Perpetual State of Infancy (dream theory)
By Fernando Romero
Fernando, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2009 and studied Creative Writing and Journalism. He is a co-founding member of Dreamers Adrift and co-founding member of the AB 540 group FUEL @ CSULB. He is also the Coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Coalition of Inland Southern California, which is an immigrant-rights coalition in the Inland Empire region of California. He is also a contributing writer to the Huffington Post on the Dream Activist series. He also serves as a boardmember on the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center, a day labor center in Pomona, Ca.
The Los Angeles Times published a video article on the lives of five Dreamers on June 8, 2012. The five of us in the piece, including myself, all hailed from Southern California. My dear friends and comrades David Lemus, Jamie Kim, Ricardo Muñiz and Maria Gomez were also featured in the video, with Maria taking center stage in the written article. Prior to publication, the LA Times followed (shadowed) us for about six or seven months as we lived our day-to-day lives as Dreamers and undocumented youth within the movement. We interviewed in front of the camera to tell our experiences. What came out was a disclosure on the lives of Dreamers and our experiences of growing up undocumented in the U.S.The following is neither theory nor philosophy. It is simply a rendition of some of the reflections on growing up undocumented. Many of these reflections are shared experiences among undocumented youth. This piece will most likely resonate with my generation of Dreamers; those of us who were born in the early to mid 80s. The generation of Dreamers that graduated from high school at the turn of the millennium, a time when neither in-state tuition nor the Dream Act had yet to enter the lexicon of the immigration reform movement. It was a time when undocumented high school students would relinquish their potential after graduation and would only dream of stepping onto a university campus. It was a time when DACA was wishful thinking and we lived like children dreaming of a better future; one that was uncertain and unreachable, but somehow seemed as tangible as a leaf falling from a tree.
We can only tell our own stories.
Knowing of Your Undocumented Status the Whole Time
There are several experiences that bind undocumented youth together and transcend our lives and instill within us an inherent affinity. One of them is the recognition, acknowledgement and acceptance of our undocumented status at some point in our lives.
Knowing of your undocumented status the whole time is the epitome of growing up undocumented. To know that you are in this country without proper documents grounds you to the fact that your life will be an intricate scheme of survival skills to maintain a livelihood in this country. Even though there are some of us who did not know fully know about our undocumented status until late adolescence or early adulthood, there are some of us that did. To know that you’re undocumented while growing up, imposes upon you a sense of defeatism, a heavy burden to carry for any child. And for Dreamers, it’s a nightmare we wouldn’t want to re-live.
At a young age, we began to be cognizant of what being undocumented was all about: the obstacles and tribulations. We knew what it meant to not have papers; we saw it in our parents’ faces, in their daily struggles and in the back of our mind we understood that one day we would follow in step with those same struggles.
We knew with absolute certainty that we didn’t have papers, but still our parents advised us to keep our head down, to not draw attention to ourselves and if anybody asked us, “You tell them you have papers that you were actually born here. And that you’ve never even to Mexico.”
Many of our friends were also undocumented. But we didn’t talk about it; because reality and existence and most importantly, the metaphysics of said reality as an undocumented person, didn’t need to be discussed and expounded upon in high school during the lunch period. As Ricardo Muniz pointed out, “Like right off the bat, I knew I was undocumented. But, it doesn’t really hit you until you’re in high school or when you turn 16 and friends who are able to get their license, don’t even get their license. Friends that are able to get a work permit don’t even get a work permit. And I tell them, what’s wrong with you guys?”
The lack of discussion during this period of our lives is also the rooted in the shame of having to “come out” and also because we lacked the adequate language to explain it in a way that can be at least therapeutic. The language which exists now summed up in phrases such as “Undocumented and Unafraid” “Education Not Deportation” and others, has allowed for a younger generation of Dreamers to achieve self-actualization, something that we could not fathom in those years. In high school, as everyone else, we try to fit in and live our life without fear. Nonetheless, we gained a narrow of perspective of the world and a clear view of our limitations. We also understood full well what it meant to be “illegal.”
