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UCLA in mourning after two graduates who fought for rights of undocumented students die in car crash

May 20, 2010 | 11:03 am

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 on a highway in rural Maine, a tragedy that has resonated from coast to coast with multitudes who found inspiration in their life stories.

Police in Maine say a pickup crossed into an incoming lane of traffic and crashed head-on into the car in which the two women were passengers. Felix, 26, died at the scene; Tran, 27, succumbed at a hospital.

The two drivers survived with minor injuries. The incident remains under investigation, police said.

Tran, an aspiring filmmaker whose family lives in Orange County, was a doctoral student in American civilization at Brown University in Rhode Island. Felix, a graduate of Garfield High School, was studying at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York and wanted to be a physician and return to East L.A. to practice.

Several hundred stunned mourners crammed into an overflowing UCLA auditorium Monday for an emotionally wrenching ceremony. “These two women were exceptional leaders,” said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.

They were remembered not only as determined activists, but also as best friends who enjoyed traveling, shopping, good food and congenial company.

A blown-up snapshot of the two smiling women seated on a snow-covered park bench provided the stage backdrop. The pair, decked out in snow pants, boots and winter jackets, exude both a youthful mischievousness and an aura of accomplishment: They had come a long way to make it in the Ivy League

Their personal struggles to graduate — despite bans on financial aid, grants and fellowships for illegal immigrants — propelled the two into leading advocacy roles for legions nationwide in similar predicaments. Tran even 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 at the age of 6 from Germany, where she was born.

“I am culturally an American, and, more specifically, I consider myself a Southern Californian,” Tran, who was a citizen of no nation, 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 service. “Without this path her life had no meaning.”

Both grappled with a difficult irony: However far undocumented scholars may advance, they can’t work legally in the United States once they graduate — a fact that prompts many to prolong their studies.

Felix came to the United States from Mexico as a teenager with her parents and three younger siblings, quickly mastering English and becoming an academic standout, determined basketball player and avid hoops fan. 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, as she received hugs from mourners.

Friends described Felix as dynamic, gregarious and dogged. She marshalled 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 UCLA student, has made its way to campuses nationwide and onto YouTube. Tran would collect the meager proceeds from sales of the DVD and provide it to Solis in envelopes for “scholarship” money.

“She was like my guardian angel,” Solis said.

Another Tran short, “The Seattle Underground Railroad,” focuses on Felix and two UCLA colleagues who seek official identification and driver’s licenses in Washington state, where, Felix discovered, the process was less stringent than in California.

“For Cinthyia, that was her freedom, having her ID,” recalled Dana Heatherton, 25, a close friend of both women who accompanied them on the Seattle road trip. “I believed Cinthyia and Tam were going to rule the world. And I was really hoping to rule the world with them.”

--Patrick J. McDonnell

Photo: Students and friends of Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix mourn their death at a memorial service held at the Moore Hall Auditorium on the UCLA campus in Westwood on Monday. Tran, left, and Felix, both featured in a projected photograph, died in a two-vehicle crash in Trenton, Maine, on Saturday. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times