The sound of running water echoed off the walls of the confined airplane bathroom. My pigtails shook as the plane entered some turbulence. Mr. Teddy Bear's hat fell to the ground.
"Why are you wetting that paper mommy?"
"Callate mi nina, I'm doing this for us, okay baby, so we can have a better future" she whispered. "Now when we get there, don't speak to anybody ok? Don't make eye contact with anyone and if anyone asks say you don't speak English." she said.
"Si mama, I won't say anything."
My parents decided to immigrate to America in 1999, bringing with them the same hopes and dreams as millions of immigrants before them; a better present, a better future. I've lived in the U.S. for 14 years; I have more "American" friends than "Spanish" friends, I've taken AP classes since they became available and yet I still get the same question: "Wait so you're not from here?" or because I don't have an accent: "But you're so smart!" I have two eyes and a nose, and am unfortunately plagued with the same insecurities as the typical young adult. "Do they have, like, a lot of chili in Chile?" I mourned the losses of 9/11, I rejoiced in the capture of Osama Bin Laden. I said the pledge of allegiance every morning from 1st grade to 12th grade. I completely sold myself on the idea of the American dream. I thought that if I worked hard enough and I paid my dues, that I would earn my spot as a citizen of this country. And so I worked. I worked hard in school, surprising all of my teachers with my accent-less English and high grades. I worked hard outside of school, trying to excel in everything I did in order to appear like a well-rounded student. I had to. I knew that I had to, and my parents knew it, too. From a young age, I was aware of my situation. Unless my legal status changed, I knew the only way I was going to be able to go to college and make something of myself was if I got a full scholarship. There was no other way. My parents, like thousands of other immigrants living paycheck to paycheck, had no money for college. "We can't afford it." I could not apply for financial aid because my status made me ineligible for federal and state aid. A full scholarship was the only way.
Working Towards the Goal
Over the years, I kept working. And hoping. I kept hoping that one day, reform would come. Reform. Amnesty. Something. Anything? I hoped for anything that would allow me to pursue my dreams of becoming a lawyer, of being successful, of defying the stereotypes that were imposed on my person. It was around 7th grade, when a glimmer of hope appeared. I was around 13 at the time, and I heard that Ivy League schools admitted and helped undocumented students pay for college. Immediately my focus landed on Harvard. But I thought it so far beyond my list of possibilities that I considered it on my list of impossibilities. Nonetheless it was there. It was an option. So I kept working. Then senior year of high school hit. And there was still no legality, still no amnesty. Nothing. I was still as undocumented as ever, and I still had to apply to college.
I'll spare you the detail of those months. But there were tears. Lots and lots of tears, and quite a bit of anger, too. I felt cheated, almost betrayed by the system I had grown up in. I had worked so hard at being "normal" in order to avoid suspicion that I almost forgot that I actually was not a legal citizen of this country. My parents paid taxes; they spoke English. We were American. I remember bitterly receiving acceptance letter after acceptance letter. But those weren't really the problem. The problem was what came after the acceptance letter; the financial aid packages were the real problem. $30,000, $45,000 in merit scholarships, and it still wasn't enough. How was I supposed to pay the remaining $20,000 or even $10,000? Then came the one letter that my whole family anxiously awaited. Harvard. We were all waiting for that one. And...Waitlisted. Crap. Now what?
The Phone Call
I was accepted into the Macauley's Honors Program in NYC. Every accepted applicant receives a full scholarship as well as research money. I was delighted. I was going to college. I had completely forgotten about Harvard at this point. But then mid-May I got a phone call. A 617-phone call... that I missed. Whoops. I was in the middle of class when I felt my phone vibrating. I didn't realize it was Harvard until after I listened to the voicemail in the girl's bathroom after 8th period. I couldn't call them back; I was too scared to do it alone. So I took the phone to my counselor's office. She kicked out the person in her office when I told her I got a phone call from a Dean at Harvard. But my life was about to change so I couldn't really think about anything else. For a few horrifying minutes I thought they were going to say no. I didn't know how many people were typically on the waitlist and I thought this was just a courtesy rejection phone call. I don't remember what was said after "Congratulations, we'd like to offer you..." They said yes, I could not believe it. It took me four tries to call my mom because I kept messing up her number. My counselor cried, my mom cried, my best friend cried. Basically there were a lot of tears. Again. Only this time they were happy tears. I could not believe it. The best school in the country had just granted me admission. I did it. I was going to Harvard. I don't think I've experienced happiness the same way since then. I know it sounds cliché, but I felt like I was floating. Not even gravity could bring me down.
As expected, there was a cloud of euphoria that seemed to encase my immediate family in the days following that fateful phone call. My parents were thrilled to say the least. My mom confessed to me about two years later that on that day, my Dad cried when we had all gone to bed. She said that, to him, me getting into Harvard was an indicator that he had finally done something right as a parent. It meant that all of our hard work paid off. My Dad never cries. I think back to this moment quite often. It reminds me of how important it is for me to work hard. Me getting in Harvard wasn't just me, it was a collective effort of family and friends who helped me out over the years.
The Ugly Side of Family
Of course while my immediate family was ecstatic, the same could not be said about other members of my family. "She only got in because she's Spanish" was often heard around the community. Implying that me being Latina was the sole reason for my acceptance. "She doesn't deserve it because she's undocumented, it's unfair to the rest of us who are legal." At the time, I didn't give these comments much thought. I boiled it down to jealousy and so I didn't let it bother me. But my euphoria cloud didn't last forever. As soon as it started to fade, the spiteful comments seeped into my being, and I began to question myself. Why did they accept me? My SAT's weren't as high the average for accepted students. My grades suffered towards the end of high school because I was working 40 hours a week to help out my family financially. Why would they want me?
Struggling for Acceptance
It's common knowledge that during the first few weeks of freshmen year, we all think we were the admissions office's mistake; usually that feeling fades, as you get more comfortable with your place here. But for me, it's been a constant struggle for the past two and a half years. Feeling inadequate, feeling like you're only here because you had an interesting story to tell instead of actually being qualified. It takes a toll. It weighs you down and most importantly it hurts. I want to share my experience as an undocumented student with the world because I'm tired of hiding. I'm tired of living in the shadows. So consider this my official "coming out." My name is Lisette Candia; I am a junior at Harvard College. I am undocumented, unafraid,and unapologetic.