We began to compartmentalize our life into different realities. Like someone suffering from schizophrenia or multiple personalities, we begin to think of ourselves as embodying many different people. With nuclear family we’re the most open, amongst close friends we would hint about our status, at school and at work, certain boundaries would be established; we began to tell different things to different people about ourselves.
We internalized it all. We each thought we were the only one and even when we knew we weren’t, we still internalized it. It became like an ethereal reality. At some point, the old country and the new country blended in and colluded in a conspiracy to try and make us believe that we were living another life. As in reincarnation, we died in the old country and birthed in this one. The world we lived in had become a very different place.
A Reverse Peter Pan Complex
One experience that can also be attributed specifically to Dreamers is that of an uninterrupted and perpetual state of infancy.
Some of the markers of adolescence and early adulthood are the ability to obtain certain documentation that enable one to conduct activities and life events that have become rites of passage. These include; obtaining a driver’s license and being able to drive, registering to vote and taking part in an election, turning 21 and being able to consume alcoholic beverages/go into a bar, being able to get a good job, establishing a line of credit, opening a bank account, going away for college, moving out of home for the first time, and others.
It is not surprising that most of the Dreamers I know live or had lived at home with their parents up until their mid-20s. This is because as Dreamers devote their time and financial resources to their schooling, so they will lack the ability to be economically independent while still in school.
Opening up a bank account at the age of 24 made me feel included into society. Up until that point, my finances were all kept under the table (and stashed under my mattress). Some of the minimum wage jobs while in college included: McDonald’s, movie theater attendant, barista and janitor at an oil refinery. And every other Friday, I would go to a check cashing place where the attendant took a fee of one percent from my check. The thought of getting a bank account had never even crossed my mind. At the start of every semester, I would walk over the Bursar’s office and lay down a couple thousand dollars in cold, hard cash to pay my tuition. The simple act of opening a bank account with my name and picture on it, felt like a threshold had been crossed. The debit card was also a tool used as a form of positive identification when viable.
The lack of documentation creates obstacles to obtain good-paying jobs. As Maria Gomez said with voice quivering, “Graduation Day; it was really bitter-sweet. Because I’m undocumented. Even if I’ve graduated, even if I’ve accomplished this; it’s not enough because I don’t have this piece of paper.” The lack of documents excluded us from the financial sector, inherently creating a second-class citizenry. All these financial institutions (banks, credit card companies, high-end markets, etc…) are established to benefit those who are intrinsically well-positioned within society. Unearned privilege is evident to those that are well positioned in the financial sectors; unearned privilege particularly for their affluence and also their birthright citizenship allowing them to have certain advantage to the financial sector. As Dreamers, the structure of networks and unjust legal systems has situated us at a disadvantage. One that is not easy to recuperate from, which leaves us longing for acceptance and inclusion into the real world.
When I was well into my 20s, I attempted to get an apartment on my own. I was disheartened by my effort. The ad for the apartment read there would be no credit check or proof of rental history required. However, I did have to present proof of income and the use of pay stubs, proved that I made more than enough to rent out the apartment. When I came to the landlord’s office to sign the 6-month lease, he denied me based on my pay stub which exhibited my fake social security number. He said he looked up my number and the fact that the fake social returned no queries, made him suspicious. I argued that I made more than enough money and how I worked two minimum-wage jobs. I showed him my car registration, a tax return and other documents bearing my name. The landlord didn’t budge.
It is precisely those moments when we try to move on with our lives and to enter adulthood that became a vivid reminder of our undocumented status. It is a garb all undocumented youth and adults are forced to wear and be exposed in public like a scarlet letter. It leaves us longing to rid ourselves of our childhood. It is what I refer to as a reverse Peter Pan Complex; we are eternally children longing to become adults.
A Sheltered Neglect
Another experience identifiable to Dreamers is that of which I will term as “Sheltered Neglect.” Sheltered neglect is a paradox. Our experiences as undocumented youth exhibit characteristics of paradoxical nature; meaning that certain experiences and situations that encompass the Dreamer identity contradict themselves by default.
