As I reflect on the images of the undocumented "immigrant youth" who are promoted in the media when discussing DREAM Act-eligible persons -- or Dreamers, I wonder if they are talking about me. Even as I graduated with a double major in English and Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Fullerton, my age was always in the back of my mind. I wondered if I could still consider myself an "immigrant youth" at age 29.
Working has made me age faster. I have seen my face get more wrinkles with the day to day labor of mowing other people's lawns. At times, I find myself feeling weary of working in my brother's landscaping business while having two degrees put away inside a drawer. The experiences of dealing with a system that attempts to dehumanize me, turn me into an object, and labels me an "illegal" who is unworthy of even existing within the borders of the United States have taken its toll on me as well. The immigration system that creates a culture of silence among the undocumented has tried to break my spirit, but it has not.
After all, I navigated the school system, where I was lied to with the farce that we are all created equal under the Constitution. Meanwhile, anti-immigrant laws like Proposition 187 were promoted and passed by then California Governor Pete Wilson. From being told that it was disrespectful to speak Spanish in class, to being under surveillance too often for looking "suspicious," I managed to graduate from high school because my family had one expectation for me: to get a quality education and a better life, one that was not be readily available to me in my so-called homeland.
At the time of my high school graduation, undocumented students like my friends and I had to pay out-of-state tuition to attend college. So none of us did. On the day of my graduation, there was more pain than joy; especially after realizing I would start work the next day in my brother's landscaping business. All the while, my classmates made plans for trips to Europe in the summer or college in the fall.
It took me four years to finally start college (Assembly Bill 540 passed in 2001, allowing undocumented students in California who met certain criteria to pay in-state tuition); but by then, I was angrier and more critical of the society I had grown up in, and which I felt had rejected me. But I was eager to attend college, to learn and to take back a future that I felt had been stolen from me in 1998. As the years passed, I reevaluated what the whole point of my education had been, and why my family would bring me to a country that tells people that if they work hard that they will achieve their goals, that this is the land of opportunities, the land where anyone can make it. Clearly, those promises were never intended for me.
But it was only after becoming a part of undocumented student rights organizations during my time at community college and helping create another group at the university that I found my purpose. Focusing on the specific needs of undocumented students and creating a support network became as important to me as working on my bachelor's degree. I finally felt acceptance once I found that there was a group of people just like me, who had hopes and wanted to work towards change. At age 26, I had finally joined the movement for immigrants' rights, but given my experiences of rejection in high school and my violent upbringing in the streets of the city of Anaheim, I no longer felt like a "youth" by then.
By the time the Dream Act failed to pass the Senate in 2010, I had already aged out of the bill's protection by one year. Never did I think of not fighting for it though, it was not an option. I was reminded of all the youth whose faces were filled with hope at the idea of the Dream Act passing. Many had the same ideals as I did, and the Dream Act was not all we were fighting for, we were also challenging an immigration system that criminalizes our communities. This system has been doing just that since I first came to this country in 1989. And it is a system that is not broken, but rather works too well at dividing families, and deciding who is and who is not worthy of living within its borders.
So as I continue my journey through education, at 31, I am a not-so-young Dreamer. I am currently working on a Master's degree in Education and still mow lawns for people who probably have less college degrees than I do. I struggle to make tuition, and rely on friends who did not make it to college, and the youth in the movement to inspire me with their energy and creativity.
Though my eyes get tired and I get frustrated, I know that my experiences have made me strong enough to share my voice, my anger and frustrations, but also my love for those who struggle against injustices. When I arrived to this country, I was a child full of confusion and fear. Now, I am a man with experience and love. I am no longer afraid.