Since its 1992 inception on MTV — and across more than 33 seasons and 600 episodes — The Real World has frequently functioned as a battleground for the country’s most marginalized young people to fight for understanding. As early as the show’s third season, San Francisco housemate Pedro Zamora bravely revealed his AIDS status with the aim of pushing back against the ailment’s looming stigma. Eight years later, Hawaii’s Ruthie Alcaide shed light on the painful reality of addiction, and in 2009, Brooklyn’s Katelynn Cusanelli dauntlessly demonstrated to viewers — for the first time — what it’s like to live as a transgender person.
But the show’s latest season — which has set up shop in Atlanta — has introduced perhaps its most politically charged storyline yet, as 21-year-old mother-of-one Arely revealed on the show’s premiere that she lives without permanent citizenship, and faces constant threats as her DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status hangs in the balance.
Arely, who moved with her parents from Mexico to the United States before she could walk or talk, hasn’t known life in another country. Still, as a DACA-recipient, she’s forced to routinely answer for undocumented immigrants: Before she even walked through the door on The Real World, a fellow housemate essentially told her she’s a law-breaker.
But Arely learned to stare fear in the face without flinching and is intent on debunking misconceptions about immigrants and what they seek in the United States. For starters: No, she’s not here to kill you, rape you or steal your job. Yes, she pays taxes and is a responsible, functioning member of society. And finally, though some might believe she should be sent back over the border, she’s still committed to becoming a nurse and saving lives in the country she loves.
The path forward for Arely will not be easy. Now that she and her family have overstayed their visas (their travel documents were good only until 2010), their paths toward permanent citizenship are narrowing. And though roadblocks continue to expand and multiply, Arely’s resolve has follow suit, and while her mother maintains crippling fear about her daughter joining the show, Arely has never had a doubt that fighting in plain sight seems fated. It seems right.
Below, Arely tells MTV News about what it’s like to speak for fellow DACA-recipients with so little other representation in pop culture, how she first learned at age 16 that she was undocumented and how close by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids have become a part of her reality.
Check it all out below, tell us what you’re hoping to see from Arely in remaining episodes and be sure to keep up with the latest season of The Real World: Atlanta — for the very first time — streaming on Facebook Watch. To get the facts on immigration and take action to support undocumented communities, visit http://www.mtvact.com/features/Immigration.
Just to start at the beginning, what’s your memory of the day that you found out that you were undocumented? You mentioned on the show that you didn’t even know your citizenship status until you were 16.
One day my mom comes into the house and she says: Hey, I need to take you to a lawyer because I need you to finish some paperwork. And I was like: Paperwork for what? She explained to me that Obama passed DACA. I was really confused. But then it suddenly made sense: A couple of weeks before I turned 16, I wanted to apply for my permit to be able to drive and my mom told me I couldn’t. It was kind of a brick to the face.
It was a very tough, confusing time, but the more I learned about the program, the more I understood.
What did you know about undocumented immigration before learning about your own status?
I knew a little bit about it, but my parents didn’t expose me much to it. [ICE] would do raids sometimes in my hometown and I remember we would always get phone calls when those would happen. My hometown has a pretty good number of undocumented immigrants and Hispanics so word travels fast. So, we would get calls like: Don’t go to this area, there’s a raid going on.
Did you ever feel “other” after learning you were undocumented? Was there bullying?
The area that I live in is very conservative — I remember I would try to explain to some of my peers in school about what was going on and they were like: Oh, so you’re just an illegal immigrant? It caught me off-guard, and that’s why growing up, when people called me illegal, I didn’t even know that wasn’t the correct term. I was thinking: Wow, I am really illegal. I started to really believe that about myself.
What is the biggest misconception about DACA-recipients?
People always say: Wow, they’re taking all this money from the government with FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student AID). But DACA-recipients don’t actually qualify for it, the government just wants to know how much money we’re getting. And I remember I was supposed to get $6,000 back, me being a single mom and everything. But then my college told me that because I’m not a resident citizen, I don’t qualify. And on top of that, they charged me international rates.
I’m not just here to take benefits from people in this country, use Medicaid, use food stamps. I don’t have any of that. I’ve never needed it or applied for it.
Is there a particular way you like to fight politically?
I make phone calls to Congress. Obviously, I can’t vote, but I contact our representatives and say: Hey, this is what I believe, think about what you’re voting for. I’ve also gotten better about informing people who are citizens about what’s at stake, reminding them that, hey, you have the ability to vote. Here’s some food for thought.
And with that food for thought, how can a permanent citizen be a better ally to DACA-recipients?
It’s really important that they be informed, even if it doesn’t directly affect them. Because it could affect a family member, a co-worker or a friend — someone really close to them. Learn about the candidates and where people stand on DACA and immigration.
Was being a DACA-recipient the exclusive reason you applied for The Real World, or were you hoping it would just be a supplementary part of your story?
