There are almost a million others just like me. We all share the same fear. We live among the rest of American society but for a long time we have been hiding in the shadows. We are the children of sacrifice and great possibility. We are the bearers of sorrow and strength, so beautifully intertwined. We carry baggage that does not belong to us. In exchange for possibility, this baggage was sewn on our backs so tightly and intricately that it soon became part of our flesh, part of our very being. Many of us had no knowledge of the baggage we carried upon our backs. We simply just knew something felt a little heavy.
I remember the exact moment in which I became aware of who I was. There were several times growing up that my mother had kept my sister and I from school. Rumors would circle around town that someone had spotted “la migra.” The word itself was familiar to me, I’d heard it countless times before. I never questioned why we were supposed to hide. It was just something we did. We always had to keep a low profile.
In the third grade, I vividly remember looking at myself in the mirror. I had to have been maybe four feet tall, but in that moment, I felt fully grown. My hand-me-down, mustard yellow jacket hung loosely on me. I loved that hand-me-down jacket with everything in me. I looked at myself up and down trying to memorize each little detail and I knew then: “this is who I am.” I always thought it a weird thing to come to such a realization at the mere age of nine.
At nine years old, the veil over my eyes had blown away with the winter wind. I knew I was different from most of my close friends at school. I didn’t have a dad like most of them. I didn’t bring snacks to school nor a quarter to buy chocolate milk during snack time simply because that was a luxury we could not afford. My mother didn’t drop my sister and I off at school in the mornings or pick us up afterwards, she didn’t make cupcakes for our whole class on our birthdays, and she didn’t volunteer to be the parent helper of the week. Now, this wasn’t because my mother was a horrible parent, she was quite the opposite actually. My mother at the age of twenty-one had shown my sister and I what deeply caring and loving someone meant. She had left everything she had ever known behind in order to give my sister and I a better life. The ultimate sacrifice.
My father had passed away at the age of 27 in October of 1998. A month later, my mother would do something that would change our lives forever. She handed my sister and I over to our grandma who was born a U.S citizen and would ensure our safe arrival into the states. Border patrol questioned my grandma about the whereabouts of our parents. She responded by telling them they had been on an earlier flight. They asked my sister and I who this woman was to us, to which we answered using the only English word we knew, “Grandma.” By some miracle, we were able to board the plane with no further questions.
As we landed on American soil my mother began her journey across the infamous Mexican-American border. She crossed the border with complete strangers, people she had never met before but who shared the same dreams as her. She was one of the lucky few who made it over. She seldom talks about her experience; I can imagine the memory itself floods her with a plethora of emotions. In 1998, my mother put her life on the line, took a risk that not many understand. On that border, in that year, my mother shed her serpent skin. Like Cihuacoatl, serpent woman, the ancient Aztec goddess of the earth, war and birth, she left her identity behind.
At the ages of five and six, my sister and I gave up comfortability, familiarity, and the peace of our childhood that fosters proper attachment. We became self-sufficient because we had no other choice. We fed ourselves, walked to school by ourselves, and took care of one another. We built up courage that was born out of desperation. Every morning before our mother went to work in the garlic fields, she would remind us that we each played a part in the success of our little family. My mother’s sacrifice came at a price. One that could not be bargained. In those primitive years, we gave up so much quality time, the extra hugs and kisses, the little things that mothers and daughters share. Our bond to our mother is one that was built from struggle. We cherish each other in silence. We do not use words to express how we feel because we do not know how to use them. They are foreign objects in our mouths. But at the end of the day, despite not being able to look into each other’s eyes and share our pain, we knew that for the rest of our lives we would have one another. The three of us, that was all we had and all that mattered. My mom gave us her trust and in return it was our job to make her proud.
My sister and I picked up the language fast and in return lost the accent that rolls off the native tongue. It was easier that way. People asked less questions; assumed that we were born in the states. We played along. It was easy playing along with this narrative until it wasn’t.
