From DREAMER to U.S. Citizen
“No soy de aquí ni soy de allá …Neplanta is my home”
From DREAMER to U.S. Citizen
by Leslie V. Chaires
Battle scars remain in my memory, our memory, my soul, our soul. No one piece of paper given by the U.S. government that grants me legality in this country will ever erase my past nor make me better or more entitled than my fellow brothers and sisters, nor give me the right to oppress and discriminate those that remain without a path to legalization. We remain the same together, warriors of our undocumented journeys.
If you’re expecting to read about how becoming a U.S. citizen is one of the greatest moments for a formerly undocumented person, you will be disappointed to say the least. You’ve been warned. I recall the day I received my U.S. naturalization certificate. Was this the happiest day of my life? Was this my dream come true? Did I feel whole? Not really. I felt happiness to a certain extent, but I’ll get to my “happy and grateful immigrant” rant later. More than anything else, I felt anger and disappointment.
As a new U.S. citizen, I acknowledge my new privilege in this country. I understand I now hold a different position in the undocumented student movement and other immigration discourse. I know my place. However, I do not discount my lived experience of almost twenty years as an undocumented person in this country. My human experience is also valid within the discourse.
I’ve discussed my experiences as an undocumented immigrant and journey towards citizenship with my therapist, reasons that brought me to seek therapy in the first place. As an immigrant herself, my therapist shared that she did not remember her naturalization ceremony as it had been over 30 years ago. I couldn’t understand how anyone who had gone through any immigration procedure could forget, but I wasn’t going to get into any immigration debates during a therapy session, so I let it go.
I was happy upon receiving notice for the oath ceremony. Happy that the immigration process that started back in 1994 would finally come to an end. A month later, while on my way to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland where my oath ceremony would take place, I was scared and anxious. In order to go into the seating area of the theater, I was required to show my residence card as proof of identity, which triggered flashbacks of having to show identification in public spaces including banks, clothing stores, the movie theater for rated R movies, restaurants — you name it. I was terrified at having to explain why I didn’t have a U.S. government issued identification, which was more common than not. It would only start unwanted conversations with people of authority and bring upon awkward and embarrassing moments. The thought of showing my residence card at my oath ceremony to an immigration official scared me, but I reaffirmed myself that this time they couldn’t do anything to me. In my hand I held the “golden ticket”: a small card that simultaneously proved my “legality” and erased my undocumented past (at least to USCIS).
It was Thursday morning on November 17th of 2012. Walking up to the theatre, tables along the sidewalk offered what I like to call “citizen goodies”. There were voter registration forms, passport applications, and vendors selling leather covers for naturalization certificates. The auditorium was decorated in a Christmas holiday fashion: wreaths, a tall Christmas tree, bells, string lights along the staircase and walls. Dozens of people stood in line, all with their USCIS letter and green card in hand, ready to be screened and ushered into the auditorium. Another line formed for all the relatives of soon-to-be citizens, joyously taking pictures of their mother, brother, friend, spouse, and cousin. Guests to the oath ceremony didn’t have to show proof of identification, so they were quickly directed to their seats located onthe second floor of the venue. Thankfully, my mother was able to attend.
After surrendering our legal resident cards, which one must do before taking oath, ushers directed us into the auditorium. The ushers dressed in black suits and congratulated us for becoming citizens and handed each one of us a small “American” flag. I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a slap on the face when I took that flag. I’ve lived in this country for the great majority of my life, all of my immediate family is here, I’ve done all the things “Americans” do, and it wasn’t until THAT moment that society and the government had decided to welcome me as a citizen of this country. I was angry. I think we all needed an apology for the immense hardship, discrimination, exploitation, and outright racism we had endured. After ALL that my family and I had gone through as undocumented people, it wasn’t until that moment that suddenly we were acknowledged “worthy” of becoming “American”.
At that moment, all I could think of were the OTHER estimated 11 million undocumented Americans that await legalization. I say legalization and not citizenship because I feel not all undocumented folks YEARN to become citizens of this country despite what others (Republicans and uninformed people) believe. Undocumented folks simply want to be able to LIVE, raise their families, and work in this country. Even traveling to see their families in their home country is nearly impossible. For example, because of this many including myself have not been able to attend the burial ceremonies and pay proper respects to loved ones who have passed away. Can you imagine not being able to say goodbye because of running the risk of being unable to return to your life in the U.S.?
The oath ceremony was a spectacle and lasted roughly two hours. All the big shots from the San Francisco USCIS were there. I would name them all, but those details are beyond my memory at this point. The speeches were more or less in the same tune: “Welcome immigrants! Congratulations for becoming American citizens,” then something about “home of the brave, land of the…” you get the point. Afterwards, our representative countries were named and each of us stood as our birth country was called. We were more excited about this part than when we received our souvenir American flags. For God’s sake, it was the most exciting moment of the entire ceremony! We all clapped and cheered — China had the loudest cheering section!
