of deportation, but offers no path to citizenship.

As Congress has struggled to pass legislation to create that pathway to citizenship, and xenophobic rhetoric has become widespread in the U.S., Morales labored, but persevered down his own path and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from Ripon College in 2019. At his graduation, Morales, in celebration of his identity and right to self-determination, wore a gown he adorned with monarch butterfly wings and a decorated mortar board that stated, “I am one of those people Mexico sent.”

Jairo Javier Morales in his graduation regalia“We were simultaneously being referred to as thieves and people that only bring problems,” he said. “To hear the negative rhetoric about us was heart aching, and I wanted to directly respond to it with how I knew best -- creative activism.”

Monarch butterflies are a national symbol for immigration, immigrants and immigrant rights. The butterflies’ journey across North America speaks to migration, survival, transformation and the power of communities.

Morales’ graduation regalia caught the attention of representatives of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, who requested that it, along with his story, be included in its inaugural virtual collection, “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States.” The exhibit introduces visitors to critical concepts, moments and biographies that shine a light on the historical and cultural legacy of U.S. Latinos.

The exhibit is part of the Molina Family Latino Gallery, the Smithsonian’s first gallery dedicated to the Latino experience. It ultimately will be housed in the National Museum of the American Latino

Morales' graduation regalia“When I was first contacted, I called my mom to thank her for allowing this opportunity to come my way. If it was not for her, I would not have met the people I did or been to the places I was,” Morales said. “I was delighted and humbled to be part of the immortality of the immigrant story and share my experience living as an undocumented youth. I was happy to share what I could in documenting my story and giving flowers to those that helped me through and gave me a chance like my mom, sibling, friends and educators, my high school, buildOn, and Ripon College La Unida.”

Since graduating, Morales has worked in residence hall operations at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and McKendree University. When Morales’ partner accepted a teaching position in the East St. Louis School District, he sought and found a new opportunity at Florissant Valley. 

“I took a year off after leaving my position in Carbondale to reflect on what I wanted and to also take a break from all that was occurring politically with the immigrant and LGBTQ+ community,” Morales said. “My college experience was defined by involvement in campus activities and student clubs, being involved in shaping that for others is what I like most working in Campus Life at Flo Valley. Being part of the campus culture and being a change maker in a student's college experience is the best part of the job. We get to bring resources, activities, and events to campus that can connect students to each other, the campus community, and the greater St. Louis community.”

Morales’ passion for serving Flo Valley’s students has impressed Dwayne Morgan, manager of campus life at Florissant Valley, during the brief time they have worked together. 

Jairo Javier Morales with students at Florissant Valley.“He brings a wealth of knowledge as it relates to planning, coordinating and implementing student programs,” Morgan said. “His ability to develop positive relationships with both students and staff is excellent. Jairo goes the extra step to provide guidance in his daily interaction and consistently maintains a positive outlook and approach to developing our student population.  Jairo is a true asset to our office and the STLCC community at-large.”

As Morales looks toward his future, he hopes to earn a master’s degree, He also looks forward to a day when barriers to citizenship for immigrants no longer exist, and living in fear is a thing of the past. 

“I can only hope that (legislative) decisions are made in consideration of those it will impact. But I will continue doing what brings me joy, and helping others as I go,” Morales said. “There's an innate stress that comes with going anywhere in making sure I always have my identification and a plan of action, should something happen. Moving forward, I will continue to find pockets of joy and being in community with others who share the same experience.”

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