By Wujun Ke
At 18 years old, Andrea Gutierrez had been driving for just a few months when a speeding car collided into hers at an intersection. Her car was totaled, but she left the situation unscathed. While the other driver was at fault, Gutierrez had to pay almost $16,000 in damages because she didn’t have car insurance. There were no witnesses, and no one to certify which party was guilty.
Gutierrez remembers her family being afraid. “We didn’t want to complain to anyone or call the cops.”
As an undocumented immigrant from Peru, Gutierrez lived in constant fear of driving without a license and working without papers. Besides missing her relatives back home, she also longed for a sense of belonging in the United States, a country that rarely considers its undocumented residents deserving of equal opportunities.
Having experienced what it’s like to go without the basic protections of citizenship, Gutierrez brings an unwavering dedication to running the FRESH Basic Needs Hub, the newly-expanded food pantry that provides fresh food and toiletries, free of charge, to all UCI students experiencing economic hardship. As the inaugural coordinator for FRESH, she is passionate about expanding the program. Gutierrez goes out of her way to make sure the operation is running smoothly. She can be found lifting boxes alongside the pantry managers, consulting with students, meeting with administrators, conducting outreach and chatting amicably with her staff.
Before Gutierrez had to carry the many burdens of being undocumented in the United States, she attended elementary school at Sacred Hearts Belen, a private Catholic school in Lima, Peru. Although she wasn’t as well-off as her classmates, she describes her family as having been middle-class in her childhood. When Gutierrez was 13, her father lost his job and moved to the U.S. in search of better opportunities, and the rest of the family followed two years later.
Reflecting on her teenage years, Gutierrez said, “No matter how many dreams or goals I had there was always these barriers to achieving them … as a young person who was trying to form an identity and figure out life, there was a lot of anger, there was a lot of frustration.”
While attending community college, Gutierrez worked between 25 to 30 hours a week in the food industry to make ends meet. For almost 10 years, she waitressed, worked the front desk, served tables and trained new employees. Gutierrez was offered a managerial position at California Pizza Kitchen, but because she was determined to finish school, she declined. She was afraid that if she said yes to management, she would like the money too much to continue her education.
“One way or another, I wanted to go to college,” she said. “While it wasn’t accessible to me earlier, I always kept that hope alive that you know, a law would change or something would happen.”
Biding her time eventually paid off. After seven years of community college, the California Dream Act passed, granting financial aid to undocumented students in 2012. Finally able to afford a four-year college, Gutierrez applied and was accepted into UC Irvine. As an incoming transfer student, Gutierrez made the conscious decision to be open about her undocumented status, a part of her identity she had always kept cautiously hidden.
Inspired by young activists and protesters who announced they were undocumented and unafraid, she asked herself, “Why am I so afraid?”
Gutierrez’s decision to be open about her citizenship status allowed her to connect with and advocate for others. During her time as a UCI student, Gutierrez worked for UCI’s Student Outreach and Retention Center (SOAR) and served on UC President Janet Napolitano’s advisory committee for undocumented students, advocating for systemic changes across the UC schools. Many of the initiatives her and her fellow student leaders pushed for years ago — a coordinator, a center, scholarships — have now become institutional realities. Most UC campuses, including Irvine, have created Dream Centers because of student-led advocacy.
The pantry, located around the corner for the Dream Center in Lot 5, is another important way to increase access to higher education for low-income and undocumented students. It recognizes that students struggling with financial hardship are worthy of a decent life, sending a powerful message that nobody should go hungry while pursuing their college degrees.
Though FRESH opened its doors less than a year ago, Gutierrez understands that the ultimate goal is for the pantry not to exist. Pointing out that it functions as a Band-Aid in the absence of more sustainable options, she hopes that in the long term, structural changes, such a food stipend in financial aid packages, will render the pantry obsolete. Until that happens, Gutierrez remains committed to working to keep students at UCI healthy and well-fed as they pursue their educational dreams.
“I’m very driven by injustice. I see this world, and I see poverty and racism and all these isms; they hurt me,” she said. “In my heart, I don’t understand how it’s possible that we as a society are marginalizing our own people. Don’t give access to folks, and don’t give them the dignity of a fruitful life.”