The Bravest Dream of All (non-fiction)

By Berenice Villegas

Berenice, is a Dreamer and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. She graduated from Columbia University in 2011 with a degree in Environmental Biology. She was a member of the NYSYLC until 2011.

 

Graduation Day 2011 at Columbia University

 

I had decided to leave the U.S. after I got accepted with a scholarship into a Master’s program in Evolutionary Biology. This would have allowed me to study in four different European countries. My family was ecstatic because not only was I the first one to go to college but now I had gone way beyond what any of them, and even myself, had imagined. In spite of my situation, I had a degree from Columbia University and now I was going to Graduate School in Europe!

I felt prepared and ready to take on the challenge. And then, Obama made his infamous announcement on June 15, 2012 granting Deferred Action to undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children, making them eligible for work authorization for a period of two years. Thus, I had to make the most difficult decision in my life: abandon my dream to study abroad or stay in the US with my family and apply for DACA.

As the days went by my mind was in constant turmoil. I knew that this was the kind of opportunity that only comes once in a lifetime and that if I didn’t take it I could regret it for the rest of my life. My dream to see the world was finally within my reach. Yet, if I left the US, I would have to face a ten year ban that would prevent me from seeing my loved ones again. I was so angry at Obama. If he had the power to grant deferred action, why didn’t he do it when I had just graduated from college the previous year? His reluctance to act sooner had already cost me my first job offer, which I had to refuse (lying) claiming that I wasn’t qualified for the job.

My doubts only grew bigger as my departure date approached. At the time, I was living with my parents in Ohio because I wanted to enjoy my family as much as I could. The dreaded day soon arrived and I had to travel to the Chicago International airport with my parents. The moment my dad finished unloading my suitcases from the car he looked at me, gave me his blessing (just like his own parents had done 11 years ago when he migrated to the US looking for a better life for his family) and broke down in tears. That was the first time I saw my father cry like that. He couldn’t even walk with me inside the airport because he was afraid of being detained by immigration officials.

I grabbed my two suitcases and without looking back I walked as fast as I could towards the airport. I wish I could say things went smoothly from there on but unfortunately they didn’t. I ended up missing my first flight and spending the night at an uncle’s house. I was so ready to get on that plane that when I missed it, I really began to think that perhaps it was a sign that I should stay. The whole night I kept telling myself “you can’t stop now, you have to do this”. I kept repeating these words inside my head until the following morning when I finally set foot on the plane. A few hours later I landed in Texas to transfer planes. I could have changed my mind while I waited for my last plane. In fact, for a slight moment I wondered what would happened if I called my dad and I told him that I wanted to go back to Ohio. He would’ve probably driven 18 hours to fetch me. But instead, when I called him I said “I’m waiting for the last plane, I’m ready to do this”. I got on that plane knowing that there was no going back. When this reality hit me I had a small panic attack and I started crying. No matter how I looked at it what I was doing was just crazy. I was leaving behind everything that I held dear in my heart, chasing after a dream and a most uncertain future. As the plane lifted off I closed my eyes. Everything became silent around me. I could hear my heart beating fast and for a second the air became so heavy that I felt like I was asphyxiating. Then, I saw images of all the people who until the very last moment kept cheering me on and I told myself that I had to be strong for them.

I had to fly back to my native country to pick up my student visa. I couldn’t do this in the US because I was not a legal resident. After a ten-year absence, I arrived to Mexico and received a warm welcome by my grandparents, uncles, and aunts who are still living there. I was in Mexico a total of ten days, which was more than enough time to make me realize the cruel reality of the country, especially of my family’s situation. We have no house to go back to now. The house where I grew up in is falling apart in every sense of the word. To become habitable again it must be rebuilt from scratch, which will cost thousands of dollars.

The living conditions in my hometown are very sad. My own grandfather, who can’t walk anymore, is struggling to save money for a simple wheelchair to move around his own house. He has no health care nor has he any chance of getting it. His monthly pension is mediocre, barely enough to survive. Every time he asked me when my dad would return home he’d break down into tears. He was the one who cried the most on the day when we left Mexico.

While I was in Mexico I realized that unless my dad saves a lot of money (and I mean a lot) he and my mom won’t be able to make it in Mexico. He is only 43 years old and yet he is already too old according to working standards there. He has no chance of finding a job in Mexico if he were to return. Yet, in the U.S. he will never get any kind of social security benefits or a retirement plan even though he’s paid his social security and federal taxes to the government since he first started working 11 years ago. We have no fixed home in the US either since we’ve always lived in a small apartment. My mom’s only dream is to have her own house, yet given our financial circumstances we can’t afford one because a large portion of my dad’s earnings goes towards paying for my brother’s college education.

Mexico really opened my eyes. I had thought that if things went terribly wrong at least my parents could always go back and I would meet them there. Now I know that I was being very naïve. They can’t go back now. Even I have my doubts about going back. Although I enjoyed seeing my relatives and childhood friends, I felt lost and unable to fit in. For the first time in my life, I finally understood the meaning of “ni de aqui, ni de alla” (not from here, nor from there).

When I finally resumed my journey to Europe, as luck would have it I missed my plane from Mexico City to France. I called my mom that night crying because I didn’t know what to do, where to go, who to contact. Luckily, I found a hotel inside the airport where I was able to spend the whole night until the next day when another flight was scheduled to leave. I remember that we flew right above Ohio. At that moment, I thought that it could very well have been the closest I’ll ever be to my family in a long time.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

 

I arrived to Paris around noon and for the first time in my entire life I had my passport stamped. I was very nervous as I walked towards the line for “non-Europeans”. In my traumatized state of mind, I imagined a scenario where I’d be denied entry to France for whatever reason. When I gave my passport to the immigration officer, he just looked at my student visa and stamped it without saying a word. (If only it could be that simple to go to the US, life wouldn’t be so complicated). From France, I had to travel by train to The Netherlands. The journey was about 12 hours long, including five different train transfers. I was so physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. When I arrived to The Netherlands on August 27, my hair was entangled, my eyes were sore from all the crying and lack of sleep, and the jet lag had messed up my whole body.

