A voice for those who cannot speak
An alumnus’s story of citizenship, discrimination, and college access
My mom crossed the border illegally 22 years ago. She was waiting to give birth in a hospital in Mexico when her sister picked her up and smuggled her across the border. My mom made it 30 minutes north of there, in the midst of birth pains, to a small town by the flat Southern Californian lands. I was born there. I, a U.S. high school valedictorian and member of the MIT Class of 2014, was born there in California. But our home was in Mexico.
My parents split up so I could get an American education. When I was seven years old, my parents, older brother and sister, and I were living in an average house in Mexico. But word about my cousins speaking English and having a shot at a better future in America convinced my parents to uproot us from Mexico and transport us to California. That’s where my mom brought my older siblings, also American citizens, and me.
She promised, “En los Estados Unidos hay más oportunidades, mijo.” If I would do well in school, she said, I would someday have a better future for myself. She had talked it through with my dad, who agreed to stay in Mexico and continue working until he was old enough to retire. In the meantime, he would send us Mexican money (dirt compared to the U.S. dollar) to help keep us alive.
The U.S. government didn’t know this. In order to receive food stamps, my mom claimed to be financially independent of my father, a lie that convinced my younger self that deceiving the government is normal. She claimed to be single, betraying the joy of my earlier childhood that we had spent as a family. Yet, it was a well-intentioned betrayal, a paradox, which was aggravated by the rare visits he paid me. At a young age, I was perplexed, fatherless, poor, and spoke no English.
Our living conditions were no better. My mom, siblings, and I lived in a single bedroom in my aunt’s house. Once welfare money started coming in, we moved into a low-income apartment — the place I called home until high school.
On that block, a police officer was shot and killed when I was in middle school; I couldn’t get home that day because the SWAT team was investigating neighboring apartments — the criminal’s home. My sister contributed to the community’s statistics on teenage pregnancies, one of the highest in California. My own brother, who even today is struggling to find a job, contributed to the region’s unemployment rate, one of the nation’s highest.
We lived in fear. “No abran la puerta,” my mom would lecture us. “¡y si preguntan si tienen padre, diganles que no!” she’d say. “If they ask if you have a father, say no!” After a man showed up to our apartment asking about my dad, my mom was convinced that the government was investigating her. She’d frequently lecture us with her most serious face, her eyebrows sternly frowning: we were never to speak about my father, whether in school or to a stranger.
I was taught not to open the door, to shut the curtains before leaving the house, to leave the radio on so no one would break in. Any knock at the door would provoke silence in my home. My mom would then find me and whisper, asking, “Who is it?” In response, my face would offer an unspoken “I don’t know.”
We were incarcerated in our own home. And in those moments, the thought of losing my mom might cross my mind. I’d imagine her getting taken away, getting deported, leaving my siblings and me orphans, ending up God knows where. I still hear the knocks on the door and remember my mother’s voice. “Don’t open the door, and if they ask about your father, say nothing!”
It has always been easy to answer questions about the challenges I’ve faced. I can talk about counseling my close friend who was homeless, who feared his mom was selling her body. I can talk about the time two kids beat me on the back with sticks on my way back from school. I can talk about the too-frequent deaths of my high school classmates in a school a fifth the size of MIT.
But there’s a more difficult question interviewers and college applications ask me: who mentored me? It’s hard to answer because the only person who comes to mind is my older cousin. He encouraged me to take as many Advanced Placement classes as possible. “You can become a valedictorian,” he tempted me, “if you take AP classes and get good grades.”
He pushed me to speak to my high school counselor about how to become a valedictorian. Off I went to the counseling office. I sat on a cold chair in silence waiting for some guy to stop talking to the desk assistant, and approached the desk lady.
“How can I help you?” she asked. I told her I wanted to talk to my counselor. “What would you like to speak to him about?” she asked robotically.
I mumbled, “About how to be a valedictorian.”
She laughed unapologetically in my face.
I remember feeling so ashamed, so embarrassed, that I made up my mind to speak to my counselor about anything except how to be a valedictorian. I remember asking myself to forget that moment ever happened. But I still ask myself: why did she laugh?
She continued laughing in my head, mocking the color of my skin and my dirty upbringing. A dark-skinned Mexican like me doesn’t forget the feeling of being ashamed of his cultural background. Being different. Surviving on microwavable corn dogs, chimichangas, and ramen. Not knowing what it’s like to sit at a dinner table with his family. Having to speak on behalf of his single parent who can’t speak English. Living off of the $8 per hour his mom, an undocumented field worker, earns in the field from sunup to sundown.
