Alhambra Source and real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong organized a scholarship in May that asked college and high school students from Alhambra to answer questions about their name, heritage, and growing up a child of immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. The selected essays will be published once a week. The piece below is written by Alhambra High School graduate Valerie Cabral. The 18 year old won fifth place for her essay about keeping her immigrant status a secret. Read Cabral’s essay below and check out the other winning essays we’ve published.
By writing about this topic I am breaking the first and most important rule of being an immigrant: never reveal one’s status to anyone.
I grew up watching all the American superhero movies. I saw how Superman and Batman had to keep their true identities a secret so they wouldn’t be singled out for not being normal. As I grew older I began to relate to these superheroes because I was forced to keep a secret identity as well. Every time I left my home I was reminded by my mother, “Si te preguntan algo, no contestes,” meaning, “If someone asks you anything, do not answer.” I was tired of hearing this phrase every day, but I always replayed it over and over again trying to figure out exactly what it meant.
We are forced to keep our identity as secret as possible, simply because we never know who might betray and report us to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Every immigrant knows of ICE and how quickly they can make the dreams, struggles, and hardships of immigrants disappear. Once immigrants are in their custody, we are deported to our homeland where we immediately try to find a way to reunite with our families and get back to work.
As you can see, being an immigrant is not easy. We may not have to pay taxes — yet some still do — but the worst part of being an immigrant is having to live undercover and in fear.
When I was about 10, I finally understood why I was told to keep quiet when people asked me questions about where I came from and how I got here. One day my mother came home and frantically ran to hug me. I asked her what was wrong and she said that a woman at work was deported that day because her child accidentally told an adult that her mother had to work all day because she had no legal papers. The woman was arrested for leaving her child alone with no adult supervision and deported because she was an “illegal” immigrant. From that day on, I made sure to keep my mouth shut so that no one could separate me from my family.
The years went by and I went on with my life here in the United States, trying to fulfill my mother’s dreams of having a better life than that in Mexico. Soon enough I became the typical Mexican-American child: I spoke Spanish at home and English at school. My mother could never help me with my homework because she did not understand English and she only had primary schooling. By the time I was in middle school, I started hearing about college. I had no idea what college was and I felt that it was another public schooling system that I had to go through.
But when I reached junior year in high school, I was told that I had to have a Social Security number in order to apply to a college and qualify for financial aid. That day I went home crying and asked my mom why she had brought me to a land where all my hard work and struggles were worthless. Nine simple numbers were stopping me from continuing my education after 11 years of school. At this point I felt like my life was over.
Along with my struggle in education, my family was dealing with unfair treatment. They were discriminated because they did not speak English, and emotionally abused and harassed by their bosses and exploited to work more than others. My mother had to take on two jobs to provide for my sister and I, because working one job paid less than the minimum wage with no benefits. Being an immigrant — whether you are 10, 15, or 30 — was not the best thing to be during that time because there didn’t seem to be a plan to legalize us.
Luckily that same year, President Obama began advocating for immigrant rights, stopped deportations and the separation of families, and supported the Deferred Action plan, which gives undocumented students under the age of 30 a work permit and temporary legal status. Thanks to this new law I was able to apply for a work permit and continue my studies. My mother found a way to obtain legal residency through a law that protected people who were victims of a crime. Unfortunately, my mother had to be victimized in order to obtain the right to be here legally and be treated like a normal human being.
Now as you may have noticed my story as an immigrant has a happy ending. Unfortunately, that is not the case for every immigrant in the United States. Some of my family still struggles every day to survive and provide for their children. And as children we strive to be the best in our classes, to get noticed and recognized. Many times as immigrants we tend to work harder than the average American family because we cannot depend on the government to cover our full financial needs or help us get to college.
Being an immigrant’s child and being an immigrant myself has made me a strong, determined individual who has faced many more hardships than the average teenager has had to face. I was never able to approach someone for help because of my fear. So to answer the question, “What is it like being an immigrant or the child of immigrants?” It is like being an undercover hero fighting to stay here in this country of liberty and opportunity.
Read the other winning essays: