Undocumented and unstoppable: DACA recipient shares powerful journey to self-empowerment
August 1, 2017
Samantha Ramirez-Herrera / Offtharecord.com, AFROPUNK contributor
I was 25, going through a divorce, a semi-clueless mother of a highly energetic 4-year-old, a Mexican immigrant with no college education right back at my large Mexican family’s home in the good ol’, hot Arizona desert. It was the most fucking terrifying and exciting time of my young life. Terrifying because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing; because my palms were sweating enough to end a drought as I had to sit at the dinner table and tell my religious, anti-divorce dad that I didn’t want to be married anymore; because I had no money, no career, no education and no fucking idea where my life was headed; and because my decision could damage my innocent child who didn’t ask to come into this crazy-ass world.
Yet it was so EXCITING, too. My adrenaline was rushing and my heart beating as I mustered the courage to blurt out the words, “Me voy a divorciar.” For the first time in my life I felt liberated. Saying those four words unleashed the greatest storm in my life and destroyed every single plan I thought I had. However, it also made me feel alive. It made me feel that for the first time in my life, I was making MY own decisions. I was not thinking about what everyone else thought I should do with my life. I was thinking for myself. I had grabbed ahold of the steering wheel of my own life, and I was not about to let go.
I had a clean slate. I had nothing to my name, nothing at all, but I had a brand spanking new page that I could fill it in any way that I wanted. I could doodle on it. I could write a novel on it. I could write a love poem. I could paint a masterpiece. Hell, I could make a paper swan or a frog out of it. It was my page, my story, my life, and I was going to make the best of it.
I came to the United States at the age of 7. I was the second of five children. Coming here as an immigrant family, our experiences were different from those of American kids. I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have a heavy load of responsibilities on my shoulders. I remember having my baby brother on my hip, changing his diapers, feeding him, rocking him to sleep. My dad had entrepreneurial dreams. He started a Mexican candy-making business out of our backyard shed. In a tiny home that was not fully constructed when we moved in, we had to shower in the deep, empty pool outside with a hose. My days consisted of going to school, where I struggled with a new language and then coming home to take care of my siblings so my mom and dad could work. Many days my older sister and I had to help out with the candy business. We would have to sit out in the hot temperatures of Arizona and help dad peel boxes of yams, oranges and a multitude of other fruits for the candy. We would work as a family from sunup to sundown. We knew no other life.
Since I was a child, I was a shy, quiet kid with no courage. My oldest sister was a rebel, who I looked up to in silent awe. She was defiant and had the guts to talk back sometimes. Some days, she’d get away with it and have fewer responsibilities because she stood her ground. Some days she’d catch a good old fashioned beating, but she had the courage to take her chances. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t dare. I was terrified of my father, whose frustrations with money, family, and life would erupt like lava from a volcano. I became a withdrawn child with no voice, no guts and no confidence. My mom would often place more responsibilities on me because she said I was obedient and she could “trust” me to handle them. I would smile and just do it. Secretly inside, and sometimes at night in my bed, I would weep. I would quietly cry because I didn’t want to be trusted with more. I didn’t want to babysit and peel yams in the summertime. I wanted to be a kid. I wanted to try out for cheerleading. I wanted to be a ballerina. At the same time, I struggled with feeling selfish for wanting those things. I knew that my parents had come to this country for us. I knew that they worked really hard for us, and I felt like, no matter what, I had to do my part even if it meant sacrificing my happiness and dreams. I found comfort in my vivid imagination. I found ways to entertain my younger siblings and myself with stories and playing make-believe. I’d play out travels in my mind. I’d pack a bag and pretend I was going to travel the world. I would leap off the couch onto the dirty carpet and pretend I was swimming in the ocean. I’d grab my younger sister and spin her around in the living room just like ice skaters in the Olympics.