The day I finally understood what it meant to be illegal was when all my friends around me were hitting milestones that I couldn’t quite get to. I made up excuses as to why I couldn’t get my license. I would nonchalantly tell my friends, “Why would I waste money on gas when I can ride the bus for free?” My matter-of-fact explanations were an easy way to roll things off my shoulder. I understood that there were some things I couldn’t do because of how I had gotten here, something they didn’t understand. I got good at lying and making excuses, but, the older I got, the harder it became to lie. Sooner or later my truth would catch up to me, and it did. This is my truth; soy Mexicana and I carry my home on my back.
I often label myself as a first-generation immigrant. But in all reality, I am not sure if that title suits me well. On official documentation, I have been labeled numerous things: illegal alien, undocumented immigrant, illegal immigrant and so on. Every time I had to check a box to list my citizenship status or provide a social security number, anxiety ran through me with electric force. As crazy as it sounds, I wanted that nine-digit number so badly. I wanted that little blue card with the words “Social Security Administration” labeled in red. I figured that that little card could make all my worries disappear. I could live a life like everyone else’s. I could casually partake in applying for jobs and colleges like all my friends without feeling like I was being suffocated by nervousness and worry.
Growing up in the United States, you are taught that hard work always pays off, that this is the land of dreams, from sea to shining sea. But for undocumented youth that is not the case. We can dream all we want, but at the end of the day our fate is still in the hands of someone else. A 2013 documentary produced by the non-profit Organizing for Action called The Dream Is Now explains how painful it is to grow up in a world that puts all of life’s possibilities on a platter right in front of you, convinces you that if you work hard enough you can feast, only to find out the closer you get that your mouth is sewn shut. And no matter how hard we work we still live a life of starvation.
When President Barack Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA in 2012, I felt as though I had finally surfaced after fourteen years of drowning. And although I could finally breathe, I still had to learn how to swim.
DACA allowed for immigrant youth that met certain set requirements to be granted deferred action. This meant anyone who qualified would receive a work permit that was to be renewed every two years. In order to be eligible for Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012 you had to: 1) have been under the age of thirty-one as of June 15th, 2012; 2) have come to the United States prior to your sixteenth birthday and continuously resided with the states; and, 3) have a clean criminal record and had to show proof of being in school, having received a diploma or certification of completion from high school or the equivalent of such.
This news was a shock, to me. It felt fake and unreal although countless immigrant youth and their allies had worked tirelessly for some recognition, it was a “too good to be true” feeling. When my sister and I received the news that we could possibly have a real shot at life, I was in my senior year of high school and she in her first year of college.
My mother had been working so hard that year to pay my sister’s way through college. At this time, any undocumented person, if attending college, was paying out-of-state tuition with no possibility of receiving financial aid. As my high school graduation day grew closer, I could tell my mom worried heavily about how she would pay for both of us to go to college.
That year was the first time I ever looked at my mother and noticed her age. The wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes were more prominent. Her hands seemed to be permanently chapped and her fingers showed signs of arthritis. I remember watching her as she washed the dishes with the house phone on speaker being held on her shoulder by her sports bra strap, as she spoke to my sister. As I watched her soap up all the dishes before turning on the water to rinse them a knot formed in my throat. I thought to myself, “How?”
How could this country that prides itself as being “the land of the free” feel like anything but? In that moment I felt truly divided. I was neither from here nor there. I was a woman without a country. I asked my mother on several occasions why we didn’t just go back to Mexico. We could truly be free there without living in fear of deportation. But, as I asked my mother this, I knew deeply that although my roots were buried deep within Mexican soil, the United States was my home. I knew nothing of the land that birthed me and yet my wanting to be a U.S citizen felt like I was betraying my heritage.
Eventually, we applied for DACA. We gave every little piece of documentation that we had to prove our innocence. And in proving our innocence the guilt was transferred to our mother. As it had been suggested before by Jeff Sessions, former United States Attorney General, we, the undocumented youth had been trafficked to this country against our will. Which made our mother’s sacrifice seem like a crime. We were given an “alien registration number.” We were told to go to The Consulate General of Mexico where they would get our fingerprints and take pictures of us. Weeks later in the mail we would receive a work permit along with a social security card. Everything felt borrowed. Which in a way, it was and still is.