A lot of us Dreamers were exposed to a life of difficulties at an early age. I grew up in the North Long Beach ghetto on the border with Compton. I saw it all: drugs, gang activity, drive-by shootings, prostitution, racial hatred, crime, addictions, shattered families, violence, etc…
The phrase they “came here through no fault of their own” exemplifies the notion of the neglect that our parents, as caregivers, pushed us into these conditions that placed in us danger. Even though, the phrase is deceptive, because most of us Dreamers don’t place blame on our parents for bringing us. The sheltered neglect aspect is that while we were placed in these perilous conditions, at the same time, they were done so by our caregivers in pursuit of a better life.
Many undocumented youth were smuggled in or handed over to human traffickers (coyotes) and brought over on this side of the border. Sheltered because by being smuggled into the U.S., we were amongst the luckiest youth in the world escaping harrowing poverty and unsettling sociopolitical unrest in our birth countries. Neglect because we were placed in very precarious situations in order to cross a perilous border leaving our fate at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers and/or the natural elements.
As David Lemus said, reliving a treacherous border-crossing story, “When I was crossing Mexico with my father and brother, I remember we were assaulted by two men with their guns. They were pointing at us with their guns and telling us that they wanted our money. I thought, ‘Oh, man this is the end.” The conditions under which we lived in were propagated by our undocumented status, whether conscious of it or not, we were bound by our undocumented status because it was the basis for entrance and existence in this country.
Growing up, my parents both worked late night shifts. They would leave at 4 p.m. and come back at 3 a.m. Every day after they left for work we were instructed not to open the door for anyone. If the phone rang, we were supposed to tell people that they were in the shower. Shielded in the same breath when our parents would urge us to never speak of our undocumented status to anyone, we were told not answer the door if someone knocked. We felt sheltered because we knew we were being cared for. That even though the whole week would drag by without seeing my parents, I knew that we were lucky because there was always food in the fridge, clothes on our backs and a fold-out cot to sleep on. Neglect because, me and my five brothers, we were left to fend ourselves without parental care or supervision. To this day, I hardly have any memories or recollection from the age 9 to 18, of my parents being at home.
We were the personification of latchkey kids.
When my little brother was born, I was only ten years old. My next-to-youngest brother was eight and my oldest brother was 14. My parents were still working late night shifts. We were kids and we had to raise my little brother; everything from diaper-changing to bottle feeding, formula-making, changing clothes, giving baths and taking care of him while sick. The weight of the whole world was on our shoulders. That was a lot of responsibility; the type of responsibility that no child should have to bear, but it’s one that ages you with experience.
We felt like we were living in a bubble; a feeling that many Dreamers can relate to; a fragile and vulnerable state of existence that can burst in a second. I remember one night when my baby brother was sick, had a running fever and couldn’t stop crying. My brothers and I walked over to a neighbor’s house across the street and even though we were terrified, came clean about the situation.
Our neighbor helped in caring for my baby brother that night and understood our dilemma in coming clean. Luckily, she did not notify authorities or the management company of the apartment complex we lived in. It was an instance I can recall as being “Parentified” and assuming the role of a caregiver. Later on in life, I would reminisce at the irony of being infantilized for my undocumented status.
In those days, our main fears were social workers and Child Protection Services (CPS). Even at a young age, we were made aware of the function of social workers and what their role would be should the fragile, bubble-like environment we lived in suddenly burst. The way it was made understood to us was that if a social worker poked their head inside our apartment and saw six kids left alone to their own devices, then we’d all be taken away from our parents and placed into foster care. Our family would be torn apart; our parents would face charges of child endangerment and placed into deportation proceedings. CPS was a mere prelude to the fear instilled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
But the paradox of neglect/shelter is present as undocumented children are left to fend for themselves every afternoon, all across the country, while the parents are out working grueling, meager jobs to provide a better life for their children.
All of it constituted neglect. But that was the type of fear not uncommon for Dreamers to experience everyday growing up; living in constant fear of even the most mundane occurrences.