The years went by, and I watched my sister get cooler and cooler. I watched her get ready in front of the mirror. I watched her put on her chola attire. I would stare as she lined her lips brown, put on her hoop earrings and styled her hair half up and half down, pulling out two small strands that would hang on her forehead. I would stare discreetly because if she caught me looking, she’d be annoyed and maybe punch me or something. She was my hero. She was brave, she was beautiful, and she was cool. She would sneak out at night and go to fun parties. I was the guardian of her escapades, and if I told, I could expect a good beating from her. I was fascinated by her. But she was ashamed of me. Who wouldn’t be? I had a mustache and big Coke-bottle glasses. I was a nerd, and back then I didn’t quite realize the value of education or my academic achievements. I was placed in an ALPS (Advanced Placement Learning Students) program by a teacher named Ms. Galvan, who believed in me enough to push me, and I was killing it at Spanish Spelling Bee competitions. Yet all I knew from my home life was hard labor. Neither of my parents went to high school, so neither one knew how to navigate me through school, SATs or prom, let alone college. Therefore, I didn’t think being smart was cool or even useful. A higher education was reserved for those with money and better lives than ours. None of those things would help me. At least that’s what I thought.
Throughout my teens, my high school grades began to take a plunge. Not that I wasn’t smart enough. I knew I was. I just didn’t understand what the point was. I would never go to college. We had no money, and my father’s entrepreneurial dreams had come tumbling down over the years. He and my mother were back working at fast-food restaurants. At that time, I was an immigrant without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, which protects eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children from deportation, so scholarships weren’t even a possibility for me. I managed to get a job at a pizzeria at 14 and was already paying bills at home to help my family. I was buying my own school clothes and paying for my own lunch and began building up my confidence. I could wear contacts now, and I was beginning to develop and look like a girl. My vivid imagination continued to play a big role in my survival.
I remember when the college fair took place at my high school, and everyone was busy making plans for the future. I pretended that I was also making my plans and considering schools, although deep inside I knew I had no chance. I remember sitting with my BFF and her asking me which school I was considering. At that time I was fascinated with fashion and style. I would sit in my closet for hours with my boom box and CDs sewing outfits together, spray-painting my jeans and making accessories. I would sketch futuristic outfits nonstop and envisioned myself as a world-famous fashion designer. My answer for her was, “FIDM.”
The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising was present during the college fair upstairs at the library. I remember making the decision to take that nerve-wrecking walk upstairs and, you know, inquire. What did I have to lose? It was nerve-wrecking because when you grow up brown, always being the help, poor and a foreigner in this country, you subconsciously develop a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling of not being enough. I gave myself a pep talk in front of the restroom mirror and went over to talk to the rep. I felt as if she read my energy or was just good at reading students well enough to know who didn’t have a chance. She was dismissive and handed me a packet with an application and information as well as a sketch book that was to be submitted with the application for evaluation. I instinctively did what I had learned to do best: lift my head up, walk out of there and let my imagination run freely. I remember sitting in the car with my siblings and saying, “I’m going to be a fashion designer.” My older sister, of course, didn’t waste the moment to take a shot at me. “How? You don’t have papers or money,” she said. I went home and locked myself in my room and filled out the application until I reached the part that asked for a Social Security number. At that point I started to cry, burying my head in my pillow because my rule was to never let anyone, including my family, see any emotion out of me. I must’ve stayed in that room feeling depressed for two days, emerging only late at night when everyone was asleep to eat whatever leftovers I found in the kitchen and then returning to my sad pit to write in my journal about my anger and frustration. After the weeping, a new wave of motivation resurfaced. I sketched a whole collection and carried it around with me everywhere. I began researching and calling to find out how much school would cost and thinking of a master plan. It turns out school would cost over $20,000 a year. I had no chance of getting any scholarships or financial aid, and my pizza job was not going to cut it. Just like that, my dream came tumbling down. I was back at the pizza shop feeling like wasted potential simply because I was a poor, brown immigrant.
That would not be the only time in my life that I would have that bitter taste of disappointment in a country that was not built for people like me to succeed easily. I did my fair share of labor jobs in fast-food restaurants; retail shops; shoe stores, bringing expensive shoes to rich, white women who would often make sure I knew my place. I was a picture framer, dog walker, flyer girl and email girl at clubs. I did laundry for people who, come to think about it, severely underpaid me, and waitressing, while bringing my son to work with me and setting him up in a nearby open closet where he watched cartoons onmy laptop while I worked dinner shifts. Whatever job I could pick up, I did it.
