What It's Like Growing Up As An Undocumented Immigrant
As it tends to be with Latinxs, your world consists of family. Your eldest cousin is so tall you are sure she is a giant. You and your littlest cousin wear matching PJs that your aunt got you. Your life is trips to the market, gatherings around the table, beach vacations. This is where you belong. Your life, idyll.
And then, when you are five, your life begins in a foreign land. Again.
This new place also becomes the place where you are from. It will shape the cadence of your voice and also your attitude. But first, you leave Peru with your mother and sister to join your father in New York City where he rents a room that could be a closet. You’ve never seen buildings this big before. They are definitely tall enough for your eldest cousin.
There is no extended family in this new city but you do have family friends in Washington Heights who have made this trip before you and are more settled. You stay with them for a while — can’t remember the exacts (you were five, your memory’s fuzzy), but things definitely do stick out. Music videos on TV. GI Joe action figures. The taste of Nesquik, which you eat straight from the spoon till the powder on your tongue turns into a muddy paste and you are a sugar-high swamp-mouthed thing.
Eventually, your family sets out on their own. The first place they get is a room you all share. You can hear the other people who live in the house when they walk in the hallway. You’re not sure how many people are out there, could be one or could be 10. They are strangers whom you never see, and if you want to use the bathroom you have to wait and make sure they aren’t already in there.
This new place is your own. Yes, you have to share a room with your sister, but this is normal. You get to know your neighbors. Some of them are Jewish, some Hispanic, which is perfect since you are both.
It’s almost cliché, but alas, your Dad, an engineer in his previous life, drives a livery cab here. Your mom, once a nurse, takes care of other people’s children and houses. Soon, you move. This new place is your own. Yes, you have to share a room with your sister, but this is normal. You get to know your neighbors. Some of them are Jewish, some Hispanic, which is perfect since you are both. Your big sister records New Kids on The Block songs on cassettes and you watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and learn to draw them. It may be an immigrant parent thing, but it’s a steadfast rule that you cannot get so hurt as to require a trip to the hospital. You don’t have the money for that.
In school you cry because you’re kind of a wimp and also, more importantly, because you don’t understand a single thing that your teacher is saying. Luckily, you’ve got your Spanish-speaking neighbor in your class and she helps you pick up on things. You don’t pick up on everything, though. On your very first first grade spelling quiz you totally cheat — you have to. You don’t know how to read any of these English words. The problem is your teacher knows immediately you’ve cheated because you’ve made all the same mistakes as the classmate who sits next to you. You even copied his name at the top of the page.
The language barrier begins to break down. Soon, you’re speaking English as well as the kids on TGIF shows.
The language barrier begins to break down. Soon, you’re speaking English as well as the kids on TGIF shows. It takes a little longer for your parents to pick up the nuances of the language, however. When your Mom takes a trip out of town once, it’s your Dad who brings you to school and informs your teacher that your mother (who will be back in two days) has “left.” Your teacher spends the rest of the day looking at you sadly and asking if you’re OK.
Your home life is quintessentially American — the perfect melting pot of every possible thing you are: eating your favorite Peruvian food (your Dad makes authentic ceviche), celebrating Jewish holidays with neighboring families happy to accommodate all four of you at their table, your favorite actress is Thalia,who stars in all the telenovelas you watch every night with your parents (even though you are too young to understand the particularly escandaloso bits.) There is always music in the streets, the scary neighbor down the block, friendship bracelets, dancing the Running Man. You go to private Jewish school, which your parents work to pay for.
Your family in Peru come to visit; sometimes aunts, sometimes your grandmother. But you notice you never go back to visit them. Your cousins — which everyone here seems to have an abundance of — are mostly memories. Once a year, on your birthday, they are voices on the phone.
Being undocumented is not a flooding of the dam. It starts as a drizzle.
Your older sister argues with your parents about why she can’t get her license like the rest of her friends. The realization of what this means isn’t clear at first, but as times goes on it is. It trickles into your life. Being undocumented is not a flooding of the dam. It starts as a drizzle.
An ID has no role in your life and yet it’s a featured player in your story; it’s lack the bane of your existence, the thing you covet. Everyone else wants the latest handbags but for you, it’s the accessory you can’t live without. You’ve got your own knockoff versions. There’s your student ID — good for rush tickets at shows. And of course your foreign passport, which you’ve taken to carrying around for clubbing and bar-hopping expeditions. It’s cumbersome as a boom box compared to everyone else’s iPods.