Yeah, that was really the main focus that I wanted to get across on the show. I spend a lot of time watching the news and I don’t really see a lot of people talking about DACA — people just think: Oh, they’re taking the benefits that other kids should have. I knew if I applied, I could tell my story, and talk about all the struggles I’d gone through. I wanted to show that DACA-recipients aren’t here to use all the resources. We’re trying to make better lives for ourselves, and better lives for other Americans, too.
Has your mom come around on the idea of you being on the show? I know she was terrified at first.
She thought ICE was going to snatch me and put me in jail. But I was like: Mom, if I don’t do this, who’s going to speak for us? Toward the end, she started to feel more comfortable. She may or may not make a surprise appearance later on!
Did you feel immediate pressure to be the DACA mascot? How did you deal with that?
I knew what I wanted to say when I was cast, but once I entered the house, I started to second-guess myself: What if I’m not the right person to talk about this? There was a lot of back and forth with my own thoughts. That’s why I was so grateful to have Justin, who’s an activist, in the house. He was so helpful in my path to find my voice and to represent what I want to represent.
Did you have a particular game plan for handling conflict surrounding your DACA status?
I knew I had to speak calmly, talk about what I think was right and stand my ground. It was a little hard at first because Dondre is so stern on his opinion, and I’m not used to that type of straightforwardness. A lot of people sugar-coat. I thought if I talked about how I wanted to be a nurse but couldn’t achieve that, people like Dondre would get a clearer sense of like: Hey, I’m trying to do something that helps other people in this country. I remember that finally seemed to make sense to him.
Did the views of your roommates surprise you? On one hand, you have a black, pansexual man, Dondre, who’s constantly challenging your right to be in the country, while a self-proclaimed Republican emblem, Clint, jumps in to defend you during heated debates.
Yeah, Dondre’s very first words were: Oh, so you came here illegally? Like, wow, we’re really doing this? I was definitely caught off-guard, and Dondre took me by surprise. With Clint, I was also really surprised, because I watched his casting video and he’s on the farm, talking about being a Republican. I thought I’d probably get into a debate with Clint over Dondre. You really don’t know who believes what until you start having those conversations. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Do you wish your story in Atlanta had been less politically charged and a little more comfortable?
I’ve just kind of learned to embrace it. It’s a part of me and that’s not going to change. I try not to look at the negatives. I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of what I stand for. If I didn’t have to deal with that in the house then what was the point of me being on the show? If I didn’t have DACA I probably wouldn’t have applied for the show.
The Real World has a history of sharing the stories of marginalized people — are there any previous cast members whose stories or struggles inspired you?
Pedro Zamora was on before I was born but I still watched it! I’ve watched it forever.
But yeah, Pedro was a person living with AIDS and a lot of people back then were totally against him. I knew that if he could stand up for what he believes is right and he is proud of who he is, then I could come onto the show and tell my story even though there are people that want to see me fail.
You mentioned on the show that Logic’s messaging on Trump’s border wall was encouraging — who else do you see fighting for immigrants in that pop culture sphere?
This sounds really weird, but G-Eazy is another person I’ve been big on. I got to meet and talk to him about a year ago, and I said: Thank you so much for using your voice as a platform and defending immigrants and bringing attention to us. A lot of us don’t have that representation. He gave me a hug and was like: That’s the main thing I’m trying to get across — we’re all human beings. I remember just crying. It was after that that I realized I needed to start talking more about DACA, and opening up to my older, more conservative co-workers who don’t understand it.
You said on the show that if you could become a citizen you would — now that filming is over, what more will it take for you to achieve citizenship?
To get citizenship, the options that I have right now are to get married to a citizen, but even that’s a big process with lawyers and fees. Or, I could join the military and some branches will grant you a path to citizenship. I think that’s it right now.
I know the House of Representatives just tried to pass the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, and that would grant a path to citizenship for DACA-recipients and expand what the program currently offers. It’s up in the air and being sent to the Senate.
And has there been any more movement with trying to get your nursing license since filming?
I’m still trying to find places that will allow DACA-recipients to get their licenses. One of the states that’s really close to me actually passed a bill that would allow DACA-recipients to receive licensing. I didn’t even find out until toward the end of filming earlier this year. It was a big thing. The first thing I did after the show was apply for it.
Do you think your son will be proud of what he sees if and when he watches the show?
I thought about him a lot during filming. I want him to understand that his mom and grandparents are immigrants and that’s part of who he is. I think he’s going to be proud of what I stood up for and I hope he knows what to fight for.
More generally, what do you hope your legacy is when the show ends?
I wanted to inform the public what being a DACA-recipient is, and not to believe all the fake news that you hear or see on television. Some people are very quick to believe lies when they don’t do their own research. It was about helping them to understand my side. I feel like I did a great job telling my truth.
I’ve already gotten a lot of feedback — a lot of people have been like: Wow, I didn’t know this. I’m learning so much. After that, I knew I did what I set out to do.
Editor’s note: MTV isn’t identifying Arely's hometown for her safety and privacy.