It’s common for field workers in California to be undocumented; employers have no documented candidates looking to work in the fields. When I asked my mom about the Social Security Number she uses, she replied, “Es un seguro chueco.” It’s “crooked” — it doesn’t belong to her. If hard workers like my mom were kicked out of the country, there would be no “American,” no one with a nine-digit number, to take the job.
But my mom would gladly take it for the sake of her children. She would diligently leave every morning at 4 a.m. before I’d wake up. After school, in the late afternoon, I would catch her coming into the house, her brown skin turned pale by the dirt she’d toiled in.
“¿Hijo, me sobas los pies?” she would plead daily. Oh, how I regret ever answering “no.” I should never have waited for the question! I should have unconditionally offered to rub her calloused feet, to massage the dirt off her hands and put my fingers through her knotted hair, the way she liked, until she’d fall asleep.
Instead, “I have a lot of homework” was my common excuse.
After insisting, or even offering me the last $5 in her purse, she would stop annoying me and lie down on the living room couch, which also served as her bed. I would return to my studies — my illusion of a ticket to a better life.
Those straight A’s I earned did not suffice to earn a ticket to MIT. For undocumented immigrant families like mine, it can be impossible to finance a college education. What would I report on the FAFSA? A father whose financial support can’t exist? A mother whose illegal job in the field counts for nothing? Government money that by itself isn’t enough to pay for rent?
Needless to say, filling out the FAFSA was more stressful than filling out the MIT application. It reminded me of that childhood fear from long ago and of the terrible sound of knocking on the door.
How could I get the financial aid that I thought I deserved without revealing our fraud?
I confess to you. I lied.
I don’t understand how — but it worked; I got a full MIT scholarship. And I found my calling at MIT, thriving both in its classrooms and in its many extracurriculars. For most of my four years, it was like I had never lied.
Today, a year after MIT nearly took away my scholarship and my mother nearly missed my graduation, I can no longer disregard the lies. When I consider my upbringing and how privileged I am today, contradictory thoughts flow through my head. Did I deserve the money? What if one day someone finds out?
Every day, when people see me, they see the Brass Rat on my finger and a smart guy who worked hard for his diploma. I am a part of this community: a respected leader, a passionate thinker, and a good friend. But no one sees the fear in my soul.
I’ll speak with some professional who guarantees, “As long as you and your parents did everything legally, there should be no problem.” Anxiety will step in and my heart will begin to race. The truth is that my mom is working illegally, I lied on my financial aid application, and I’m living as though I earned it earnestly. Bearing that in mind, I’ll tell the false story again, and logically it’ll be easy to justify.
Just how different are the lies from the truths? The information I reported is incidentally true. My mom works an honest job in my opinion, and I am a common low-income, first-generation MIT student.
But each time I’ll tell it, it will take a toll on me. The more I’ll speak about not being raised by my dad, the less I’ll know him. The more I’ll hide the sacrifices my mom’s made for me, the harder they’ll be to remember. My cover-up story will become my reality. I dishonor my parents when I live this life pretending I’m your average minority student at MIT instead of honoring with my memory the myriad sacrifices they made for me. For this reason there is power in sharing stories — to let others know they’re not alone.
If you identify with any aspect of my story, be encouraged. One day, not far from today, you, your brother and sister, your mother and father will have a voice. Our families will be honored. And all will know the sufferings of American undocumented families. Our stories will then be written in history books, our hardships retold around the world.
It all starts here at MIT. Here you can find welcoming communities, like I did, willing to actively encourage you. Find a peer who will give up time to comfort you, who will get fired up about your story. Find a staff member who will move mountains to lighten your burden. It is out of compassion, or maybe decency, that some S^3 deans, financial officers, and professors really are willing to go beyond their job descriptions to support you.
The nationwide truth is around you, MIT. Someone you met in 18.02 had a parent deported, his family split for at least the next decade until “immigration papers go through.” The great singer you admire fears life after graduation because of the unlikelihood of getting a job while undocumented.
A girl who was at the top of her class has parents who were unable to see her walk across the graduation stage because they’re undocumented and cannot fly to Boston. The dark-skinned genius you met during freshman year who never came back the next semester — he dropped out because of the two jobs he was working to pay for his undocumented mom’s medical bills.
If I’ve witnessed these stories without being a part of DreaMIT or some other organization for undocumented families, how many other stories are there? Split families, hard workers without benefits, no aid for well-deserving students … and not a single voice to defend these people.
This story is dedicated to those from undocumented families who cannot speak, to those who live in silence and fear, to those who are tired of being portrayed as criminals. Our voices will be heard. And we will have justice in the country that labels the oppressed “illegals.”