Your college professor doesn’t understand why, and you are evasive. Because this thing — this Undocumented Thing — it makes you secretive.
The drizzle turns to drops when your friends take summer jobs. Your lack of ID excludes you from that. You’re eager for internships, and you’ve nailed the interview at a real magazine — the kind they sell at supermarket checkouts. But they ask you for that pesky ID. You have to turn it down. Your college professor doesn’t understand why, and you are evasive. Because this thing — this Undocumented Thing — it makes you secretive.
No financial aid by the way. No aid from the government ever, actually, because rumor has it that if you take aid then when you do eventually get a chance to legalize the country won’t take you in because they’ll consider you a leech. So no thank you, but no help from them.
This Thing makes you fearful, which makes you, ironically, a super law-abiding “citizen.” You have a real fear of cops. If you seek help from them they may ask too many questions. You fear getting into any trouble at all, so you never do anything even close to wrong.
Your wanderlust is very real. It hits like a hunger pang. There is so much that you want, and seeing the world jumps to the top of the list. Somewhere along the line you learn that leaving the country means not being allowed back in for a decade. You stay put.
Everyone you know gets jobs, and though they may not be good jobs they’re still jobs — a privilege. But what really gets to you are the trips. They say you should travel in your 20s if you can. You make excuses for why you can’t join friends on their excursions outside the country. This Thing makes you a good liar too. Your wanderlust is very real. It hits like a hunger pang. There is so much that you want, and seeing the world jumps to the top of the list. Somewhere along the line you learn that leaving the country means not being allowed back in for a decade. You stay put.
It also makes you jealous of everyone. Of Americans and their endless opportunities, just out of your reach; of your Russian friends who are also immigrants but got to come here under refugee status (so now you’re a petty monster whose jealous of refugees); you’re jealous of that old family friend you lived with when you first got here because you heard she got married to an U.S. citizen fresh off her 18th birthday. Eighteen may be a bit too young for that sort of commitment and yet, you think, smart girl. She married into freedom. You’re jealous of your Columbian family friends who came here just a few years before you did and got ushered in under the velvet rope of amnesty, a word that is as mythical to you as Greek legends. You have never longed for such a word in your life.
You are a DREAMer. And suddenly, this Thing also gives you hope. Your new title is cute but ironic because you begin to wonder if there’s any point in dreaming.
You learn that there is a term for people like you. There are millions of you, actually. Young people brought into this country when they were children, raised as Americans, with no path to citizenship. You are a DREAMer. And suddenly, this Thing also gives you hope. Your new title is cute but ironic because you begin to wonder if there’s any point in dreaming. The drizzle becomes a downpour. People on the news and all around you, they’re under the impression that you take everything from them. You are hated by many. You are a dirty word. You are filled with potential. You are bursting with it. You want to create and put forth great things—you have absolutely no clue how to do that over the table, though. So you stay under it. In the grand tradition of immigrant women, you become a nanny, like your mother. But you still dream. For you, dreams become another word for patience. And patient is the best thing that this Thing makes you. All you know is longing. To step foot outside, see the world, work. To Live Free gets to the top of your vision board, right next to writing a book. So you write, knowing that soon you will live free, and when that day comes you won’t have wasted your time. You’ll have a book to show for it. That’s a dream that takes patience, after all. And there’s nothing you know better than that. The slush pile’s got nothing on you.
Lately, things have changed for you. They are better. Your hope bore fruit. And your bulky foreign passport is now filled with stamps. There is still fear (another thing). Maybe there will always be fear. Maybe you will always have to look over your shoulder, but maybe that’s OK. This thing made you cautious, which made you smart. And that’s a good thing to be.
There are dreamers all around you. They’re in your classrooms, in your group of friends. Sometimes they’re even your YA authors.
Author Goldy Moldavsky slayed the YA world in 2016 with her NY Times bestselling debut novel, KILL THE BOY BAND, a darkly hilarious kidnapping caper. In her riotous new novel, NO GOOD DEED, she turns her sharp-eye for the human condition on a camp full of social justice warriors-in-training – and what happens when even the best of intentions get all twisted. Find her online at goldymoldavsky.com and follow her on Twitter @goldywrites.