Young, Scrappy and Hungry.
In the early 2000s, (another) perfect storm hit Bolivia. The combination of economic, social and political crises forced thousands of people to leave in search of better opportunities. By the middle of that decade, my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles and even my mom had left, and the toll on the family would soon be felt. My siblings had to leave their children; they were desperate to see them again and would do anything to bring their children to the U.S. — that is how I enter the scene.
My family assembled on “Turkey Day” of 2005 where they resolved that I was the ideal person to take charge of my five year-old nephew during the uncertain journey through Guatemala, Mexico and the U.S. I was ideal not only because my nephew and I were like brothers, but also because they knew I would come. I was attracted to that thing pop stars, movies, sitcoms, basketball legends, universities and technology sell best to the people of the developing world: the American Dream. At the same time, I suffered a condition common to teenagers in their prime, I call it “the Iron Man Complex.” This refers to an adventurous heart, an inflated ego, a tendency to underestimate the dangers of the world, and conversely to overestimate one’s own powers.
Although this may explain why I as a teen brought a child on a perilous journey, it does not say anything about why I stayed. The truth is that in the beginning it was about personal pride. I deeply resented being underestimated and looked down upon just because I was a broke, undocumented and blue-collar worker who could not effectively speak English. What made me even more stubborn was realizing that higher education was out of my reach. Think about it; if Americans face so many difficulties when trying to obtain a college education, imagine how it is for an “illegal alien.”
I decided that if I had to go back to Bolivia, I wasn’t going down without a fight, a good fight. I realized that no school would give me a chance if I did not excel, which was a real challenge since I had never been a good student in the first place. The first step towards attaining my goal was learning English. I did everything to learn it: I took classes, studied on my own, watched movies, and listened to music. It took me five and a half years to complete a course of study that under normal circumstances takes only two at a community college. Finally, thanks to the support of my family and willingness of schools to take a risk by offering me scholarships, I was able to transfer to a four-year university and later earn a postgraduate degree .
My struggle to go to school earned me the appreciation of friends and relatives who told their children of my exemplary story. This made me uncomfortable since I could not reconcile the fact that something so selfish could mean so much to others. After all, I had not wasted my young-and-stupid years in libraries for others. Yet, over the course of a long period of time full of frustration, confusion, insecurity, envy, impotence and even anger at a system that had both given and taken away so much from me, my self-centeredness gradually gave way to a desire to change for the better the lives of others, not just my own. The current political climate has only intensified these feelings.
Today, I aim to help other young immigrants change the world and defend our families at a time when fear has become the new normal in the country that was supposed to be the beacon of freedom and liberty, the land of opportunity. In many ways I am still a student, although this time my professors are younger, bolder and far more experienced than I — they are Dreamers.
-Juan Manuel Guzman