29 Aug inVISIBLE Americans (Part 2)

By: Audrey Lopez

“NOS VEMOS PRONTO”

The last thing I remember about leaving home is not properly saying goodbye.  When I got on that plane at the age of 12 to come to America, I was clueless. I unknowingly lied and said to my loved ones, “Nos vemos pronto” (I’ll see you soon).  I didn’t know then it would take me 14 years to come back to that land that saw me grow, the land that, despite the distance and the years, has made me into who I am.  If I had known then how excruciatingly difficult the journey for the American dream would be, I would have hugged my grandfather as if it was our last day on earth.  If I had known that 14 years of distance would made me feel like a stranger in my own home, I would have kicked and screamed and run away.  To this day, airports make me miserable, not because of TSA, the freezing temperatures, or the lack of food choices, but because they take me back to that moment when I was 12 and so naïve.

After arriving in America, I did not know I would be labeled as undocumented.  I did not know we had 6 months to leave or be forever thrown into a category that would essentially make my family and I second-class humans in this country.  Eventually, I got the hint and stopped asking my parents when we would return “home.”  Eventually, I learned to deal and would simply cry myself to sleep and try to cling to every memory I had of home and family and friends.   Eventually, I just stopped because if I didn’t, I would not survive.  I put home aside to make another home. At the age of 13, this was my first heartbreak.

HOME

The term “home” has been ever changing for me. It’s something I fear, I miss, I yearn, I am thankful for, I love.  Peru was the place where I have the fondest of childhood memories, where I got into too many fights for being a feminist in a country where the term was rarely uttered.  It was a place where my grandparents lived blocks away, and a plate of ceviche always greeted me at the door.  Peru was where family members came and went unannounced, where endless parties were filled with screaming kids and adults dancing salsa until 4 am. Sometimes I miss this home so much it tugs at my heart and makes me sob uncontrollably, making me wonder how I could have possibly given this up.  Then I remember I had no choice.

Home also became something I feared.  I was terrified every single day that I would come home from school to an empty house and find out from the neighbors that my parents were sitting in a detention center somewhere waiting to be deported “home.”  What would I do? Just thinking about it would thrust me into panic mode.  I simply followed my dad’s instruction: fit in.  If I talked like an American, if I acted like an American, no one would be suspicious.  This became my mantra.  My family’s survival depended on it. I have done this for half of my life now. I am 27 years old, I am still undocumented, and I have been blessed enough to say that my parents are still with me.  Not everyone is as lucky.  There are 11 million of us in this country, almost the population of Pennsylvania, and too many of our families have been torn apart because of deportation.

However, we are resilient.  We have to be because eventually you realize that being an immigrant in the United States is about surviving the search for the American dream. I have seen this in my parents, who often worked two to three jobs, have never had health insurance, and got paid very little just to put food on the table – just to make it. The first thing my parents did when they arrived to America was to get a tax ID number, so they could file taxes in this country.  They knew it was their duty, it was how they could return the opportunities granted to them by this great nation.  It has been exhausting  to see my parents work so arduously for my future and for my well-being.  I am the reason they are here. I am their American dream. This pressure was what kept me in school despite of the roadblock I faced when I found out that higher education was unreachable for me because I lacked a nine-digit number. I thought my life was over. It was the darkest period of my life; and, sadly, I’m not alone in this. There are hundreds, thousands of us trying to continue to live in this country despite of the deep hopelessness that fills our daily lives. How else would you describe living everyday not knowing if you or your family will be here the next?

FEAR

If ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) doesn’t get you, the constant fear will.

My life didn’t start until 2012, until the moment President Obama announced on tv that immigrants who arrived to the United States as children could be eligible for a deferral to deportation and a work permit as long as they met the guidelines and passed a background check. This executive action was called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Getting my DACA approval letter and that work permit in the mail was the happiest moment of my life, not because of what it meant for me, but because as I looked up from that small work card, I saw my mother’s smile. I have never seen my mother so happy. She understood what this meant for me. It meant a social security number. It meant a job in my field. It meant I could stop pretending and just be normal for once. DACA meant life renewed.

