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When I was nineteen years old, I ran away from home. I didn’t have much, only a suitcase filled with clothes, and a bag filled with letters from friends and family. I didn’t have any food, or money, nor an ID, so staying at shelters was almost impossible. When I was finally able to stay at a women’s shelter in the town of Ogden, I was asked for a background check, and had to leave when I couldn’t fill one out. I had been bouncing from couch to floor to bench like this for almost two years, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was announced. In that evening my world completely changed, I was now not just an undocumented immigrant, but also a person filled with possibilities.
Now, five years later, the very program that saved my life seems to be ending. I think about my life without DACA, and the many ways that this program made it so that i could be the person who I am today. I think about the community that made this program possible, the very same community that continues to fight today for bigger brighter dreams, and I am a little less afraid and a lot angrier. Though this program saved my life, it also left many behind, including some of the people that fought for it to become a reality. Though this program saved my life, it also took so much from it, it made me a taxpayer without access to healthcare, a worker without access to education, another silent voice in a world filled with success stories.
I think about the last five years of my life, and I feel guilty, should I have done more? Should I have applied for Advanced Parole (a program within DACA that allowed undocumented folks to travel), and tried to go visit my family in Peru? Should I have climbed the capitalistic ladder of success and tried harder, worked harder, dreamed harder, dreamed better, become the “dreamer” that the media wanted? Climbing out of homelessness meant learning how to have a home, learning how to do the things that an abusive household doesn’t teach you: How to love softly, how to make space for others, and how to survive after surviving. It doesn’t teach you however, how to undo trauma and unlearn the oppressive behaviors that being undocumented has instilled in you. Though I deeply wish I had been able to do more, I also wish I had been able to do things exactly as I did them; the third part of the saying “Undocumented and Unafraid” is “Unapologetic”. And though I find it hard to convince myself that crossing these borders in the first place was worth it, I also now am settled with the fact that I am here. We are here. And we are not going away.
How could we go, and where would we go, is a question parallel with “why do we stay”? What holds us to this country that obviously doesn’t love us, how does one survive in a country that doesn’t accept your existence as valid? How could we go, after surviving this long? Where would we go, when this is all we know?
These uncomfortable questions shine a light on a system whose actions are centered on the benefits of many, but certainly not us. DACA was not made for us. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (which was launched right around election season) has come hand in hand with candid shots of politicians hugging immigrant children, wide shots of graduations from programs that I could never afford to apply to, and US American flags adorning buildings all built on stolen land. DACA was made to portray the illusion of compassion, to answer this country’s guilt and shame, and to give a scapegoat to President Obama who deported a record-setting two million immigrants. And while this program has helped many (myself included), before trying to #DefendDACA, I want to try to defend us. I want to call all of my undocumented friends and ask them how they’re doing, ask them if they’re safe, ask them if they want to get together and talk about the things that we remember from home. I want to cook enough food to feed us for a day while we do the very thing that “dreamers” are not supposed to do: dream. I want to dream of a world in which not having documentation does not matter, a world without papers, without DACA and without borders, a world in which I could have stayed in my homeland and grown old with my mother.
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I want to defend us, I want us to defend ourselves, I want us to fight. And not fight as a figure of speech, but I mean fight as a community of people whose identity and culture have thrived from knowing how to bring back the dead and keep our living alive.
I want us to fight with the weapons that our grandmothers used to protect themselves against the colonizers, I want us to dream with the maps that our people saw in the stars, I want the protection of our bodies to not rely on politicians, but on ourselves and on our strength. And I want us to win. I want us to win not for this country that never loved us, but for our mothers that crossed the border, for our grandfathers that taught us to dance, because victory is a tradition to our people.
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As I write this, I lie in bed surrounded by the letters I took from home when I was nineteen years old. The contents of my suitcase are long gone, in their place are clothes found in thrift stores, art supplies, banners from protests, and blankets that smell like lavender. The past five years of my life have been filled with so much joy and laughter, a testament that you don’t need the American Dream to be happy, that success is an illusion made to keep you away from peace of mind. That happiness is the strongest tool against a system made to make us feel miserable and lost, because poverty is easier to swallow when it is spoon fed to you. I don’t know what will happen to me and my friends when and if DACA ends, but I know that come what may, we will never stop being who we are. Rowdy, ugly, beautiful, both sad, and happy at the same time, yes Dreamers, but so much more than that. A community of people that has been subjected to too much since we were too little to remember, our lives shaped in whispers of fear but also in moments of joy and passion that nobody NOBODY could ever take away from us.
Nobody could ever take away our ability to survive. That, is in our bones.
[Feature Image: A photo of a child with a white baseball cap and blue jeans. They are carrying a large, red sign that says in white lettering, “We’re Not Criminals.”]