Ignacio Gutierrez '25 and Jackelinne Claros Benitez '24 have been named 2023-2024 John Robert Lewis Scholars by the Washington-based nonprofit Faith and Politics Institute, which honors U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the late civil rights leader from Georgia.
The yearlong program is part of FPI's effort to build a nationwide network of emerging leaders to create positive societal change based on the civil rights movement, according to the program guide.
Claros Benitez, a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Associate Fellow majoring in sociology, and Gutierrez, a Class of 1985 Scholar majoring in government and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies, will join six other undergraduates from across the country, each of whom is committed to promoting social justice. The scholars will take part in FPI's annual Congressional civil rights pilgrimage, explore landmarks in Washington, D.C., and complete oral history projects.
For her project, Claros Benitez hopes to focus on immigrant parents and what they wish the U.S. had provided after they arrived in this country. That research would serve as a foundational framework within her senior thesis. For her thesis, she plans to highlight the experiences of children of immigrants related to parentification, which occurs when children must take on adult responsibilities, she says.
"I consider myself a parentified child since I have taken on several tasks for a long time, including serving as an advocate and translator for my parents in federal offices and filling out necessary documentation for them," says Claros Benitez, whose parents are Salvadoran immigrants.
"However, I do not blame my parents for not being able to fulfill such responsibilities; they were victims of a system that failed to help immigrants assimilate into an English-driven society appropriately."
A Bronx resident who moved from the Little Italy section to Co-Op City in 8th grade, Claros Benitez had an awareness of social justice issues from an early age.
"My childhood neighborhood had a dense population filled with bodegas, crammed public transport, and old buildings. In Co-Op City, however, there is more greenery and improved infrastructure."
Similarly, heading north from New York on Interstate 95 toward Hanover, she saw billboards, highways, and pollution gradually turn to an abundance of trees and houses, she says. "I recognized the dichotomy between the two environments the first moment I stepped foot on the Dartmouth Coach."
Even as a 13-year-old, she had wondered about those differences, differences that would drive her ability to always ask "why?" says Claros Benitez. As a sociology major, she arrived at a "disheartening" answer—"environmental racism, which meant disparities in other sectors."
Claros Benitez says her research interests have been influenced by Dartmouth Black Lives, which she took last fall with Associate Professor Julia Rabig and Lecturer of History Darryl Barthé. The class, which involved an oral history project, turned out to be "a pivotal moment" in her life, helping prepare her for the John Robert Lewis Scholars Program.
For her project, she interviewed Wendy Kendrick '76, one of only 38 Black women in Dartmouth's first co-ed graduating class.
Although the alumna "did not see herself this way, I was honored to meet a pioneer," she says. "I look forward to hearing from other pioneers who had the bravery and resilience to be the first."
Claros Benitez attributes her comfort in pursuing research to her experience as a Mellon Mays Associate Fellow.
Thanks to the fellowship, "I am confident in completing a senior thesis as a first-generation, low-income Latina with the support of the advisors, my peers, and the organization itself."
On campus, the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean House has been "a bubble" that has allowed her to rarely feel homesick, she says. "It's my home away from home."
Gutierrez, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, grew up in an agrarian border community in Sonora, Mexico, and then attended high school in Arizona. Seeing socioeconomic injustices along the border firsthand sparked an interest in social justice, and as a teenager, he became involved with a nonprofit that helped migrant workers who had been deported from the U.S.
His coursework and other experiences at Dartmouth have deepened his understanding of complex issues related to the border, says Gutierrez, a member of South House, whose oral history project will explore issues related to the border.
Classes with Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government, and Matthew Garcia, the Ralph and Richard Lazarus Professor of History, Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies and Human Relations, have helped shape his academic and personal goals, which include advocating for strong democratic institutions in Mexico and the repeal of unfair immigration, labor, and asylum policies in the U.S., he says.
Because he shares the same hometown, Yuma, Ariz., as Cesar Chavez, Gutierrez has long been surrounded by the presence of the migrant labor organizer, who died in 1993, and the United Farm Workers Union, he says.
As a child, he witnessed firsthand the structural inequities present in his border town community, Gutierrez says. Now, applying the lens of migration studies, he sees how federal laws contrast with his own "internal ethics of providing for the common good."
For example, former agricultural workers near where he grew up often have unaddressed health problems, he says.
"Many of them are undocumented migrants who cannot receive health care in the U.S. because if they do, their status as workers gets compromised. So, they basically try to solve the problem without medical assistance."
Gutierrez, who is a member of the Dog Day Players improv group and sings a cappella with the Dartmouth Cords, has also looked for opportunities outside the classroom to learn about social justice work.
During a recent winterim trip through the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact, he was among 13 students who traveled with staff members along the Texas-Mexico border, learning about migration and asylum-seeking through project-based learning with local activists.
Looking ahead to his time as a John Robert Lewis Scholar, Gutierrez says discussions with his fellow scholars, advocates, and government representatives will offer an opportunity to learn strategies and principles for improving his advocacy work with underrepresented communities.
In many ways, as soon as undocumented migrants cross the border, they're "shoved off from society. They provide so much money for the U.S. economy, yet they're never able to reap those benefits," he says. Ensuring the workers are no longer "in the shadows," living in fear could be a step toward incorporating them into the U.S.
It's a goal, he notes, that aligns with one of Lewis' principles: "How do we make our social democracy a better one?"