DACA also meant a chance to return “home.”  I returned to Peru last year, 14 years after arriving to America, through a special humanitarian permission by U.S. Immigration Services.  I left home at the age of 12, and came back at the age of 26 to a country that had changed without me, or perhaps I had changed without it.  The streets seemed different, the people strange, my family had grown, new cousins were born, and friends married and had children.  I returned to see my grandfather, one of the strongest men I have ever met, who now appeared before me so frail and desolate.  I missed out on a lot.

LESSONS

This journey back to Peru taught me a lot of things, but I walked away with two main lessons. I have always asked myself if my parents’ decision to move to America was the right one.  I have judged them for this all my life and, though I still don’t know the answer, now the question has shifted to: Would I give up everything for my own children? Yes.  Secondly, it is ok to have more than one place you call home.

When I returned to America, my best friend asked me if I cried when I reached Peru. She looked at me in disbelief when I told her I didn’t.  I told her that instead I cried when the Immigration Officer at the Dallas Airport ok’d me to re-enter the U.S.  I remember sitting in that Immigration security room for what seemed the longest 30 minutes of my life, as one officer looked through my paperwork. During those 30 minutes I kept asking myself what I would do if Immigration denied my entry. It was simple: my life would be over.   I would have to leave my friends, my family, my job…my home.   Then I discovered that my 14-year journey as an immigrant in America had lead me to this moment.  All that time I had yearned to return home to Peru, I failed to realize that in my struggle, America became home.

BELONGING

That’s why I am coming out to you. If indeed one day I want America to recognize me as one of its own, I need to remind people, Americans, that I am here – that I have been here all along. After 15 years of pretending that I didn’t exist, that I didn’t deserve basic rights in this country, that I wasn’t wanted here, I finally allowed myself to lift my head up and voice that I have earned my place in this country.  When I meet or hear people telling me to go back home, I think, “But I am home. Did you not want me to learn your history, your language, your culture, your ways?”  This is all I’ve done.  When I hear the same people tell me that I should get in the back of the line, I wonder, “Which line?” This proverbial line that people often quote as the “right way” exists only for a small number of people.  Current immigration law offers no way for me to earn a permanent stay in this country. When I hear those people say such hateful things it makes me question my sanity, do they think I want to live this way? I quickly wonder if those same people would utter such hateful things if they knew me, knew my mother, my father, my best friend and her mother and siblings.  Do they know any one of us to judge us so prematurely? Do they understand how many tears we’ve cried while yearning to belong in this country?  

I am not alone in all these feelings.  I wish I could say that I am. Ask any of us, any of the 11 million, all of us once have felt worthless, hopeless, alone, and misunderstood. But we continue, we persevere, in search of the American dream.

“NI DE AQUI DE ALLA”

A lot of my peers, undocumented young people like myself, are walking around this country thinking that a work permit is all we need, that we are “safe.” I have to remind myself every day how privileged I am, to be one of 700,000 immigrants who have been granted DACA due to an executive action –  not due to a change in the law. I have to remind myself that every change of presidency my future and that of the 699,999 others is at risk. Most importantly, I have to remind myself that there are still millions who didn’t qualify for DACA, that they remain praying for a miracle that will take them out of the shadows. How can I stay silent when this November 8th my future will be determined – without me? I cannot. I have to come forward, because for every one of us who is coming out, there is 100 of us left behind in the shadows so paralyzed by that fear that runs our daily lives. I cannot, in good conscience, remain silent.
There is a saying in Spanish, “Ni de aqui ni de alla,” which means “Neither from here, nor from there.”  I find this to be a perfect description of the immigrant experience. Sometimes I wonder whether this experience would resonate with America’s first settlers. Did they not leave behind their homes to find a new, brighter and safer future for themselves and their families? Were they not originally searching for the American dream? As immigrants, as humans, as transplants, I believe we will always be torn between the motherland, the home that saw us grow, and our new home, the one we built out of love and perseverance despite the barriers or walls.  I only hope that one day soon, I can call America “home” in every sense of the word. In the meantime, I can only love it as much as my first home and hope that one day the law allows for that love to be returned.

Check out the inVISIBLE Americans Project here, and come to the event on Friday, September 2nd, to hear some of the stories of immigrants in our community.  Transplants of all kinds.

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