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‘I am an American’

| Thursday, September 1, 2016

I illegally entered the United States on July 23, 2003 when I was eight years old. I remember it clearly, it was a blistering hot summer day on the U.S.–Mexico border. I remember the rushed atmosphere and the hushed conversations all through the day.  My mom told me we were going on a vacation, and my uncle taught me to repeat my first English words: “I am an American.” The fact of that day is that I was being smuggled across the border by an American lady I had never met, but whom I was told was now my “mom.” I was taught this phrase, “I am an American,” to recite in case the border patrol officer were to direct his attention towards me during the transit. I complied. I crossed. And I began my life in the shadows.

The next 13 years were not easy in retrospect, but the naiveté of my youth coupled with an optimistic view of the world gave me light even during the darkest, most uncertain parts of my undocumented life. I went to school, and was told to come home immediately after the final bell. I was told to keep my mouth shut about where I was born and where I lived. As the oldest, most mature and most independent one of my siblings and cousins, I was appointed after-school caretaker of four younger, rowdy children at the age of 10. Meanwhile my mom, aunt and uncle worked from dawn to dusk, leaving before we woke for school and returning by the time we were supposed to be in bed. We remained hidden inside of the crowded trailer home in which we lived, trying to stay under the radar.  

We existed in a state of inexistence, hidden from the world except for school and work out of the fear of being discovered and deported. This was what I believed to be the norm for many years; this was my childhood: a lonely, silent world.

These circumstances that plagued my childhood are not the exception; they are the reality that is lived not only by millions of undocumented immigrants but by other vulnerable communities, particularly those of color. Indeed, certain aspects of living without legal status are particular to the immigrant population, but a lack of status resulted from material poverty, a lack of financial security, inaccessibility to healthcare, education or precarious family structures, exacerbates many other factors that haunt many communities of color and of low socioeconomic status.

It was not until I obtained legal status in high school that college became an option. I got accepted to a prestigious, high-ranking and private university. And I left my home in a hurry without even glancing back to see the reality of which I was ashamed: my first chance of escape. Now, I am a senior at this great University, and I am on track to build a life decidedly different from that of of my childhood.

Unfortunately, the situation for millions of immigrants who cannot escape these circumstances remains the same, unable to access higher education despite the drive, and without a clear path of ever gaining any sort of legal status that would ever help them gain any sort of worker protections from exploitation.

During these last three years of being away at university, my eyes were opened. At university, I did not deny who I was because nothing I could ever do then or even today can erase the facts that I am Mexican. I was born in Mexico, speak Spanish and love my family and heritage. But the reality is that being away did teach me to be proud of who I was, and made me realize that I was riding toward success squarely on my mother’s hard work. I saw the privileged and extravagant lifestyles of many of my peers, but rather than letting jealousy flare within me, a humbling force overwhelmed me. It forced me to see that, despite my incredibly dire circumstances growing up, I was given this opportunity to succeed, yes, but even more than that: the opportunity to help the community on whose hard work and toil I was standing.

For whatever reason, perhaps by providence and grace, I did not fall through the cracks, as millions before me have, and surely as millions more after me will, and I — we — must not forget this incredible privilege. And though as a child I had felt forgotten and abandoned, I now have realized that I was never alone. I have been riding high as a result of the hard work of my mother and family who were always there, sacrificing their lives to make a living for me. I am forever indebted to the community that has fought so hard to be able to exist in this country, a country that has forgotten them and — now more than ever — tells them they are unwanted and condemns their role in building the greatness of this nation. This is why I am becoming an advocate for my community.

The question is, “How?”

Nearly two months ago — nearly 13 years since I entered the United States — I stood before an immigration official, in a crowded little office for my citizenship interview. I passed.

I am going to be an American citizen.

As this piece of information sank in, my mind and heart were filled with the countless uncertainties and aspirations from the previous 13 years. Will I ever belong in this country? Will I ever be a full member of society? What am I going to do now?  I understood that, as an American citizen, I — and all of us — need to fight for the rights and protections of those who are vulnerable, whether a piece of paper says they are citizens or not, because they are human beings with stories, struggles, goals and dreams that must be protected, and yes, as enumerated in the Constitution.

Next week, I will stand in front of a judge with my hand in the air pledging allegiance to my new country, and in doing so, I will be faced with the question: What will I do to better my country and protect my vulnerable community?

The answer lies at home, in individuals such as my mom, whose hard work does not earn them much more than minimum wage, but whose determination and love for their family allow them to pursue their American dream. The answer lies in the millions of children who are being forgotten by our society because they live in a system that stigmatizes the undocumented, and that stigma is worse than harnessing innate talents and spreading the gifts God has given us. We must, and we will, fight for our government to extend equal protections and rights to this vulnerable community.

From now on, when I utter the words I was taught 13 years ago, “I am an American,” now true, I will carry an obligation to repay my community of everything they have done for me.


Cesar Estrada


Aug. 30

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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