The Day I Became American
As a young girl I used to be so careful about the pronouns I used when I talked about the United States. Always careful not to say, “my” or “our”. Always feeling like those words didn’t belong in my mouth like this country didn’t belong to me.
You see, I had come to believe that the one thing that made you American was a small piece of paper and a nine digit number.
I didn’t have that.
So I worked hard, every day, to prove that I was worthy of being “American”. I spoke softly so as not to make anyone feel uncomfortable. I followed the rules and gave back to my community in all the ways that I knew how. I worked incredibly hard in school to build an academic record worthy of my perseverance and my drive to succeed. I never took anything from anyone else, I worked instead with my mom cleaning houses to earn my own way and pull myself up by my bootstraps.
Yet I was reminded that my efforts were meaningless because on paper I was still an international student, a graduate of a Colorado High School paying out of state tuition to attend an in state college. No matter how hard I worked or my parents worked, fear still plagued our lives because our family could be separated by deportation. Unlike other American kids I did not have the right to a driver’s license or any ID, always wanting to spread my wings and fly and being reminded that I had to stay put.
More often than not I wanted to give up, but by my side I always had my parents. Their hope and belief in the promise of the American Dream was unwavering. To them this land which allowed them to feed and support their children’s dreams would never be anything other than home. They reminded us that a number and our immigration status did not define us, that those were not measures of our humanity. So I too learned to have hope and to have faith in this country.
That’s what got me through the darkest days and what eventually got me to the summer of 2012. That summer my life changed when President Obama through an executive action created DACA, deferred action for childhood arrivals. This meant that kids like me who had come to this country at a young age would be safe from deportation and have access to temporary work permits.
With DACA I became the first person in my family to earn a college degree, a degree I used to become a teacher and teach 120 amazing high school students. In 2015, I was invited to the White House as a Champion of Change for my work as a DACAmented educator.
That summer, at the White House, was the first time in my life that anyone had referred to me as an “American”.
The first time I felt that this country had a place for me.
It wasn’t just the new ID in my wallet or the nine digit number I still couldn’t remember that gave me that feeling of being American. It was knowing that I was part of something bigger, that like the immigrants that had come before me I too was an important part of building and shaping this country. That I had done that long before I had a social security number. From that day forward I sat up a little taller and spoke a little louder because I no longer was afraid to walk around in my own skin. I was no longer trying to prove I could be American.
Cesar Chavez once said that “You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” I stand firm by this belief and know that regardless of the opinion and beliefs of the next President-Elect I will remain an American. I am here to stay.