At the same time, we were provided with an immense amount of protection from our caregivers. The forewarnings about “la migra,” the impetus on working hard, of the “we came to this country to make it,” and including the mono-cultural and monolingual practices. This latter factor inadvertently prevented us from acquiring knowledge of cultural rites of passages or pop culture icons from the U.S.; these were also forms of shelter that shielded us from accessing knowledge. In particular, we missed out on the cultural rites of passage, pop culture icons from the U.S. (I still don’t know who Audrey Hepburn is), children’s folktales and others. Because of this monolingual and mono-cultural sheltering, we developed a cultural and social isolation. We were also sheltered from your average teenage social experiences. While our classmates purposely snuck out of home to go a high school party, we stayed in (even when unsupervised), for fear of unforeseen, awkward and shameful situations; not to mention fear of police or immigration agencies.
Sheltered because there was a whole world we weren’t allowed to fully explore. Neglect because we had to enter adulthood at an early age. As Dreamers, we all grew up too fast. The Sheltered Neglect, as a paradox defined us as being caged and provided with certain protections in forms of warnings and prevention from venturing freely. At the same time, we were exposed to unsafe conditions and risky situations. We lacked the adequate equipment, knowledge and documents to protect ourselves once we did or would venture freely into the world. The sheltered neglect aspect signifies that while we’re placed in these risky conditions for our well-being. At the end of it all, our greatest protection at that time was the silence and the isolation.
The misery and poverty around the world has shown us that children are put at risk and in danger continuously. Being robbed of one’s childhood is not unique to the Dreamer experience. What makes undocumented youth unique is that we grew up too fast (Parentified) and at same time, our undocumented status prevented us from reaching full adulthood (infantilized). At an early age, we felt and accepted family separation, we understood the perils of being undocumented, we experienced the pain of having come to this country in the first place, leaving everything else behind.
1.8 Million Dreams Caught Up in a Storm
As detailed, there are several experiences of growing up undocumented that can be considered universal amongst Dreamers. The acknowledgement and acceptance of our undocumented status during our lifetime and the effect it had on our identity. With that came a narrowing perspective of the world and our limitations. A perpetual state of infancy which for many us was a constant reminder of those limitations rooted in our undocumented status. A sheltered neglect which shrouded our lives with a sense of irony as we lived continually in unsafe and perilous situations, while at the same time being conscious enough of the rationale behind that exposure to danger was in pursuit of the “American Dream.” All of these factors contribute to shaping identity of the undocumented young person.
The only difference between a Dreamer and a non-Dreamer is that a non-Dreamer has the advantage of citizenship and self-actualization whereas the Dreamers can sometimes lack assertiveness. This lack of assertiveness is created by childhood experiences of shelter neglect, which can in turn create a sense of social anxiety. It’s not that the non- Dreamer is more intelligent or more talented than the Dreamers; it’s just a matter of being provided with positive feedback. Much like everything else related to Dreamers, it mirrors a paradox. Unauthorized youth are unable to fully partake in many of the normative rituals; moreover, our identity formation is complicated when we come to face a negative social mirror that portrays us as illegitimate and perhaps unwanted.
Because we lack the ability to partake in cultural and social markers, our identity formation is unattainable. This leads to low self-of-esteem, self-doubt, lack of direction and even depression. This also leads to a lack of identity both physical and metaphorical. A lack of self-actualization which prevents upward mobility in different realms: physical, economic, educational. This leads to internalized self minimization of one’s persona.
For Dreamers growing up, belonging is an elusive quality. In adolescence and early adulthood, we’re cloaked by limitations and unable to participate in certain rituals of personhood. A sense of inclusion and belonging remained a frustrating ambition. The formation of a personal identity remained particularly frustrating under the onslaught of the limitations and the hostility and disenfranchising social, political and media representation of undocumented immigrants. Combined, these factors create a perpetual sense of exclusion and prevented our identity from fully forming.
It was not until the late 2000s that the Dreamer movement began to acquire a new direction which impelled Dreamers to come out of the shadows. The silence and isolation which in years past, served as our only form of protection, now posited a hindrance to our self-actualization and development. By turning the mirror around and asking society to face up to our plight. More importantly, our newfound strategy to come out publicly allowed for our identity to develop and become intrinsic with the Dreamer movement. We were no longer isolated by one another and our common experiences as Dreamers and human beings fused together.