Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On Being Undocumented: In Constant Search

Guest Blogger: Carla Lopez Perez, First-year law student, University of San Francisco School of Law:

It was around this time nine years ago that I took to the internet to try and figure out who I was. I was seventeen years old at the time and like most youth I was struggling with my identity. However, unlike most youth, I was struggling because my parents had dropped a bombshell on me that changed my life. At the age of sixteen my parents revealed to me that I am an undocumented immigrant by telling me that I did not have papeles (“papers”). They told me that I was unlike the rest of my peers, and because I was different I would need to stay quiet about my immigration status. This was all in the name of safety. At the time all of this confused me. All of this had unfolded because I wanted to be like all of my friends at school and obtain my drivers license.  Instead, I found myself trying to figure out what papers my parents were referring to.

In the year that followed, I felt myself become two different people. My family and I were living in a conservative town located in the California Central Valley, and as a result my parents instilled a deep rooted fear of coming out of the closet about my immigration status. At the time this made sense, things were slightly different back then and there were few people coming out of the shadows. I grew up in a world where immigration raids were taking place at work, school, and even in the “safety” of people’s homes. I would hear about these raids on the news and over the radio. For me, the early hours of the morning—when home immigration raids are usually conducted—would be filled with much panic and anguish, as I lay awake in my bed—afraid that either my parents or I would be next.

In order to avoid this fate, I felt like I had to hide who I truly was by wearing some sort of invisibility cloak. I did not even tell any of my closest friends. To make matters worse I also felt like I had to hide who I was at home because my parents did not like to talk about anything immigration related. They are the “out of sight, out of mind” type of parents. I lived day to day unable to talk about my identity and learn more about what being an undocumented immigrant meant. I felt isolated and when the time came to apply to college I ended up telling two school faculty members. Telling them gave me hope that I would be able to learn about myself and talk to someone about what I was going through. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I was further told to hush. Fed up and puzzled I got on the computer, went to the internet, and typed in words like “illegal,” “immigrant,” and “alien.” What I encountered was a sea of search results depicting undocumented immigrants in a negative light. This made me feel ashamed of my immigrant identity and my family’s immigration history. I wanted nothing to do with being an immigrant, and I was angry at my parents for having brought me to the United States.

These feelings and attitude followed me all the way into winter quarter of my first year of college until out of coincidence I came across a support group for undocumented students and allies. Curious, I decided to attend the meeting under the guise of an “ally.” That meeting forever changed my life. For the first time I met others like me, others who did not have papers. With the help of the group, I slowly began to feel comfortable in my own skin. I slowly began to learn how to be undocumented, and by the end of my first year of college I was opening up to people about who I was, an undocumented person.

I grew into this identity and learned how to navigate the world as such. By the 2012, after having graduated from college, I had become somewhat of a master in being undocumented but had yet to become an expert in the art of finding a job that would pay under the table. Fortunately, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was announced that year. I and more than a half million other undocumented youth were able to file petitions hoping to gain a glimmer of temporary stability even if it meant having to re-apply for stability every two years. 

Since being told at the age of 16 that I am an undocumented immigrant, an alarming, constant fear has lived deep inside of me. It has been paired with the feeling of not knowing who I am or feeling like I don’t belong anywhere because I am too American for Mexico but too Mexican for the United States. However, on December 15, 2012, everything I had felt, everything I had known was yet again turned upside down. My DACA petition had been approved and I immediately embarked in a new chapter of my life navigating the process of figuring out who I am – again.

It has been over three years and I am still in the process of learning who I am. My most hated questions till this day are being asked “Describe yourself,” “Tell us about yourself,” or “Give us a mini autobiography.” I get stuck on these questions and almost always get frustrated at not being able to explain who I am in the allotted time and space given to answer the question. This Pandora’s box of confusion usually begins with my self-assessment: “Am I undocumented or am I DACAmented (term coined for people who have DACA)?”

I am not the only one with these struggles. Over the course of the last few years there have been various studies and stories published regarding undocumented youth identities. A leader in pushing these stories out has been America’s Voice. One story that resonates with me is that of Mariella Saavedra. In a article titled, “My DREAMer Identity and Its Complexities,” Saavedra wrote:

“For the domestic students, I was Mariella from Miami. That made sense to me too, except suddenly there was less room to address my Peruvian identity. The answer to ‘Where are you from?’ became more complex. I would say ‘I’m from Peru, but I live in Miami.’ It was during my college years that I also became ‘Latina’ and a ‘woman of color.’ These were labels that I did not identify with, that I am slowly now understanding.

After leaving Middlebury, I went to New York to pursue my graduate studies. Then, I felt more Vermonter than Miamian. Once again, it felt as if my Peruvian identity was being pushed to the back shelf.

Now, whenever anyone asks, I just say that I’m from Peru and live in New York, but it feels wrong to leave out the other parts of me. Especially the Miami part.

As DREAMers (another marker), we are often identified by our state. Although I have never identified with Florida as I have with Miami, it feels wrong to leave out my home city altogether.

Oftentimes, it’s assumed that all DREAMers ‘feel American.’ I have never fully felt this way. The fact that I am many things makes it hard to answer whenever someone asks me where I’m from.

Simplifying all that I am into one term – ‘American’ — strips away too much of my identity.

Yes, I want to be a part of this society. I want to be able to work, drive, and identify myself like any other person does. Yet, labeling and trying to fit people into categories (sometimes for political reasons) does not do justice to the culture and qualities that we as DREAMers bring to this country.”

Knowing that you can log onto the internet and come across articles like this means that someone who may also be struggling with their identity can do the same, feel a little less alone and a little bit closer to navigating the complexities of being an undocumented immigrant. The thought of this brings me some peace of mind.



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