They were both working-class girls from Southern California immigrant families.
One was of Vietnamese heritage, the other Mexican. One was reserved, the other vivacious.
Both surmounted hardships to graduate from UCLA and be admitted to prestigious East Coast universities for graduate studies.
And both shared a particular passion: a commitment to assist undocumented students like themselves attend college, attain legal status and escape the shadow existence of illegal immigrants.
“Tam and Cinthya never lived their lives in the shadows,” said Kent Wong, a UCLA professor.
Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix were killed early Saturday in a traffic accident in rural Maine. Police said a pickup crossed into oncoming traffic and crashed into the car in which the women were passengers. Felix, 26, died at the scene; Tran, 27, died at an area hospital. Both drivers survived with minor injuries.
Tran, an aspiring filmmaker whose family lives in Garden Grove, was a doctoral student in American civilization at Brown University in Rhode Island. Felix, who grew up in East Los Angeles, was studying at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York and wanted to be a physician.
Several hundred mourners crammed into an overflowing UCLA auditorium Monday for an emotional ceremony. They were remembered as determined activists and best friends who enjoyed traveling, shopping, good food and congenial company.
An enlarged snapshot of the two smiling women seated on a snow-covered bench in New York City’s Central Park provided the backdrop for the memorial. Decked out in snow pants, boots and winter jackets, they exude a youthful mischievousness and an aura of accomplishment.
Their personal struggles to graduate — despite bans on financial aid, grants and fellowships for illegal immigrants — propelled the two into leading advocacy roles for others in similar situations. Tran testified before Congress in 2007, relating her story as a “stateless” refugee: the daughter of boat people who fled Vietnam and came to the United States when she was 6 from Germany, where she was born.
“I am culturally an American, and, more specifically, I consider myself a Southern Californian,” Tran told a House subcommittee. “I grew up watching ‘Speed Racer’ and ‘Mighty Mouse’ every Saturday morning.”
She pleaded for passage of the so-called DREAM Act, a proposed federal law that would provide a chance at legal residency for undocumented college students. According to the bill’s sponsors, some 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
“This was her chosen life path,” said Tran’s mother, Loc Pham, who attended the UCLA memorial. “Without this path her life had no meaning.”
Both young women grappled with a difficult irony: However far undocumented scholars may advance, they can’t work legally in the United States once they graduate.
Felix came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager with her parents and three younger siblings, quickly learned English and became an academic standout and a determined basketball player. At UCLA, she was a founding member of IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Equality, Access and Success), an advocacy group for undocumented students.
“My daughter always wanted to help people,” said Irene Perez, Felix’s mother.
Friends described Felix as dynamic, gregarious and dogged. She marshaled resources and searched for loopholes in the law, becoming a one-woman database and go-to person on topics such as sources of aid for undocumented students and how to obtain driver’s licenses and government IDs. Her car’s vanity license plate read: “Illegal.”
“Cinthya was the leader,” recalled Fabiola Inzunza, 24, a friend and fellow activist. “She opened the path for all of us to push through and fight for our education.”
Tran, more taciturn, was likewise focused.
“I’ve never met anyone who has that specific a passion and goal,” said Stephanie Solis, 24, a native of the Philippines who was the subject of one of Tran’s films, “Lost and Found.”
The five-minute short, which looks at Solis’ life as an undocumented student attending UCLA, has made its way to campuses nationwide and onto YouTube. Tran would collect the meager proceeds from sales of the DVD and give them to Solis in envelopes for “scholarship” money.
“She was like my guardian angel,” Solis said.