Keren Rivas, a resilient Peruvian hoping to empower women around the world

Multimedia Reporting by Ginna Royalty

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Keren Rivas is the youngest of five girls. Photo by Ginna Royalty

The youngest of five, Keren Rivas was accustomed to being in school with one of her siblings and spending a lot of time with her family. “We are very close-knit, that’s very normal in Latin America,” Rivas said. “We’re used to always being together.” But now Rivas hasn’t seen one of her sisters or been home in 11 years. The family hasn’t been together for Christmas since 1997.

Born and raised in Peru, Rivas was a teenager when her father, a Protestant minister, felt his ministry was needed somewhere else. He had opportunities in Brazil, Chile and the United States. When a door opened in Miami, they applied for visas, received their green cards and were on their way to their new home within a year.

The two youngest of the five sisters were able to travel with their parents to the United States, as they were under 21, but the older ones could not. So in 1997, the family split apart.

Rivas attended Elon, worked hard as a student and teacher’s assistant and eventually found her way back to her alma mater for a full-time job. She now works in the Elon University Office of Communications as the assistant director for alumni communications.

Miami heat to Burlington bliss

For Rivas, life in the United States was very different than in Peru. But moving to Miami made it a little easier. Around 65 percent of Miami’s population is Hispanic, so Rivas was able to continue speaking Spanish, eat typical Peruvian meals and transition to life in the United States.

“It was still foreign, but there were some traits of home.”

-Keren Rivas speaking about moving to Miami

Rivas’ family spent two years in Miami but soon realized that there was not much need for new Spanish-speaking churches in Miami. Her father started looking for an area with a higher need for Latino ministers. Around the same time, there was a significant increase in the Hispanic population in North Carolina. Between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina’s Hispanic population grew by 302,237 people, a growth rate of nearly 400 percent.

After visiting friends in the state, her parents settled into Burlington in June of 1999 and started a church while Rivas stayed in Florida for another year finishing up her job as a secretary at a nonprofit. She wanted to go to school and study, and Burlington was the perfect setting to slow down, work and go to school. It also didn’t hurt that the Rivas family had fallen in in love with the changing leaves in North Carolina.

“It reminded my mother of her years growing up in Chile,” Rivas said. “It made North Carolina feel more like home.”

Life at Elon

Despite the familiarity of the landscape, Burlington wasn’t as easy to adjust to as Miami. “At first I couldn’t understand people because the accent is so thick,” Rivas said. “It’s a very different English, it took me a while to adjust.”

Rivas looked at then Elon College and Alamance Community College (ACC) as possible places to go to school. Coming from Peru, she wasn’t ‘prepared’ for college in the same ways others were; she hadn’t saved up money for college and she had never taken the SAT.

Although she never heard back from ACC, Elon was very receptive and worked with her as an international student. She started taking two classes in the spring of 2000 and charged them to a credit card.

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Keren Rivas speaks to a journalism class about Elon Day. Photo by Diego Pineda

“Elon really took a chance on me,” Rivas said. “But I told them I can do this.” She worked with her English and psychology professors, sat in the front row and told them to be critical of her work.

Not only was she taking classes, she also worked every year during her college career. She worked as an English as a Second Language teacher’s assistant for the Alamance-Burlington School System during her four years at Elon.

“The school system was desperate,” Rivas said. “The demographics were changing and they didn’t know how to adjust.” She took all of her classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that she could work full time at Andrews Elementary School in North Burlington on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

During her time at Elon, Rivas also spent a lot of time with other international students at El Centro. “El Centro wasn’t so much a place for me to continue learning English but rather to help me acclimate culturally,” Rivas said. While she learned English in high school, it was still hard being completely immersed in college life in a different culture, and El Centro provided a sort of home for her.

In Rivas’ senior year at Elon, she worked as an intern for Norma Thompson, a school counselor at Graham Middle School. They worked on the CARE Project, which aimed to bring diversity training for the growing Hispanic community in the Alamance County schools. Rivas helped Thompson create a training video for all personnel in the school system.

Thompson is also an immigrant, born and raised in Mexico, and the two formed an immediate friendship. “We both experienced a lot of ignorance,” Thompson said. “People didn’t understand that being Hispanic isn’t a race, it’s an ethnic group.”

Rivas set the bar very high for all future interns. She was professional, reliable and committed. “I was always expecting other interns to be like Keren, and I was always disappointed,” Thompson said. “They didn’t have the same commitment, the same ‘Yes, I can do it’ attitude.”

Working and being Hispanic in the United States

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Rivas participated in the marathon reader for Don Quixote last year. Photo submitted by Rivas.

Rivas graduated from Elon College in December 2003 and continued working full time for the school system until June 2010. She was referred to a job at the Burlington Times-News by one of her professors. She told them that although she was interested, she couldn’t start until school got out. They agreed to keep the job open for two months until she could start that summer.

“The only thing I regret is that I did not take enough time off in between jobs,” Rivas said. “I only took three days off.”

At first, Rivas worked in general government reporting, covering general interest stories and getting to know the people in Gibsonville and Elon. After a year or two, she was assigned the court beat, which she did until 2010. During this time Rivas spent a lot of time in the courthouse checking files and lawsuits, asking questions and befriending the clerks.