During the ceremony, a short video montage played black and white images of people arriving to the U.S. The video banked on the idea that the U.S. is a nation of ethnically and racially diverse immigrants. However, it forgot to include the part on slavery of people of African decent, how this population was forced to become part of this country. Some of the images depicted were of men, women and children who appeared tired and worn. I couldn’t help but think about how difficult it was for my family when we first migrated to the U.S. My parents, forced to leave their lives behind to start a new one, took only clothes and blankets along with their three small children. Two college educated professionals unable to use their degrees, and having to work at McDonalds and Taco Bell to begin living the “American Dream.” As an adult I can now reflect and can feel their pain; fighting their way through poverty, completing a bachelor’s degree with two small children, only to find themselves in a country that does not welcome them. Yet, their hope is not lost but rather strengthened. My parents are the original DREAMERS. They dared to dream of a better life for their children, and they succeeded. Their ESFUERZO has not been in vain.
The lights of the auditorium dimmed, and a large screen illuminated the dark room: a video message by President Obama played and loud cheers and applause filled the silent room. I was skeptical as to what this special message would be. His minute and a half speech aligned with some of the rhetoric I had heard before, congratulating people on becoming citizens, this land is your land and the works. However, I did not expect my next reaction. “Today marks a very special day in your life, you’ve traveled a long path to get here,” stated President Obama. I thought, “You have NO fucking idea,” and tears flowed down my cheeks. I was shaken from my core. For the first time ever in this country, I felt the government had finally validated my struggle as an undocumented person. More flashbacks came, memories of all the shit I had endured. I was nine years old when I knew I was undocumented. I was wired to never reveal this secret to anyone. At nine, my goal was not to get married in a white dress. No. My goal was to graduate from college and make my parents proud. My secret ate at my soul for decades! Thankfully, I did not need this sudden validation to feel complete. I know better. Instead, in my mind, I hugged my mother and pictured her sitting in the balcony above me, watching, as her daughter became a U.S. citizen.
It is important to explore the video montage played during the oath ceremony. It portrayed the U.S. as a country of many immigrants from different countries. However, the country is often painted as predominantly Euro-American and English-speaking. We are constantly bombarded with images of what “Americans” should look like. So how define “American” begs the following questions: Who is included in this definition? Who is the outsider, the “other?” The cultural production of this definition relies on symbols, images, and texts that construct the meaning of nation (or “American”) and perpetuates rhetoric of exclusion of the “other”. In this manner, that which doesn’t fit within this Eurocentric paradigm of what it means to be American – speaking English and practicing American customs — is deemed “foreign” and therefore un-American. In culture politics, government and mainstream media hold a great deal of social power. They have the power to define immigrants as the “other”, and immigrants are deemed a threat to the nation and responsible for stirring fear and anxiety among non-immigrants. Participants of the immigrant rights movement are redefining this narrative. First, by humanizing undocumented people; and, second, by publically asserting their own undocumented status. In doing so, they are challenging anti-immigrant rhetoric and empowering immigrants to share their stories to the mainstream media. In hopes of achieving immigration reform for ALL undocumented people, not just DREAMERS, this counter narrative has proved to be a powerful mobilizing tool.
Am I grateful to this country? Yes. I am grateful for the PEOPLE who helped me succeed. I am grateful to my fourth grade elementary teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, who graciously encouraged me to succeed in school. She validated my native language and supported me with learning English. To my high school history teacher, Mr. Dwyer, who introduced people of color into U.S. history books. To Mr. Parada, a college counselor, who gave me hope when I thought all was lost. During senior year, a counselor shattered my lifelong dreams of attending college in an instant when I revealed my undocumented status, and without a second thought she told me she couldn’t help me and told me to return to class. I am grateful to professors and activists who instilled in me a sense of pride in my culture: they taught me the history of our people, and that we too form part of this nation. We are not outsiders. I owe my success to those who came before me, who fought and died to pave the path for future generations so that people like me could receive an education. I am most grateful to my parents and a higher power that made my LIFE possible. To me success is not defined by university titles, prestigious employment, or material possessions for they will not bring me happiness. Success is knowing that any form of government, corporation, or mainstream media does not define my sense of self-worth and identity. Success is knowing that my people, my ancestors, are part of this nation. I am not foreign to this land. Success is healing that spiritual and emotional wound that arises from living in a toxic society that dehumanizes people for lack of a piece of paper or the color of their skin. I am not an individual. I am connected to those around me.
While I may now be a U.S. citizen, my journey does not stop there. United States of America, why don’t you recognize, embrace, and welcome the other 11 million undocumented Americans? Would embracing them mean you would no longer be able to exploit them as cheap labor? Would it mean having to pay them fair wages? Recognizing them means you will have to return the billions of dollars they contribute through taxes every year. If you did, you would lose your scapegoat. Who would make the headlines on Fox News? Who would Rush Limbaugh blame?
I did not wave my souvenir American flag at the oath ceremony. I put it down on my seat as the woman next to me did. I will express my “Americaness” not by waving a flag, but by continuing to fight for the recognition of the remaining 11 million undocumented Americans. OUR journey continues.
NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL!