For the past 12 years of my life, I’ve been harboring a huge secret.
Sometimes secrets are cool—like when your bestie tells you she’s having her first baby, and she wants you to know before she posts a photo of empty baby shoes on Instagram like it’s the Rapture or something. But the other secrets, the ones that make you hide who you are because you’re afraid of what will happen to you and your family if somebody finds out—those secrets aren’t so cool.
I found out my family was living in the United States without papers when I was 16 years old. Summer was quickly approaching, and I wanted to make some money to keep up with my friends’ slurpee habits, so I started thinking about jobs. My dream was to work at the movie theater—nothing could top free movies and popcorn, in my high school opinion, plus the lobby boys were always smokin’.
Then my parents told me that cute lobby boys were not in my future. See, we moved here from Spain when I was 3 years old because my mom had this romantic idea of America, probably the same way you think of Paris and Rome, but with less baguettes. Their marriage wasn’t doing so well, and a fresh start seemed like a good idea, because moving your entire family to another country where you barely speak the local language is a real stress reliever (?). They applied for a tourist visa, and being young and naive, didn’t realize you can’t just move to America with $1,000 and be an American (damn European hippies)—the citizenship process takes years, and money.
Here’s the really messed up part: Once you’re in the country illegally, whether you overstayed your visa or crossed the border—you can’t apply for citizenship anymore, and if you leave the country and try to come back, they ban you from entering for TEN YEARS. By the time I was 16, everyone in my family except my American-born baby brother was basically a fugitive of the law—and believe me, it’s not as exciting as Harrison Ford makes it look.
Since I couldn’t apply for a real job, I ended up cleaning my neighbor’s house for $5 an hour for about three months before I told my parents that the dust mites were sure to kill me and I desperately needed a lobby babe in my life, so they better help me figure out how that was gonna happen. We cultivated a series of white lies, and I do mean WHITE. Nobody suspects a pasty blue-eyed brunette without the slightest hint of an accent of being undocumented. It’s a sad truth that this country’s perception of immigrants, by and large, is racist, and looking Caucasian allowed me to fly under the radar.
This series of lies, in conjunction with my white privilege, a charismatic personality that I pull over my naturally introverted one, an almost complete rejection of my Spanish heritage and a strong work ethic, got me the job at the movie theater and every single line on my resumé since—and there are a lot of lines because I’m kind of a workaholic.
But being undocumented is scary in this country. Have you seen the photos and videos of people screaming at the buses full of migrant kids? How about the detention centers, which imprison the parents of some of my friends, who’ve had to drop out of school to take care of their younger siblings because their parents are waiting to be deported after being caught DRIVING without a license. Yes, just driving. And that’s just the physical violence and fear. People like me, who didn’t have to face racism and incarceration, still deal with the very real emotional scars of living a life in fear and shame.
I’m one of many who have come out to tell my story—and so far I’ve only been met with love from my friends and community—but I’m a little ashamed to say that this “bravery” is a direct result of recently getting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Obama executively ordered it two years ago after Congress once again failed to pass any sort of immigration legislation, which included the much-anticipated DREAM Act.
Now, undocumented people like me, who were brought to the U.S. as kids, can get temporary immunity from getting deported, along with a two-year work permit—if they qualify. I’m one of the lucky kids who did, and after filling out copious amounts of paperwork, getting rejected once because all the evidence I submitted wasn’t enough (they make it look so easy on Law & Order), and paying a hefty fee (nearly $500), they sent me a temporary work permit card and a letter that says, basically, “you’re cool, for now.” This year, since the two years are up for the first people who applied, we’d hoped something would happen to make things more permanent, but instead they released a renewal process with another fee. Ugh.
The fact of the matter is that things need to change, and not just by pouring money into border control and kicking people out. What makes a person an American? I choose to believe that it’s more than just the right passport. For me, being an American means believing in the ideals this country was founded on, of freedom and equality. It means being a part of this country’s development, either by fighting tooth and nail to bring out its best, or living to your fullest potential in honor of it. You know what I did on the Fourth of July? I ate veggie dogs, drank too much beer and watched the fireworks over the New York skyline with tears in my eyes, singing the “Star Spangled Banner” because this is where I grew up, and I don’t want to live anywhere else.
Esther Meroño Baro (pronounced Astaire, like Fred), doesn’t really care how you pronounce her name, but she does care about using art and humor to make the good ol’ U.S.A. a better place for everybody to live in. Two of her favorite organizations are Define American and FWD.us. Follow her on social media @americanxalien.