She spent most of her time in superior court covering civil and criminal trials. “It was a good way to learn the system here, an interesting look into the judicial system in America,” Rivas said. “It was very fascinating to me.”

However, her experiences with law enforcement were not always positive. Rivas always remembers one night when she was leaving her boyfriend’s house in Gibsonville and a cop car stopped her. “He was clearly stopping me because of who I am,” Rivas said.

The officer was parked on the street outside her boyfriend’s house. Rivas could feel him watching her as she got in her car and drove away. She called her boyfriend and said, “I’m going to get pulled over in a couple of minutes.”

Sure enough, the cop was still following her and not five minutes later he pulled her over. She asked him why he was stopping her and he mumbled something about an issue with the license of the person listed on the tags. The car was in her dad’s name and his driver’s license was in order. So was hers. Eventually, he let her go.

The following day, she called the Gibsonville police chief and asked him, “What is the reason for somebody to be stopped if there is no apparent reason for it? Because if you’re not profiling then what is it?”

She also called around to other departments asking about their motivations for deciding who to stop. It all came down to what an officer considers to be a reasonable suspicion. Rivas was infuriated in that moment; she knew she had been profiled.

But Rivas has gained resilience from her hardships.

“I think that being a minority Keren was very aware of how misinformed people are about Hispanics,” Thompson, her internship mentor, said.

Returning to Elon

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Keren Rivas works in her office. Photo by Ginna Royalty

In 2010, Rivas started working in the Elon University Office of Communications as the assistant director for academic communications. She transitioned to her current role in fall 2012. Her job ranges from coordinating print and digital communications for alumni events, to populating the homecoming website, to serving as editor for the quarterly Magazine of Elon, which has an average circulation of over 30,000.

“The magazine illustrates the importance of giving back to the school,” Rivas said. “It’s a way to show the impact giving has and a way to listen to the stories of students and alumni and what Elon means to them.”

Rivas also supports the work of Elon’s Office of Advancement, meaning she plays a big role in planning Elon Day. They start preparing months in advance, as early as November or even October.

Katie DeGraff, director of editorial services, has known Rivas since she started at Elon. She makes sure that Elon’s brand is communicated accurately and that the message is consistent. DeGraff and Rivas collaborate on different projects and utilize each other as resources.

“Keren has one of the best work ethics of anyone I’ve ever met,” DeGraff said. “She’s determined and not one to complain.”

The politics of immigration and her family

Immigration policies have been especially apparent since the recent presidential election. “To me, it wasn’t a surprise that Trump won,” Rivas said. “It showed what was always there, but what people chose not to look at.”

Rivas is not an American citizen and is going back to Peru this summer for the first time in over a decade. People have asked her if the U.S. will let her back in, and her honest answer is, “I don’t know. It depends.”

For Rivas, this past election and the executive order on immigration showed that “We are not as free and open and accepting as we wanted to think we are,” she said. “It’s sad what this country has become.”

 

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Rivas with some of her family for when they visted for Christmas in 2014. Photo submitted by Rivas

She has felt the pain of immigration rules first hand. There are many complications that come with trying to get a visa to come to the United States. Rivas hasn’t seen one of her sisters, Rebeca, in 11 years because of the difficulty of the process. For a woman in Peru, for instance, it is much easier to get a visa if your husband has one; in that case you can be added on his visa, Rivas said.

 

When Rebeca applied for a visa for the first time, she was single and was rejected. “They basically told her that since we were here, they thought she was going to come and stay here illegally,” Rivas said.

Her sister has applied multiple times and now has a husband and family. Because she was initially rejected she has never been approved. She has since stopped trying because of the fees associated with the application.

After their parents became citizens, they filed a petition in 2007 for Rebeca to come as a permanent resident with a green card. The case is still pending. They are still waiting to find out when they’re going to get to her application—it takes at least 10 years for the government to process it.

“This should put the whole immigration debate in perspective and perhaps help you see why so many people make the painful decision to come to this country illegally,” Rivas said. “Reform is needed.”

While her other sisters have been able to visit her in the United State, “we’ve not been able to all be together as a family in 20 years,” Rivas said. “It’s been too long, but we hope to one day soon be able to spend a proper Christmas together once again.”

Persist and inspire

Rivas has persevered through the hardships that immigrants face in the United States. “Her experiences give her a better sense of the things that actually matter; she doesn’t sweat the small stuff,” Katie DeGraff, her communications colleague, said. But she has enjoyed the greater freedom she has as a woman.

“I am proud of being a Latino woman in a career that I wanted to be in,” Rivas said.

The way Rivas describes it, the working culture in Peru is much different than the United States. For women, working past 30 years old will be difficult to get or keep a job. Employers are always looking for someone younger, more driven by a “macho” culture.

Rivas is the proudest of being able to do what she wants to do, without the pressures of being a wife, having kids or being able to cook. “In Peru, women are still in the 18th century,” Rivas said. “They’re expected to stay home and cook. But I don’t cook; I often say I don’t do it as a way to rebel against the expectations of my gender.”

But Rivas does not want simply to persist or rebel, she wants to lead and inspire. If Rivas ever decides to go back home, “I will focus on empowering women in my country.”

      Rivas answers, “What is the best life advice you were ever given?”
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