Finding My Voice

Posted by on October 05, 2013.


The United States meant road trips, Disney World, New York City, and Niagara Falls to my nine-year-old self; it meant excitement, family, and adventure. Although I didn’t recognize my father when I arrived at the airport, and although I couldn’t understand English, I was overjoyed to finally land in the U.S. in 2003. Throughout the next few months, I thought of Bogota, my hometown in Colombia, but I loved the challenge of learning a new language and being immersed in such a different culture.

I asked my parents once when we were going to visit the extended family that we had left behind in Colombia. When they told me that we couldn’t leave the country, I thought that it was a bit strange, but I decided not to pry. One day at school, a friend asked me if I was going to see my family again soon and asked “what, are you illegal or something?” when I told him that we can’t leave the country. Knowing that anything “illegal” was bad, I immediately defended my family saying my parents would never do anything like that to me. This encounter was soon forgotten, until my parents told me a few years later in my freshman year of high school that we were indeed, “illegal”.

Suddenly, it felt as if I was in a foreign land once again. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that by the time I was eleven, I was taken out of the English as a Second Language and placed into a regular English class and simultaneously began my French studies. It also didn’t matter that I was in intensified English classes, that I was going to take Chinese the next year, that I was going to keep pushing myself to learn the most I could, that I had been saving every penny since I was ten years old to finance my college, that I now lived and dreamt in English, or that I now considered the United States my home. Suddenly, none of that mattered because I was illegal. It felt as though the word that I had so easily rejected in the past was suddenly latching on to me and becoming a part of my identity.

I allowed myself a time to find out more about being “illegal” in the United States in spite of my parents telling me to leave everything up to them and to not worry about anything; I researched immigration law, policies, and my options from 11pm until at least 2am every night on a tiny iPod screen under the covers without letting them know that I was worried. This continued for months until I found an article about an “illegal” student in my situation that went to Princeton. It felt as if a lifesaver had been thrown to me; after researching some more, I realized that I should focus on certain Ivy League schools because of their policies toward “illegal” students. By this point, I was more used to the situation and I had accepted this new part of my identity, but I was still ashamed of myself. I felt as if no one wanted me in the United States, my home. The trouble was that my Colombian relatives considered me to be too “Americanized” and mistook my verbal hesitation that stemmed from not having very much in common for losing my Spanish-speaking abilities and thus losing my Colombian identity. On the other hand, it felt as though no one wanted me in the United States.

Throughout high school, I kept doing everything that was asked of me and beyond; I excelled in academics, dedicated a portion of every week to community service, joined clubs such as the French Honors Society and the National Honors Society, joined the cheerleading squad and worked my way to Varsity in less than two months, and maintained my artistic hobbies. When my counselor notified me that the College Board had awarded me with its National Hispanic Recognition Program Scholar title, when I was announced as a state finalist in the National American Miss pageant, and when I was offered five full ride scholarships because of my exam scores, I saw the possibility of attending college closer within reach. However, to claim any of the five scholarships I had to have a social security number and suddenly, college became more of dream than a reality once again.

I did not share my undocumented status with anyone until the very end of my senior year when I was searching for scholarships. What began as a simple visit to my school’s Minority Achievement Coordinator resulted in becoming an advocate for immigration reform, a community organizer, and a co-founder and current president of Dreamers of Virginia (DOV). Since the beginning of DOV’s fight for immigration reform in January of 2013, I have learned more about myself and have become a part of such an active and passionate community.

Although I had worked very hard throughout high school, it was in the months after my graduation that I started getting involved that I really overcame many struggles. Against the odds, I found a way to attend George Mason University for Honors Computer Science, I have found ways to travel so Dreamers of Virginia’s message is spread throughout the state, and I have found work through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).*

I have also found an inner strength that I never knew I had and which I likely would have never found if it hadn’t been for the many outstanding people in this movement that I have been blessed to meet. However, I cannot help but think about how many people we represent that are still in the shadows. I urge every undocumented person in the United States to come forward into the light and get involved; there are groups everywhere! Even if there is not an active group nearby, people still have access to unlimited resources increasing every single day via the internet, a resource that DOV has been committed to providing widely and freely. As for the rest of the population, we have a growing number of allies including leading experts in technology, economics, education, and every other aspect of society. Whether you are undocumented, DACAmented*, or an ally, join the movement and help us to fight for a better America.

*It must be noted that although several hundred thousand dreamers are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries, only half that are eligible have applied because it is expensive and because it is not a permanent solution; we are still not residents, allowed to vote, pay in-state in most states, and we still do not qualify for federal aid or for loans. In addition, DACA is a renewable 2-year program which could be defunded and thus taken away.


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