As I walked into my new student house, I was greeted by a big and diverse group of international students that was preparing a birthday dinner for one their friends. I also met other Europeans who for the first time in their lives had left their home countries to study their Erasmus (semester abroad) and seemed to be as scared as me. Once I finished eating I immediately went to my room to talk to my family. When I saw them on the other side of a computer screen I couldn’t contain my tears. My room felt so empty and lonely that night. My parents cheered me on as much as they could, telling me that soon enough I’ll be able to make lots of new friends and I wouldn’t feel so lonely any more.

During three weeks I didn’t unpack any of my suitcases because I was in a state of denial. I felt that at any moment I would grab them again and go home. It didn’t help that the people I met kept asking me questions about the U.S., especially of NYC. Somehow the question I dreaded the most always found a way in my conversations: “but why did you leave the US/NYC to come here?” It really hurt to have to think about this but every time I managed to come up with an answer without giving away too much information about my past. I was really afraid that I’d begin to question my own reasoning and regret what I had done. I often thought about what would happen two years from now when I finished the master’s, or even worst if I ever failed or gave up I’d have no home to go back to. In the US, I knew that if anything ever went wrong I could always rely on my parents, I could always go back home and they’d take care of me. Now, I was all alone and I had no one to rely on except for myself.

News of my other undocumented friends being granted Deferred Action only complicated things. To make matters worse the Master’s program was not what I expected at all. Was it really worth it? I often wondered. Then I had a crazy thought: what if I went back to Mexico and crossed the U.S. border again?

I don’t know when or how it happened, but after a few months all these feelings were slowly dissipating thanks to the help of a few friends who unknowingly helped me get back on the road. They made me realize that even in Europe there are many immigration-issues and many families who have been separated due to the situation in their countries. We are really not alone in our struggle. They also helped me see that even within European standards I’m quite privileged to have a scholarship and be able to study in so many different countries. The five months I spent in the Netherlands helped me heal and regain my strength. Now in France, I’m at a point where I cannot say I regret my decision to come here because otherwise I would’ve never met these amazing people.

A good friend of mine once told me that although we are living alone in distant lands we are not lonely because we have many people back at home who care about us, love us, and are always with us in spirit. He also taught me that now I have a “mobile” home that I take with me wherever I go; a home full of new friends, experiences, and adventures. And it’s true. I might not be able to go back to my home in the U.S. but now I’ll have other homes that I can go back to. I have gained an extended family that spreads all over the world. My roots started in Mexico, began growing in Ohio, rooted deeply in NYC, and now they’re expanding to the other side of the world. I don’t have a single identity that defines me because I’m the product of multiple cultures mixing together. The end result of imperialism, neoliberalism, a broken immigration system, empty political promises, capitalism, social inequality and injustice.

I am no longer waiting quietly, doing what other people (especially politicians), expect me to do. Although it’s true that my parents made the decision to bring me to the U.S., it was MY decision to leave. And I’m proud of it. My future is no longer in the hands of politicians; it’s in my own hands. Today I accept myself for who I am and I embrace this multicultural and undefined identity of mine.

I even accept the pain that my own body makes me go through due to the rheumatoid arthritis illness that I developed three years ago. Every day is full of pain because my hands get sore and stiff sometimes to the point where I lose mobility. I know the disease can progress and that the pain will get worst the older I get. I think my decision to go on this adventure was also heavily influenced by the fact that physically I might not be able to do this in the future. I also didn’t want my life and my dreams to be controlled by this illness. I wanted to be stronger than it. I’m not going to lie; sometimes the pain is so intense that it makes me scared that I will get worse while being abroad. It’s at those moments when I feel lonely, the doubts come back, and I feel scared of the future. Some days I feel that I just can’t do it anymore, I just want to give up. However, I keep on fighting for my family because I know that for them it’s frustrating that due to the borders they cannot do anything to help me.

If I met you in my past life I’m sorry for lying to you about my status, I was merely protecting my family. If I met you in my new life and I concealed the truth, I’m sorry as well. I was trying to protect myself from regret. To all my friends, thank you for being a part of my life and for accompanying me on my journey, for however small amounts of time it was. Thank you for sharing the sorrows, the happiness, the joys, and for keeping me company in the scariest and saddest moments of my life. Your support is my strength and without it I’d be lost. If you can relate to any part of my story, remember that you are not alone and that you should never give up. The road may be scary, difficult, and full of challenges but with a bit of help we can overcome any obstacles.

I hope that no one again ever has to go through the pain of being separated from their families because of a broken immigration or economic system. Although I’m no longer qualified for immigration reform, I hope that it can be passed soon because many people I care about do qualify for it. I know I’m being naïve but I’d like to think that maybe one day we’ll finally be able to live in a world without borders to separate from our loved ones or to keep us from achieving our dreams.

 

The Colosseum, Rome

 

 

Water channels, The Netherlands

Comments

2 Responses to “The Bravest Dream of All (non-fiction)”
  1. Liz says:

    Wishing you all the best Berenice! You are very brave and in a way, you are just like your parents and every other immigrant that has left their families behind to seek a better life. To honor the struggle our parents and any immigrant out there has and will continue to experience, the least we can do is pursue our dreams despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The life of an immigrant is very hard, but like they say, God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle :) So, I’m assuming God is very proud of you right now.

  2. Moises says:

    Congrats Berenice !! and I wish you the best =)

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