At La Casa Latina, Kareli Lizárraga ensures students are ‘empowered to be vulnerable’

La Casa’s interim director, a DACA recipient and recent GSE graduate, is a passionate advocate for the Penn Latinx community.

Smiling professional woman
Kareli Lizárraga was born in Mexico, raised in California and Arizona, and considers Philadelphia her home. 

Kareli Lizárraga was in the fifth grade when she learned that “the right thing doesn’t always happen.” It was 2001. The DREAM Act was up before Congress but didn’t pass. “That’s a hard thing for a fifth grader, but it helped me to learn the power of community,” Lizárraga says. It was the activism of undocumented student activists that enabled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA does not offer the path to citizenship that DREAMers hoped but provides work eligibility for undocumented people like Lizárraga, who was the associate director of La Casa Latina and, since Johnny Irizarry retired last spring, has been serving as its interim director. Open to all in the Penn community who are interested in learning about Latinx culture, La Casa also works to create a home for the more than 2,000 Latinx students at Penn. For Lizárraga, this connection is personal. 

She was the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Penn with a major in political science. In May, Lizárraga completed her master’s in the Education, Culture and Society program in the Graduate School of Education. Her graduate work focused on the experiences of undocumented undergraduate students on sanctuary campuses. As a DACA recipient, “it has been incredibly important that undocumented students know that they have a resource in me as someone who deeply cares about them,” she says. “My inbox is always open. My Zoom is always open.” 

As an undergraduate at Penn, Lizárraga did a lot of learning and unlearning, including internalized racism pertaining to her own worth, she says. “I remember my first semester at Penn, feeling like someone made a mistake letting me in. It wasn’t until I connected with other people and students at Penn that those other ideas started chipping away.” Cultural resource centers like La Casa helped this unlearning. “I had so much love and community and professional development poured into me,” says Lizárraga. “These were the spaces where I felt like I could really feel like myself.”

Six students work on couches in a room decorated for Halloween/Dia de los Muertos
La Casa Latina is housed in the ground floor of the Arch building, serving as a home for many students. (Pre-pandemic image: Eric Sucar)

Undocumented students often try to mitigate anxiety by becoming “hyperdocumented,” proving their worth through awards, grades, leadership, and community service. As Lizárraga comes into her own, she is shifting this energy away from proving her own worth and towards advocacy work, making sure others know they are worthy. In her graduate studies, she looked at the trajectory of undocumented students in higher education, Lizárraga says, and was “so moved and so proud” to see students become advocates for vulnerable populations. It was important to her to “have that time to read and write and study about a population that I am a part of and never seen before reflected in academia,” she says. 

Lizárraga is at “the forefront in the fight for immigrant rights,” says Sherisse Laud-Hammond of the Penn Women’s Center, who partners with Lizárraga and La Casa whenever she has the opportunity. This includes working together to advise the student group Mujeres Empoderadas, initiating joint support circles in response to George Floyd’s death, co-sponsoring Latinx Heritage Month, and a pre-pandemic trip to Washington, D.C., in support of immigrant communities and to uphold DACA. 

“Kareli is a person who has a unique take on the needs of Penn students because she’s a two-time graduate. She always meets people where they are,” says Laud-Hammond. “She offers assistance wherever and whenever someone needs it, and I think that’s why she’s deeply respected by students, staff, and faculty alike. She’s just always happy. If you see her without a smile on her face, you know it’s because she’s in deep thought concerning yet another initiative.” 

William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access, has known Lizárraga since her undergraduate days, remembering her as someone “who her friends went to for good advice.” Since then, she has grown into an extraordinary leader, “remarkably generous with her time and energy,” he says. “She really represents the future of higher education.”

A banner reading "cheers to 20 years" hangs behind a man (center) and three women at a podium
La Casa Latina celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2019. From left to right: Kareli Lizárraga with Johnny Irizarry and Maritza Santiago, both retired. (Image: Eddy Marenco.)

Lizárraga sees her role at La Casa as creating a space where people feel “empowered to be vulnerable,” she says, noting that many of her students and colleagues are being threatened because of race, gender, or national origin. Latinx families often have more limited access to education, health care, and healthy food, she says. They are overrepresented in the service industry and are more likely to be vulnerable to both layoffs and COVID-19, disparities that Lizárraga sees within her own family. 

“My dad can’t work remotely. He’s a welder, so he has to be at work. That has been so scary,” she says. “So many of my identities and my experiences have actually made me deeply empathetic to the hardships that people are experiencing. I know what precarity feel like. I know what trauma feels like.”

And while she holds pain, she also holds hope, modeled for her by her parents. As a favorite Christmas tradition, her entire extended family would drive to cabins in Show Low, Arizona, a line of six or seven cars snaking up into the mountains. One year, there was a car by the side of the road, and Lizárraga watched as the others passed by—but not her father. An experienced mechanic, he got out, fixed their car, and made sure its passengers had everything they needed to arrive safely at their destination. Then he rejoined his family and wordlessly drove off. 

Five people in front of a brick building
Lizárraga with her family during her 2013 Penn graduation. (Image: Kareli Lizárraga.)

“When my dad stopped, my mom was really nervous,” Lizárraga says. There is a lot of fear around being undocumented, and her mother worried that the police would come by and ask for papers. Lizárraga asked her father why he got out of the car. “If someone needs help by the side of the road, you just stop and help them,” Lizárraga remembers him saying. Her father always helped people, “and not in a savior type of way, but knowing that tomorrow it could very well be you.

“My mom and dad are so optimistic. They have had to be deeply resilient. They deeply believe that things are going to work out, despite any hardships they’ve been through. They’re so committed to their communities and to the people that they love,” Lizárraga says. “That’s who I think of and hope to honor with my work every day.”