As proud as I am of my Mexican heritage, there is only one place I can call home: the United States. I belong to the wave of immigrants who arrived in the country as children. All that remains from my early years in Mexico are a few blurry memories, drawn together from what my mother has told me.
My mother lost her first husband in a car accident in 1978. After his death, she traveled for the first time to the States to identify his body and take care of the funeral. She was left to fend for my two older siblings, mourning and under-resourced. About seven years later, she met my father, and I was born. When I was 3, he left our family to marry another woman.
Later, my mother’s love for her oldest son compelled her to travel to the States a second time. She hadn’t seen him since he moved to Orange County at age 14. When my brother learned she was going to leave me with my uncle, he insisted she bring me to keep the family together. Twenty-five years later, here I remain.
We moved into an apartment with my two uncles on Minnie Street in Santa Ana, California, once named the toughest city in the country in which to make ends meet. We faced challenging times. My mom hadn’t been allowed to attend school past the second grade, so she worked mostly babysitting jobs. She wanted to give her children what she had missed: an education. Many times I wished my father had been there to help us financially. The child support was scarcely enough to meet our needs. But more than that, I was hungry for the warmth of a loving father who would protect us and ensure my mother didn’t have to play the role of both parents.
A Profound Wound
As I entered junior high school, I excelled in math and dove into volleyball and basketball. I also joined the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), the largest college-prep track sponsored by the University of California–Irvine, as well as the Puente Program, which helps students enroll in public university. The same year I started EAOP, I began visiting the Minnie Street Learning Center, an afterschool community started and hosted by Mariners Church, a large, historic nondenominational church in Orange County. There we cleaned up the streets, tutored younger kids, and taught a computer class. I became the first student to be elected president of Puente. I learned how satisfying it was to make myself useful and serve my neighbors.
My junior year of high school, the other Puente leaders and I had a chance to travel to San Francisco to visit colleges. Reality struck me with a profound wound: I was undocumented. I learned that my status could bar me from traveling and attending college. I could no longer accept the evasive answers my mother gave when I asked if I could work to help pay our bills. As my graduation drew closer, we could no longer avoid the fact that my dreams of going to college could come to a dead end.
I also faced profound confusion about who I was and where I belonged. I felt I didn’t belong anywhere—too American to return to Mexico, too foreign to belong in the States. Even though I tried to stay optimistic and dodge every insult fired at undocumented immigrants, I felt the effects. Guilt, shame, and depression all knocked on my door, and I welcomed them. I carried them around, believing I was somehow responsible for the “crime” I had committed at age 5. The accusations led me to fear my situation and future.