But as thousands of us came out of the shadows, heads turned. The conservative little town in far northern California I had grown up in, this place I called home, didn’t feel like home anymore. I knew that a very limited number of individuals knew my status and in that several people I had grown up with, my community, spoke freely around me. They spoke of these “illegal aliens” taking their jobs. As if those jobs hadn’t been there, vacant, prior to DACA. They questioned why they didn’t just “go back to where they came from.”
Although their words pained me, I chose to never again be ashamed of who I was and where I came from, to never again sit in silence because the truth is, I am “undocumented, unafraid, and unashamed”, to quote The Dream Is Now. I knew I had done nothing wrong, nor taken anything from anyone. I knew that I was not illegal on this stolen land. If my mother had sacrificed her own personal dreams for my sister and I, the least I could do for her was live in pride. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of Waking Up from The American Dream once said, “for us, gratitude and guilt feel almost the same.”
And it does.
As we, the voiceless, grew accustomed to our newly found vocal cords, tensions grew heavier. The world around us, over the past several years, has become more and more transparent. The ugly truths have been dug up from under the pits of hell where they were buried by the very men who “conquered” this land.
When Donald Trump took office in 2016, I was going to school at Humboldt State University. Our professor had just excused us all from class in case we needed some self-care time. I remember walking out to my maroon Oldsmobile in the pouring rain. I sat in my car and just cried. As dramatic as it may seem, I know that many of us DACA recipients felt the same fear that day. We knew what was coming, and we felt helpless. Trump’s administration almost immediately began trying to dismantle the program. It became a heated debate with the Supreme Court. On September 15, 2017, The Trump Administration announced that the DACA program would be terminated and made it clear that it was “the responsibility of congress to pass legislation to avert that crisis from unfolding” on March 5, 2018. On that day DACA would officially come to an end terminating deportation protections for thousands of undocumented persons brought to the U.S as children.
I don’t think many people understand how gut wrenching it is to live everyday not knowing what could happen. To live a life not knowing what your future holds. At any given moment everything me, my sister and the 825,000 DACA recipients have worked so hard for could simply just be stripped away. During Donald Trump’s presidency I lived in a constant state of anxiety. I would randomly research all the ways that the law still protected me despite my status. The Humboldt State M.E.C.H.A club (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) had provided us undocumented students with little red double sided “know your rights” cards. One side was in English, the other in Spanish. I asked for a small stack of them. I mailed those cards out to my family, my aunt, my uncle, to anyone I could think of that could be affected by this new administration. I called my mom and talked to her about her right to remain silent under any and all circumstances. I don’t exactly know why, but that one little right felt so important to me. Silence, it seemed to me, was the only thing that could protect us.
It seemed as though every day during Trump’s administration we were living in the unknown. Everyday news regarding our status was different. As the expiration date on our work permits grew closer, uneasiness set in. Our futures became more and more blurred.
We, the undocumented youth of America are living on borrowed time. We are neither from here nor there. We are wanderers in perpetual purgatory and yet we dream of the highest heavens. But as the well-known phrase goes, “they tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” And so, we rise.
This piece was written as part of California Humanities Democracy and the Informed Citizen journalism fellowship at Shasta College. You can read more about that project, and Contreras, here.
Rosa Yadira Contreras was four when she immigrated from Mexico with her twenty-one year old mother and five year old sister. She attended Shasta College before graduating from Humboldt State University in 2017 with a bachelors in sociology. After moving home to Fall River Mills, she felt the continued urge to learn and grow and began taking occasional classes again at Shasta College. She has since become inspired to refocus on her Mexican roots, get a degree in World Languages, and perhaps someday, become a Spanish teacher. She is a single mother to a rambunctious and fearless one and a half year old, Maverick.
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