Inspired by immigrant parents, this Wilmington Charter senior is fighting for social justice

Marina Affo
Delaware News Journal

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify some descriptions.

Alessandro Iaia has always believed in the American dream.

That anyone – whether they are born in this country or have made this country their home – with hard work, can get far. With perseverance, they can receive equal treatment and be able to live their lives without anyone looking down on them or thinking anything negative about them. 

But as he got older, the Wilmington teen realized that not everyone subscribed to that same ideal. 

Iaia is half Mexican and half Italian. Both his parents immigrated to America, met here and now have two boys, the younger of whom is 18-year-old Iaia. 

"In my house, my mom speaks Spanish and my dad responds in Italian," he said. 

He often finds himself going between English, Italian and Spanish at the dinner table with his parents, and he's also mastered French through his schooling. 

A multicultural and multilingual household is one of the best gifts his parents have given him, Iaia said. 

But while his Italian father, Alberto, can blend into society fairly easily because he looks white, his Mexican mother, Gabriela – with her dark hair, full eyebrows and rounded face – has a harder time. 

Alessandro Iaia with his mother Gabriela. Iaia says how people have treated his mother, who is a Mexican immigrant, is one of the big reasons he has been doing much of the work he's done within the Latino community.

"My interest in helping communities, especially the Latinx community, has really come from seeing the discrimination that my mom has faced purely because she is a minority, she's an immigrant and she looks different than what the 'expectation of an American' looks like," Iaia said. 

He pointed to instances when people "try to pretend" that they can't understand his mother due to her slight accent, a frustration that stems from his deep connection to his Mexican heritage and its cultural traditions. Iaia has visited multiple times and now feels a very personal response to the plight facing Mexicans in America, particularly as it relates to immigration. 

"It bothers me in the sense that I see my parents as the definition of what it means to be American," Iaia said. 

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Charter School of Wilmington senior Alessandro Iaia was recently selected as a recipient of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation's Regional Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards.

The Charter School of Wilmington senior has dedicated much of his high school days to creating programs and leading organizations working toward equal treatment and opportunities for marginalized people, particularly those in the Latino community. He was recently selected as a recipient of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation's Regional Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards. 

The Hispanic Heritage Foundation is a national nonprofit focused on education, workforce, leadership and culture in the Latino community. More than 25 students from Delaware, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia were recognized. Iaia is the only person to win from Delaware.

Receiving a silver place in the public service category, Iaia now has $1,000 toward his undergraduate education. While he is still waiting back from a number of schools, he plans to study government and minor in Latin American studies. 

Iaia's mother and father say they have never pushed their son to be such an active member in the fight for social and racial justice, but they are incredibly proud he has taken up the fight. 

Gabriela remembers going to the grocery store when she and Alberto first moved to Delaware over 18 years ago. A woman became upset when she thought Gabriela cut in line (which she hadn't) and screamed at her. 

"You, go back to your country! Go back to Spain! We don't want you here!" she remembers the woman yelling. 

Though she wasn't from Spain, the pain from hearing those words was still strong. 

"She was very aggressive," Gabriela said. 

Alessandro Iaia with his older brother Gianfanco, his mother and his grandparents on a past birthday.

And that wasn't the last time. From police officers being rude when she asked for directions to daily interactions, Gabriela has experienced this discrimination, and Iaia does not want others to face what his mother has endured. 

"This is an amazing country. It's a country that everybody describes as a melting pot, and there's great things about this place," said Iaia's father, Alberto, "and yet we still, unfortunately, live with racism and divisions." 

The father said that while he has faced some racism, it hasn't been nearly as bad as his wife so they are excited about the potential of their son contributing to the ongoing battle for social change. 

No matter where he goes to school or what exactly he ends up studying though, Iaia plans to return to Delaware to continue much of the work he's started, either through practicing law or by running for political office. 

Alessandro Iaia with his father Alberto and his older brother Gianfanco.

Last June, Iaia co-founded and now co-directs the Asian Hispanic Empowerment Organization, an international nonprofit that works to educate young kids in elementary school about the dangers of racism and the importance of acceptance while they're young. 

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He also serves as the volunteer coordinator for the Prevention & Advocacy Department at the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington. 

He is also the founder and president of his school’s Hispanic Outreach Club, an organization that connects his classmates to opportunities to volunteer within, learn from and be a part of the Latino community in Wilmington. 

"Every generation has been able to contribute something to American's story," he said. "I believe my generation and, at least where I stand, my contribution should be helping underserved communities.

"It should be helping people like my parents who are immigrants, who struggle with the language, who are looking for guidance or looking for any sort of assistance," he added. "Being American is being part of a story of success, of being part of an ideology." 

Contact Marina Affo at 302-353-0375 or maffo@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter at @marina_affo