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Maritza Lam Headshot

Hope for the Future

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People are often surprised to learn that though I am ethnically Chinese, I was born and raised in Peru. My parents immigrated to Peru from China in the 1980s and married there. We lived in Peru until I was in the sixth grade. When I was 10-years-old, my mother, my youngest sister, and I decided to come to New York City for a short trip. My parents saw immediately that the best life possible for the three of their daughters was in New York. Even though we had our own business back in Peru, they decided to move us all to the United States the next year. For better or worse, we left Peru and never looked back. At that point, all I spoke was Spanish and Chinese, but New York became my new home.

I must confess that at the beginning, I was terrified of starting a whole new life. It meant making new friends and navigating a completely new environment. I didn't feel ready for any of it. On top of that, I was the eldest of three sisters, and the responsibility fell to me to help out at home. I started working at the age of 15 in a store, and I haven't stopped working since. But as the months passed, I started to get used to my new life. I made friends, I was in high school, and I began making plans for the future. It was a long struggle, but this new life began to feel as though it was mine.

During my sophomore year in high school, I realized that I was "undocumented." I was used to supporting myself and my family, but suddenly there seemed so many things I could not do. Just hearing my friends talk about getting their driver's licenses made me sad and angry. Soon after, it was time to apply for college. I had been on the honor roll in high school and intermediate school, and I was used to hard work. Then it hit me that I couldn't apply for financial aid because I didn't have a social security number. The only thing for me to do was to enroll in community college and keep working to pay the bills. Of course, I was already working to support my family. My parents and younger sisters needed the money I was earning, too. I had to choose between using that money for school or for my family, and after almost two years of college, I decided my family needed it more. I had to leave school, and I started working in restaurants.

In low-wage industry jobs, it often feels like your boss has all the power over you as a worker. This is even more extreme when you're undocumented. I kept my head up by giving back to the community and becoming involved in the immigration reform youth movement. Even though I have a full-time job, I volunteer for Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and I joined the undocumented youth group RAISE (Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast). Through RAISE, I had the chance to be part of the first Asian American contingent to attend the national United We Dream gathering in Kansas City last year. Hearing people in the same situation as me share their stories was incredible and made me want to do more.

While I haven't been able to finish college, I don't regret my choices in supporting my sisters with their dreams. One of my younger sisters is now pursuing her associate degree. My youngest sister is earning straight As in high school, and she hopes to be in the medical profession. I was so proud the day I signed the checks for both of their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) applications, and even more happy the days they were both granted DACA status.

My DACA status is still pending, as are my dreams of furthering my education. I've had to make some difficult choices. But I share my story in hopes that in the future, myself and others in my position will not feel trapped by our circumstances, and the future will offer us many more possibilities to choose from.

This blog post is part of a series by Raise Our Story, a project for sharing the uniquely beautiful stories of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. The series has been collected by RAISE, the first pan-Asian group of undocumented young adults on the East Coast, to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. On May 20, RAISE will be presenting #UndocuAsians, a new film and theater performance by undocumented Asian American youth.