What type of person is a first-generation immigrant, a business owner, an advocate with federal legislators, and a future insurance agent all by the age of 21 – a DACA recipient, of course! Meet Eloisa Santiago, born in Veracruz, Mexico. As a young child, her parents were concerned for the rising rate of crime and corruption in the area and wanted a safe future for their family. Her father went ahead of the family to find work in Greenwood, SC, bringing Eloisa and her mother to the states when she was just two. At five her family moved to Cross Hill, a tiny rural village with one red light. She has very fond memories of her tight-knit community at school in Clinton, which she insists is pronounced “Clin’in, no ‘T.’” “Our school was a mix of black and white, and had maybe ten Hispanic students. Whenever something happened in our community everyone would support each other. I never felt out of place.”
In high school, Eloisa was a cheerleader, coached cheerleading, and was sophomore student body president. It was her gratitude and awareness of her parent’s hard work and sacrifices that motivated her. However, during this time she also began to understand how being born in Mexico made her different from her peers. She was initially barred from attaining a driver’s permit, but then the DACA program was introduced allowing her to earn a license along with her other friends.
Eloisa was accepted to the College of Charleston, having already studied Chinese for her international business degree. She was a recipient of the AHAM (Association of Hispanic-American Women) scholarship but had waited for some time to hear from her school about financial aid. As her Freshman year arrived, she traveled to orientation with her entire family, visited her new dorm room, and finally got word from financial aid – not only was no state assistance available, but as a DACA student, she would be charged out-of-state tuition.
“I remember the spot we were sitting with my whole family as I broke into tears. I knew I had to withdraw from the college - there was no way my family could afford that. I couldn’t do that my family after all they had already sacrificed. I cried the whole way home from Charleston. I enrolled in Piedmont tech that Friday, and Monday I started classes - that changed me.”
With all her hopes and expectations vanishing in front of her, Eloisa fell into depression, having had no desire to socialize or do anything but attend class, come home, and sleep. “It hurt so bad!” Her father was deeply concerned for her wellbeing, and suggested a “project” to help her move forward and regain her confidence. They would open a car dealership. Feeling that she had nothing to lose, Eloisa agreed. Slowly, the new project and a renewed trust in her faith began to help her move on from her loss. When a family financial crisis threatened her education for the second time, her professors banded together, and helped her apply for La Puerta Esperanza (The Door of Hope) Scholarship, so she could finish her degree. On her 19th birthday, she and her father bought their first car and opened “C.V. (Cristo Vivé) Auto Sales,” in honor of their faith.
Eloisa continued to go to school, and manage the dealership at the same time. In fact, the entire dealership was in her name, since her DACA status afforded her more rights than her father. She would handle administration, marketing, and sales, and her father managed mechanics and purchasing. “I am an old person in a 20-year-old’s body,” she quips. “I matured faster than I expected, but I am happy with where I am.” In December of 2017, Eloisa graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Piedmont Tech.
It would not be surprising for Eloisa to have mixed feelings about her DACA status, considering the burdens and opportunities it has created. As in many immigrant families, members with DACA are a strange hybrid of statehoods: her younger sister is a US citizen, and her eldest sister, who came to the US separate from Eloisa, is unable to qualify for DACA. Yet she consistently focuses on the bright spots of her situation. Last year, she was interviewed by CBS for a story on DACA broadcast throughout the Carolinas. One unexpected opportunity was the visibility this story gained her within her professional organization, the Carolinas Independent Automobile Dealers Association (CIADA). Dominated by white men, they were surprised to find a young Latina DACA recipient in their membership. Not only was there an outpouring of mentorship offers, she was sent to Washington, D.C. as an emissary of their association to speak with federal lawmakers about DACA policies. Her message there was simple: “I want to travel to Mexico and see my family. I want to be seen as a resident because I own a business and pay taxes. I want a permanent solution.” The trip was an amazing experience for her. While she grew more confident that a legislative solution could be found, she also says that she gained insight into the way that the issue of DACA was used politically to accomplish other goals.
With great achievements under her belt, Eloisa did not sit still for long. Through her work at her dealership, she understood that the Hispanic community had a great need for information and resources about insurance. At just the right time, Matt Davis, a State Farm Agent in Clinton, was looking for a bicultural agent to reach the Hispanic community. With this partnership, Eloisa was able to open up another line of work for herself and connect with the needs of the community. She is running her business full time, and working on her insurance license with plans to join Matt’s team in Clinton.
To Eloisa, her Hispanic heritage means never forgetting where she comes from. Having left Mexico so young, her understanding of being Mexican comes through her parents – eating authentic Mexican food every night, appreciation for family, and an undying dream for the future. In addition to these gifts, she believes the DACA recipients in particular can strengthen America through hard work, perseverance and incredible gratitude. “We’re not people who like to give up easily. We don’t take our chances lightly – we take full advantage. I am so grateful for this country and our opportunities - I don’t imagine another life.” Eloisa claims that everyone with DACA has people behind them to whom they are grateful – parents, family, mentors, those who offer opportunities – and organizations like CIADA, AHAM, and Hispanic Alliance.
“I am Mexican and I am proud of it - seeing where we are now, and where I plan to be. I have lots of goals and dreams that seem impossible, but with God and my parents, it’s possible.”