This Mother's Day my heart aches for the undocumented mothers in Arizona and throughout the nation who are living the consequences of a broken immigration system and who live in fear of being separated from their families. I honor them because I know first hand that it is a mother's resilience, which pushes and pulls a family out of poverty and hopelessness and into the boundless opportunities of education.
I'm a filmmaker, so it's quite fitting that the very first memory of my life takes place in a movie theater. I was two, my brother was six and my mother was twenty-four years old. We had only been in America a few months but by the time we walked up to that movie theater those few months seemed like a lifetime. My mom didn't have enough money to buy three tickets, but she wanted to give us a moment of normalcy, a small flash of joy. She sent us inside while she waited outside. I remember the moment my brother and I sat down in the front row. He held my hand the entire time. My eyes never left the screen. I cherish that memory. But now as an adult I understand our hour and half of joy must have been an eternity of torture for my mother.
Our lives back in Colombia had become unbearable and she believed that here in this country she could give us a future. My father had traveled to America months earlier but it was my mother's deep desire to keep our family together that eventually brought us here. We came to America full of hope but after only a few months our lives began to unravel. My father abandoned us. Without family to turn to, unable to speak English and without a source of income my mother was left to fend for herself.
We were poor, hungry and at times even homeless but my mother refused to allow our setbacks to determine our future. Instead she used these setbacks along with her creativity, bravery and her unrelenting love for my brother and me to shape the future she had dreamed for us. The future she longed for became a reality when my brother graduated from college and when I became the first person in our family to attend graduate school. She knew that while she was only a high school graduate, her children wore their cap and gowns because of her.
My mother's strength and determination have always inspired me. Through out my childhood she worked countless double-shifts flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets at the local fast food joint. I remember her coming home too exhausted to cook and with a smile on her face giving me the hamburgers she was given at work. I never let on that I didn't like eating hamburgers every night, instead I played the game that the cold, stale burgers were just what I wanted. We never talked about the cockroach-ridden apartments or the yearning to see our family back in Colombia. Instead we smiled through the grit, the tears and the heartache. As the years passed, I realized our story was not unique. Thousands of immigrant mothers, for hundreds of years, endured what we had overcome for exactly the same reason, a better life for their children.
Sunday, we honor all mothers for their incredible strength, their love and their guidance. Mothers need to be applauded, embraced and honored regardless of their legal status. Undocumented immigrant mothers may have broken the law when entering this country, but now the only thing they are breaking is their backs by working hard to provide for their families.
Sunday, thousands of children in Arizona are too afraid to honor their mothers. They have been made to feel their mothers are not wanted here and have been forced to live in the shadows. Yet it is these mothers that work double shifts picking grapes, cleaning houses and caring for other people's children so their own children can go to Harvard, Yale and UCLA. As children of immigrants we carry our mother's sacrifices inside of us, they pulsate through our blood, they remain in our hearts and they whisper in our ears with every decision we make. We strive for greatness because we know how much was given up in order for us to simply have an opportunity for success.
So on this day I want to not only honor my own mother, Liliana Legge, but every mom who has made the needed sacrifices to provide a better future for their children. It is my hope that we will one day honor their sacrifice and resilience by enacting immigration reform policies that are consistent with our values as a nation.
Paola Mendoza is the co-director & star of Entre Nos, a movie inspired by her mother's story, which opens theatrically in May. Ms. Mendoza and the film have partnered with Reform Immigration for America, America's Voice Education Fund, and the Center for American Progress to launch Moms for Family Unity, a national campaign to bring together women and their children to highlight the importance of keeping families together with meaningful immigration reform legislation this year.