Telling their stories: Moved by immigrants’ plight, IDEA Quest students create podcast on social issues

They didn’t have shoelaces.

Vanesa Marmolejos, a 16-year-old member of the South Texas Ideas nonprofit organization, immediately made this observation about some of the migrants seeking asylum at the McAllen Central Bus Station a couple weeks ago.

“I saw that there were a lot of people at the station, but it was easy to identify who the asylum-seekers were,” Marmolejos said, who was accompanied by the student-led organization’s co-president, Abigail Piando. “I saw that they did not have shoelaces and it made me emotional, because they are people and something small like that was taken from them.

“I remember just thinking about how badly I wanted people to see what I was seeing… I wanted to tell their stories.”

This is Marmolejos’ first year with STXi, a multifaceted organization piloted by high school students with the mission of encouraging other teenagers to be engaged in their community. Established in 2016, Piando, 18, explained that STXi’s undertaking is to propel conversations about “culture, community and identity,” and provide a platform for students to execute their ideas — like a podcast.

At least that was Marmolejos’ idea, to create a podcast examining young people’s thoughts on social topics.

Marmolejos later learned that at U.S. Border Patrol central processing centers, the shoelaces of immigrants are confiscated as a safety precaution. This was when she realized the podcast should not just be a personal endeavor, but was now the means of how she would encourage awareness and action on social matters in the greater community.

With a recorder and microphone in hand, the two high school students from IDEA Quest College Preparatory in Edinburg traveled to the McAllen bus station on a Saturday afternoon, documenting the sounds and activity there to incorporate into the first episode of STXi’s podcast, “Wrong Chat.”

Marmolejos, an Edinburg resident, said that the inspiration for the name of the podcast stemmed from the “odd feeling you get when you accidentally text the wrong chat.”

“It isn’t normal for young people to be talking about these big issues because it feels wrong to,” Marmolejos said. “But through this podcast, we want to change that and normalize these conversations. It’s us entering the wrong chat, but we are making it right.”

At the McAllen bus station, after taking a moment to observe the scene, Marmolejos and Piando were led to Carlos and Ramon, 13- and 16-year-old brothers from Honduras who were seeking asylum. In the episode, entitled “1.1 Immigration,” Marmolejos asked the boys about their journey here, holding the conversation in Spanish and later translating paraphrases of their responses in the podcast.

The first half of the podcast is devised of the brothers’ descriptions of the centers they stayed in and the hopes they have for their start in the U.S; they recalled how cold the rooms were, comparing them to ice boxes, and spoke of their ambitions of getting jobs to “live a life they are proud of.”

Before parting ways, Marmolejos asked the brothers a question she knew was frank: “Should I be scared of you in my country?”

“I had to think about why I wanted my podcast to be important, why I wanted people to get emotionally involved,” said Marmolejos, an immigrant herself from Spain. “I wanted an emotional response, so I had to think about deep and uncomfortable questions, because those are the ones that have not really been asked.”

In the second part of the episode, Marmolejos interviewed Hiram Gonzalez and Megan Lucero, both 17, and analyzed their thoughts on immigration policies. The podcast is available on SoundCloud through the organization’s website,

Last month, Marmolejos submitted the podcast episode to the NPR Student Podcast Challenge, a contest by the National Public Radio nonprofit organization. Winning podcast submissions will be announced later this month and feature on NPR’s “Morning Edition” or “All Things Considered.”

Marmolejos was born in Barcelona, where she was raised by her mother, and aunt and uncle, whom she also considers her parents, for eight years before immigrating to the U.S. They lived in North Carolina for six years after, moving around cities within the state before making a final move to Edinburg when Marmolejos was 14.

She said that although moving with her mother so frequently took a toll on the both of them, her mother has always prioritized her daughter’s education when making decisions.

“We moved here for a better education, but the media says that that’s not what I am here searching for, and there are so many people like me whose intentions are being misinterpreted,” said Marmolejos, whose mother balances babysitting, house cleaning and serving at a McAllen taqueria. “I want to use my voice to tell the stories of others. Through this podcast, I want others to have the opportunity to speak about social issues that they care for about.”

Through STXi, Marmolejos has plans to release monthly episodes that cover other social topics like gun reform and the LGBTQ community, but for now, will focus on immigration.

Marmolejos, who is currently a sophomore, hopes to attend the University of California, Los Angeles to study law or a field related to ethnicity studies.

STXi co-president of two years, Piando said that the podcast’s foundation is to inform local students about the Rio Grande Valley.

“Rarely do you think a podcast is led by kids, so we thought, ‘why not?’” Piando, who will be attending the University of Dallas this fall, said. “Especially from kids down here in the Valley, I really wanted them to be able to connect with it and learn more about the community. We see national news, but they don’t see the actually stuff that is happening close to us.”

She added that timidness is usually the reason why students do not ask the questions they have, but through STXi, young people are motivated by others their age to have the courage to challenge their curiosity.

“They should not be afraid to learn more about it (immigration),” Piando said. “We should not be afraid to want to learn more.”

Marcos Silva is the supervisor of the organization, and said that when Marmolejos told him that she wanted to start a podcast, his immediate response was to provide her with the tools she needed.

“It was more of a call to find resources, find equipement, find access to the building to record,” Silva, a college counselor at IDEA Quest for two years, said. “For me, it was exciting because even though it was a 10-minute episode, it came with about 10 to 15 hours of work, and a certain amount of those hours were spent educating themselves on what they were talking about.”

He added that he will continue to support the podcast because it is an opportunity for members to learn more about their community.

“They are putting themselves in positions that they have never been before, and it came with a lot of education that they probably would not have encountered otherwise,” Silva said. “So, I am excited that all episodes will come with that.”