(In Honor of Immigrant Heritage Month)
June is Immigrant Heritage Month, so I’ve decided to share my story in support of many immigrants that I know who can’t always share their stories. I tell mine now because it’s become a big part of my identity, but also because it wasn’t until last year when my parents recieved their permanant residency, that I felt like I could safely tell my story. I was born in the United States, unlike my parents who were born in Ecuador and Chile. I’m a proud New Yorker, but I’m also a proud Chilena and Ecuatoriana.
Lately, I’ve been getting the same question over and over again: “Where are you from?” Living in Washington, DC this isn’t uncommon because everyone comes from everywhere. My answer is always, “New York.” It’s the follow-up question that always gets to me: “No, but where are you really from?” With a bit more assertion, I answer, “New York. But if you’re asking about my parents, they’re Chilean and Ecuadorian.”
So in my spare time, I’ve been dissecting my identity and my family history, specifically our immigrant history. Even though I was the first born here, I still strongly identify with my family’s immigrant identity. It made up about 22 years of my life. For quite some time, I didn’t even know it made up that large a part of my life. My childhood was made up of small lies. Small lies that were meant to keep me safe and comfortable. I’ve pulled apart these lies to find the truth in them, in my identity.
I was born and raised in Northern Westchester in New York. I don’t remember my young age, obviously, but I’ve heard the stories and I remember some feelings. My parents are immigrants. For most of my youth, they were undocumented and I had no idea. Their status in this country didn’t affect me until much later in life. However, it did indirectly affect how others treated me growing up.
I didn’t speak a lick of English until I went to school. I went to a Catholic day program and my mother loves to tell me the story about how I didn’t even know my own name on the first day of class. I had a nickname growing up that few know about me besides family and close friends. This is a big truth I’m about to drop because I despise this nickname, but for the sake of this story I feel the need to be as honest as possible. My nickname was Mumy, and its origin is irrelevant at this time. This nickname haunts me and to this day, I stress that my even my own parents call me Elice.
So I’m in this class and the teachers called for me and I sat there silently. They called my mother and told her that I wasn’t in school. My mother told them that I was certainly dropped off in the classroom and laughed. She told them to ask for Mumy, and if I didn’t respond to that to call back. The teachers came back in the classroom and asked for Mumy and just as my mother said, I raised my little arm in the air. I owe the teachers at this school my impeccable English. I also owe my parents my fluent, and sometimes faulty, Spanish. I spoke English at school and Spanish at home. That was a hard and fast rule in my life and I’m proud to say that one day I hope to carry a similar rule with my own family.
I didn’t encounter this issue again until sometime in elementary school. I don’t remember what grade I was in, but I was still pretty young. As I mentioned in the previous anecdote, I speak English fluently. I remember my mother being outraged because someone in the school had suggested that I go to English as a Second Language classes. They would take me out of class and had me try out these classes. ESL was somewhat of a new, hot topic for our town. I was Latina, therefore there was no way I could speak English as well as my white peers. A few trial classes in and many furious conversations with my mother, and I was pulled out of ESL. They apologized and realized that I did not need the extra help. My outrage for this has grown throughout the years. Not only was I marginalized based on the color of my skin, but other children who actually needed these resources — children who really needed ESL support — were overlooked during this disaster. I will give them credit and say that at least they were trying to provide an ESL support program for the growing Latino population in my town. This doesn’t change my experience and doesn’t change how a few days of ESL singled me out from my peers. From here on out, I would always recognize skin color and how I was a handful of kids who simply didn’t fit into white spaces because of my ethnicity.
It wasn’t until I was 12 that I learned that my parents were undocumented. There were small hints here and there, but I couldn’t fully comprehend why my parents were wary of police my whole life. I was born in the United States and I always knew I had the legal right to be here. To make a long story short, when I was 12 my parents applied for their residency. They were denied and were to be deported. I remember the day my parents got that letter in the mail clearer than any other memory. It was a defining moment in my life. A fight or flight moment. And I was ready to fly. Get the hell out of this country was my instinct. Let’s live peacefully in Chile or Ecuador, and never come back. I have known no other home than the United States, but at that moment all I wanted was peace for my family.
We decided to stay and my parents would lay low until they could appeal the decision. Nothing really happened afterwards. Luckily we were a small family that lived in a predominately white town in New York. We weren’t a threat to anyone and we were lucky. Especially since the next time they could appeal wouldn’t be until my 21st birthday. But we lived watching the world over our shoulders and were never really comfortable. For someone who was pretty lucky, I still remember the times I would practice hiding in my closet in case ICE ever showed up. I was the American who would hide with my parents so that I wasn’t taken away from them. I still shudder at the sight of a cop car.
I’ve written the story of the discovery of my parents’ status a hundred times over and I’m happy to tell anyone who asks nowadays. But up until last year, I could not speak about it publicly. Few trusted friends knew this huge secret I had been hiding and that’s it. I couldn’t trust anyone with this. I was nearing 21 and my parents began to file again, but this time I was pleading their cases. I had to be a model American citizen who was fighting to keep her family together. I remember thinking on my 21st birthday to not be too stupid and end up in trouble. Any negative mark on my record would affect my parent’s case. I was like this my whole life. I had to get good grades, I had to go to a good university, I had to work throughout school. Model citizen.
My parents both won their cases, and as of last year are both residents of the United States. It was the biggest relief of my life. I could finally live my life unafraid. I could speak of my experiences, and share them for those who can’t share their stories. For the first time, I was free to be me.
I didn’t live my parent’s story and my parents didn’t live mine. There were several lies told throughout both experiences. My parents couldn’t find a way to explain their status until the deportation bomb dropped. They never explained why I didn’t quite fit into white spaces. I never expressed the pressure I felt from them to be perfect. I never quite told them about the fear I lived in. It’s a lie to say that our experiences are exactly the same. But the small truth in this, is that our experiences are woven together. Our immigration experience as a family shaped who I am today.