Student-created Casa Marianella Market celebrates undocumented immigrant identity

Jessica Garcia, Life & Arts Reporter

On the afternoon of April 24, Alejandra Zuñiga smiled, taking in the buzzing atmosphere of vendors selling crafts and treats while people gathered to support her creation — the Casa Marianella Market.

Zuñiga organized the Casa Marianella Market as part of the Engaged Scholar Initiative at UT, which provides students the creative opportunity to devise a year-long project about a topic of their interest. For Zuñiga, her topic of interest centered on immigrant activism and providing a place where people can celebrate undocumented immigrant identity. 

“My project was about reframing narratives about undocumented people that centered around trauma and allowing (them) to take their lives and narratives back into their own hands,” said Zuñiga, a government and communication studies senior.

Zuñiga hosted the market in partnership with Casa Marianella, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter and resources to displaced immigrants. The Casa Marianella Market consists of local vendors, a Convivio — a monthly celebration at Casa Marianella — and an exhibit called “Alegría Sin Papeles” that Zuñiga assembled showcasing interviews, artifacts and vision boards made by the undocumented immigrants she connected to during the year-long project. 

“(The vision boards) gave people a chance to think, hope and dream,” Zuñiga said. “A lot of undocumented people aren’t granted that luxury because they’re so focused on trying to make it today — their entire lives could be uprooted at any moment.”

Through the vision boards, Zuñiga said she hoped to create a space where undocumented immigrants could explore their dreams for the future.

Zuñiga said the project allowed her to give back to her community in a way that presented and celebrated immigrants’ history and life stories in a vibrant environment such as a marketplace.

“I’ve always been in immigrant spaces, and it was something I had to do for my community,” Zuñiga said. 

Carlos Villapudua, an engineering and advertising senior and vendor at the Casa Marianella Market, said they appreciated that Zuñiga drew on her experiences and passion for redefining the perception of undocumented immigrants to provide a platform in which larger audiences can hear their stories. 

“There’s power in having people tell the stories of the identity they belong to,” Villapudua said. “(The market) shows the joy that people who are undocumented still have and the dreams they have, as opposed to just their stories of having to be resilient.”

Corporate communications senior Patrick Ruiz said he attended the market to support Zuñiga and felt proud that her project unified the community to celebrate undocumented immigrant identity.

“People were coming up to her project, looking at her vision boards and reading (the undocumented immigrants’) stories,” Ruiz said. “That was very heartwarming.”

Zuñiga said she hoped to convey a message about portraying undocumented immigrants in an uplifting way that represents different facets of their lives and not just in the context of their citizenship status.

“All people are deserving of a chance at safety and stability,” Zuñiga said. “I hope (the project) impacted at least one person and that these ideas reach other undocumented people.”