At the age of 18 I met the father of my son and my future ex-husband. We met through a mutual friend who was dating his best friend. He was a young minor league baseball player, and our connection was instant. He was a sweet, charming, well-mannered country boy from Georgia, and we would talk for hours on the phone about our dreams and goals and life. It was a refreshing change from everyone else I was around, and he opened up a new world of possibility. He was driven, positive and alive. I remember he was playing baseball in Appleton, Wisconsin and asked me to fly to see him. I had never been on a plane, and my parents were petrified of being near an airport, afraid that Homeland Security could be nearby. They had warned us many times never to go near an airport. I researched it and found that, as long as I had a government-issued passport, I could travel. I was scared shitless, but I wanted to see more. I was not going to let fear hold me back. I booked my flight along with my friend and secretly went to Wisconsin. I told my parents I was driving to California. Going through security was the scariest moment in my life. All the fears my parents had projected on me were coming out. I had a passport. It was OK.
Going on this trip opened up my mind even more. I wanted more, I wanted to see more, and I wanted to grow. I wanted to live my dream just like he was living his.
Within a year of dating, he proposed, and we were married. Soon after, at 21, I gave birth to my son. It wasn’t planned. It just happened. During my marriage, I never attempted to file for a green card. A part of me did not want to feel like I married for a green card. I’m unsure if that was a wise decision, but I’ve never liked the feeling or the thought of using someone. Our first two years of marriage were OK. We were friends. I supported his baseball career and focused on our son. However, the feeling of potential was pounding within me to explore. Motherhood was taking a toll on me. I was depressed as fuck. I didn’t feel happy. No matter what he did or what he said, I felt alone, unfulfilled, lost and incomplete. Our sex life was terrible. A big part of my choice to marry was because I didn’t want to be a “fornicator.” I had grown up in a religious home that had me walking around unable to truly explore life freely. I had experiences that had left mental scars that had not yet healed, such as the time my parents caught me sneaking my high school boyfriend into our home and having sex. My dad beat me so badly with a belt that I couldn’t leave our home for days, and he called me every whore, sucia, slut name in the book instead of having a conversation with me about safe sex. I grew up being told that sex was bad, that you should get married first, that divorce was the biggest sin, and on and on. Such rules and traditions fucked my head up. I was a terrible partner to my then-husband because I did not know who I was. I was not whole, I was not healed, and I was not living up to my potential.
I faked happiness with my family, my friends, my in-laws and my husband so much so that I almost faked it with myself, until I couldn’t go one more day living this lie. I couldn’t live one more day in a marriage that I was not ready for. I felt like I was drowning. The thought of spending my entire life in this marriage made me have anxiety attacks – not because he wasn’t a great guy, but because I had not fallen in love with myself yet. At this point, I was willing to take my chances at going to hell rather than live a life that I wasn’t happy with or give up on a potential that was untapped. I was willing to have everyone turn their backs on me for making this choice. I was ready to be free, to find me, to find my purpose.
“Me voy a divorciar,” I told my dad. My voice was shaky as I said it. A silence filled the room. I can’t say that what came after speaking these words was easy. In fact, it was hard as hell. It took courage, it took balls, and it took everything in me to start from scratch. My mother called me a whore and a list of other names I’d rather not remember. In some ways, I’m glad I had to figure it all out on my own. It made me strong, forced me to pack my shit – my one suitcase, to be exact – and come to Atlanta with nothing but grit, a hunger and a passion to find my purpose, to find myself, to find out what I’m made of. And I have.
My journey in Atlanta is another story I’ll share one day. Six years after starting over, I am the founder of a growing digital platform, a published writer and a job creator. I have had opportunities to direct short films for clients I would’ve never imagined. I am on my way to new opportunities that I had never ever imagined. I am whole. I am alive. I am a DACA recipient who hasn’t taken jobs from anyone but instead created my own. I am a proud, brown girl who is defying the odds every day. The fate of DACA is uncertain, but we will continue to fight for our dreams in this great land of opportunity.
Brown girl, brown boy: Escuchame cuando te digo que no importa de donde vienes, que no importan los obstaculos que se te enfrenten, no importa si vienes de pueblo, de campo, de ciudad. No importa donde empiezes. Nuestros ancestros estan con nosotros y tenemos el poder de llegar hasta la cima. Levante tu cabeza y camina con valor.