Luis Ortega shares his past

Luis Ortega, founder of Storytellers for Change

El Centro Latino invited Luis Ortega, founder of Storytellers for Change, to come to Bellevue College on Friday, October 22 to tell his story about being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. and teach others how to be effective storytellers as well through a workshop. “It’s very empowering for students because for El Centro we do have a lot of undocumented students who are open about their immigration status,” said Aylin Manuel, an El Centro Latino member.

Storytellers for Change works to create leaders out of young people by telling their own stories and holding workshops in high schools and colleges. “I think there is a serious empathy gap in our world nowadays,” said Ortega, going on to say that Storytellers for Change was looking to close that gap. Ortega said he is trying to teach people that “really believing in yourself and your ability to write your own story” is important.

The reason Ortega said he founded Storytellers for Change goes back to when he moved from Mexico to America with his family at the beginning of high school. The problem was they moved to Seattle as undocumented immigrants. This motivated Ortega because he wanted to fit in, so he tried really hard. “I went from knowing no English to learning English in six months, from failing all my classes in Mexico in Spanish, my native language, to having a 4.0 GPA in high school taking very challenging classes,” he said. He also said his mother motivated him because she would get up at 5 a.m. every morning so that she could cook for people and clean their houses to support the family. “It was at my mom’s expense that I had the opportunity to sit down every day, well five days a week, in a school with just one job – to study,” said Ortega.

By the time he was in senior year of high school, Ortega was becoming more concerned about his family’s immigration status. He said that no matter what he did “There is this nagging voice in the back of your head that’s always reminding you that there is something about you that’s wrong.” In his guilt, he went and told his high school counselor about his status to seek advice. “I remember, my counselor totally just stood there,” he said. “[She] stood up, opened the door and said ‘get out. People like you don’t go to college.’” Ortega stated that at first it hurt, but he eventually came to terms with his counselor and have empathy for her. What she said also motivated him to apply to the University of Washington to defy her.

According to Ortega, the job of a storyteller is more about listening than actually talking. He said that whenever he tells the story about his counselor, there is always someone else telling him that something similar had happened to them as well.

“There’s rarely ever something more powerful that we can do for someone else than to give them our full attention and to truly listen to what they have to say,” he said.