I walked into the classroom today thinking I would be there to help students in their pursuit to higher education and came out changed by one student’s story of crossing the border from El Salvador to Guatemala, from Guatemala to Mexico, and from Mexico to the US… a story, so casually told as if it was just any other story, of her pursuit to be reunited with her mom and brothers in Los Angeles who had been separated for 8 years. I’ve heard some amazing stories of other undocumented students at UCLA and only ever watched touching documentaries of people affected by immigration throughout Latin America, but today… I heard the elaborate testimony of a fifteen year-old high school student who shared with me her story coming to the US as if she was living each moment in her heart right in front of me, and undoubtedly so as it is surely still so freshly ingrained in her mind, having gone through such an experience at thirteen, and continues to live it today at home. I was introduced to her story by my question about her mom, when I started to find out that she had actually been detained for selling food without a permit on the streets of LA - the only job she had to sustain the lives of them both.
While listening to her story, I felt like those US-born “citizens” who made time to talk to me face to face or among an audience of listeners who wanted to learn of immigration through general questions to a panel of undocumented students… the feeling that no matter what part of my experience I chose to share that day, my audience would not fully understand my struggle unless they personally shared it, too. As an undocumented person myself, who remembers in vague detail my own experience crossing the US-Mexico border, I must say I did not go through a fraction of the hardships that she detailed so bittersweetly for me in Spanish. Bittersweet because of how privileged I felt to have someone share an intimately life changing story with me, but angry that I could even catch and point out my own privilege and call such thing a “privilege” to be able to listen to a story of struggle. Meanwhile, all she could share with me were her well understood emotions and thoughts using her own words to describe her first-hand experience with border patrol, with the push and pull forces of moving across a law-governed space… and various other valued academic concepts of Sociology or Chicana/o Studies that held less value from the heart shared by this student. So I’ll insert a disclaimer here: that I don’t think any of my words will ever be enough to fully humanize the experience she shared with me as I vocalize a few of my thoughts on her words that are only hers to share with the world again. I hope she’ll one day write a book or use her experience to shape a movement. I am glad to have met such a powerful fifteen year-old mujer.
I’ll summarize her words and hold back the tear-wrenching details of how a teenager was running in fear from militarized, Mexican-Guatemalan border patrol; living for 3 days without food traveling rough terrain in fear of being caught by immigration officials; tactics she used to remain hidden from enforcement; seeing dead bodies as she crossed a crocodile-infested river; the moment when running away from a cute dog with a tracking collar led to her capture in the hot desert; treated in her own words, like an animal as she was grabbed by the neck by US-border patrol; detained for three months in detention centers in Arizona and Los Angeles; the inhumane treatment of undocumented migrants in Arizona and her transfer to a psychiatric ward where she was forced into blood tests for refusing to eat when she gave up hope that she’d ever leave; not knowing how long or how many days she had been in a jail with no windows or opportunity to see daylight; making friends in the child immigrant detention center in LA and not wanting to leave from the better conditions; and finally seeing her mom and brothers for the first time in eight years… only to hate living in her new home in LA where things were not as expected from her hopes of an American Dream.
And now there she is, committed to living her life for her mom by going to college. And throughout it all, here I am inspired to do more for others and more for myself and more for my family to survive as we’re at the brink of losing our home in this depression. I am happy these students are changing my life… every one of them. I hope I can do the same in return.