Armed with a Burning Patience

My family had been farmers in the rough terrain of southern Mexico for centuries. My mother, the oldest of 12, began working in her teens to provide for her siblings. My father, one of five children, lost his father at age 3. Neither of my parents completed primary school. My father was 20 when he married my mom, who was 18. They had my sister a year later. Two years after that, I was born.

Jan. 10, 1990. It's unusually cold tonight in the small, arid town of San Miguel, Oaxaca. There’s no soap to wash me, so to keep the ants away, I'm laid to rest on my mother's stomach as we sleep together for the first time. Only my grandmother is present to aid in the delivery.

Spring 1992. My mother and father leave, planning to work for one year in New York and then return to Mexico.

Spring 1993. There's been a change of plans; after a year of separation, our father has returned to take my sister and me across the border and to our new home in New York. The three of us, along with an aunt, cross somewhere in Arizona. I'm glad our family is together again. Amazingly, my mother will soon have another child, and we will be five.

Fall 1994. With much anticipation, I've begun school. Although my thoughts, wishes, and entire vocabulary are in Spanish, I'm not too worried about my ignorance of the English language.

1995 to 1996. I'm now fluent in English, after many frustrating (and sometimes tear-filled) nights of homework completed with the help of my mother and a Spanish-English dictionary. Somewhere around this time, I begin to dream entirely in English.

Spring 1999. After an exam and an interview, I've been accepted into a nearby magnet school, where I'll be entering the 5th grade next fall. My father accompanies me through the entire admissions process, although he had to work the night shift beforehand and had no sleep.

Spring 2003. I've been granted admission to boarding school. (In preparation for high school, I've been taking extra courses on top of my regular workload.) I can't begin to assess how much my life will change after these four years.

September 2003. On a quiet and perfectly still fall morning, we roll into the small town in Massachusetts where my new school is situated. The beauty of this dainty town almost hurts you. I don't feel too out of place, though I’m miles away from the urban environment in which I’ve lived for a decade.

Summer 2006. During my first week at an internship, I receive a call from the intern coordinator. As expected, the digits I submitted as my Social Security number are not valid; therefore, my stipend will be delayed. I am upset at first, and it is uncomfortable to talk on the phone about my legal status in front of my fellow intern. But I know this experience will prove valuable whether I'm paid or not.

Fall 2006. Due to my undocumented status, most of the liberal arts schools on my potential college list have been crossed off. Fortunately, I've learned of a private liberal arts school that provides scholarships for students in my situation; since my grades fit their admitted students' profile, I should have no problem getting in. Although I wish I had more options, I remain thankful for what I have. At least my life is secure for four more years.

Spring 2007. After being admitted early to college, I receive a call from the international students' office, telling me I'll be registered as a non-resident alien in the college files. (Applying for a student visa would require me to return to Mexico, and there's no guarantee that I'd be able to return -- the risks are just too big.)

January 2008. I'm now 18 years old, and getting through airport security won't be easy without a government-issued ID. Today, as I return to college from winter break, an officer of the Department of Homeland Security pulls me aside. Fortunately, my mother can't see from the waiting area when they frisk-search me. It is humiliating, but I try to make small talk as my backpack is emptied. I want to tell the officers that I pose a threat to no one and am just like any other college student returning from the holidays.

March 2009. As I return from spring break, our Greyhound bus spontaneously stops mid-route. Two Border Patrol officers board, but they don't ask to see any documents proving my citizenship. Unfortunately, the three young men I gave some clothes to earlier aren't as lucky. Were I courageous, I would stand up for them and ask why they have to be handcuffed as if they were criminals -- or at least I would silence the laughter coming from the rear. But since I’m not, I just dig my head into the seat in front of me and recite the opening line to Psalm 91 repeatedly: "Los quienes habitan al abrigo del Altíssimo, moraran bajo la sombra del Omnipotente" ("Whosoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty").

Spring 2009. Today, during a heated argument on affirmative action, I say I would not be present on campus without concerted efforts to assist minority groups that were historically and institutionally prevented from attending college. One classmate asks how I feel taking someone else's spot. I don't know how to respond. Unable to justify my existence at this institution, I say I love it here and can't imagine my life without this opportunity.

I don't think any of us can justify our own existence; too much goes into the creation of one human life.

Fall 2009. During the church offering today, we are asked to fill out an organ donor application. I can't help thinking: If I died here in America, would my heart, lungs, and tissues be illegal, too?

May 1, 2010. Today I join other supporters of the DREAM Act in walking the last leg of the Trail of Dreams, a march that has stretched from Miami to Washington, D.C. The DREAM Act would enable people like me, who were brought to the U.S. as children and who have graduated from college, to obtain legal residency. Upon entering Washington, I reflect on Rimbaud's lines: "at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities."

I am increasingly convinced that the hardest battle one faces as an undocumented person is internal. Gaby Pacheco, one of the organizers of the march, calls it a "spiritual combat," and her fellow walker Carlos Roa emphasizes the psychological impacts on a person who has internalized this oppression. I have had bouts with insecurity and a sense of inferiority that I attempted to escape through addiction, self-neglect, and ambivalence. But as Carlos repeatedly quotes from Dr. King, "Courage faces fear and thereby masters it."

Late May 2010. During a late-night talk, a fellow undocumented classmate and I voice the thoughts each of us has had of suicide. If our existence can't be acknowledged in life, maybe death would make us unavoidable. But by now I've concluded that the sharing of my story further promotes the cause of my people, and each one of my actions can be activism. Although I do not have answers to the unresolved questions in my life, I think Rilke is right: The point is to love everything, to live the answer into existence by becoming, as Gandhi put it, the "change [we] wish to see."

That's all I have to say for now. There are things I omitted: my father being laid off repeatedly, my mother working grueling hours in a clothing factory and as a housekeeper, and my older sister's frustration at our condition. Also, it's not a good habit to lie to people continually; I'm thankful that I'm slowly getting better at speaking the truth.

I fear I've painted a pretty miserable picture of my life. Although these dates aren't entirely representative of my life, they are, in the words of Ralph Ellison, "precious parts of my experience."

An undocumented friend tells me that some good must arise from living illegally in the United States, and I'm tempted to agree. Without romanticizing our condition too much, I can honestly say this: Knowing that everything I have ever worked for can be taken away from me in an instant has made me appreciate what I have. And I love the bond that unites all who live without proper documentation in the United States -- our shared stories, emotions, and psychology. We share a narrative with other alien people, whether Israelites living in Egypt or black slaves in America. Our struggle is the next chapter in the long but beautiful struggle for civil, natural, and human rights. And when "tried, we shall come forth as gold" (Job 23:10).

The author serves as peer minister at his school; he enjoys painting, poetry, and prayer.

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