Cultura UNAM

But you weren't born here

Mexamérica / Mayo de 2018

Amalia Rojas Enriquez


It has taken me exactly one full week of self-reflection to write this. I’m only stating it because it hasn’t been easy to convince myself to write out my story. Especially with my current circumstance. It almost feels like I am scabbing at a wound that has been trying to heal. As a writer I enjoy creating worlds and stories that have nothing to do with myself. The reality is however, they have always been my story, haven’t they? Through a character’s line or an event taking place in my plays I’ve navigated the news of my status. I’ve navigated growing up undocumented. My name is Amalia Oliva and I am a playwright. I was born in San Agustín, Mexico, a neighborhood in Ecatepec. I enjoy iced coffees in all types of weathers, reading Chekhov, keeping piñatas that have been broken and eating my ma’s chiles rellenos. I grew up in Astoria, New York. Astoria is a neighborhood in Queens with predominant Greek and Italian families. I never felt any different than my classmates. To be honest I spent a lot of time alone. For the most part, I was always coloring and writing stories, or just in my own world. When I could finally read, I read every book in sight. I would go to quinces and take books! My family would tease me. I just wasn’t interested. I would fall deep inside worlds that made more sense than mine. While I didn’t feel any different, it didn’t mean I wasn’t bullied. Growing up my father kept my hair short, plus I was thin and nerdy looking. The bullying came from my appearance and my lack of socialization. As I grew older, I gained weight and the bullying became more centered around it, triggering depression, anxiety and even more isolation. I remember constantly wishing I didn’t exist. Ironic in its own way…all I had left were words, my poetry, the books I read and yet I was being tortured by the mean spoken words of others. My life started to take a different road once I started High school. I spent half of my freshmen year skipping my Spanish class, truthfully it was my last class and going home was always better in my mind. Until one day I decided to actually attend. My Spanish teacher surprised us by having a small theater performance. I was taken back to the first time theater came into my life. My mother, a hard working housekeeper, saved up enough to take to me to my first Broadway show ever. It was a special and memorable gift for graduating fifth grade. I can remember holding her arm as we waited for the play to begin. We had standing seats in the back of the theater and while my feet got tired of standing, it was worth every single bit. The lights, the dancing, the magic of theater. The humor, the story line, my mother’s voice as she sang along to Abba’s classic “Chiquitita” in Spanish as the gringos sang it English. My mom is a huge influence in me as a woman and as an artist. Even though when I was a child she would tell me to study anything but arts, I know she knew my desire to write, to create and to feel. After all, that same night she pointed at the bright Mama Mia billboard and asked: “¿Te ves algún día ahí?” I remember being afraid to nod not because of what she would say, but more out of my own self-doubt. That same night my mom and I walked Times Square, ate hot dogs under its lights, that illuminated our presence in the night. Before the night ended, my mom looked at me and said “Yo sí te veo ahí” looking back at the Broadway lights and walked away. By the ending of the theater performance my Spanish teacher had put on for us, I was complimenting her on the great work when she squinted at me and said “join my theater group and I promise you won’t fail this class” I really didn’t have a choice because the idea of failing triggered inside me the fear I had over my parents. Failing was not an option. Especially if you’re a Mexican daughter. My first rehearsal with Raices Latinas will forever be the most embarrassing first impression. It made me realize that my Spanish was terrible. My mom and dad arrived to the U.S. when they were both in their teens. They weren’t fluent in English but understood the call and response. It was how I was raised. It wasn’t until I started acting in Spanish that I realized the beauty of being bilingual. Perhaps that was Ms. Agudelo’s goal. Through theater and Spanish she sought to bring back her students to their roots. And she accomplished it with me. She helped me develop pride for Mexico, develop culture, discipline as a student and above all courage to try new things. That same year I auditioned for the fall play and was enrolled in my first theater class, I discovered my passion for the theater, the lights and characters. I became an artist committed to following this path. I continued to be an actress throughout my entire high school career and found a place under the wing of Mrs. Erickson, Drama Teacher and Director of all fall plays. Mrs. Erickson provided me with training and discipline as an emerging theater artist. Introducing me to Chekhov, Molière, Mamet and other phenomenal playwrights. During a performance Friday, which was more of an open mic for her drama classes, I performed one of my first monologues. After class she asked me if I liked to write. I loved to write! She encouraged me to do more of it. In her class I wrote my first play entitled “Dude, where’s my dog?” What else can I say after that? I wrote and wrote, performed play after play, got chosen to audition for a Broadway panel, got produced. During my senior year, I had won several competitions and had been published by Samuel French. I worked hard on preparing my college essays, writing samples, preparing my mind and soul to experience going away for college to follow my dream of making it on those Broadway lights. I received the acceptance I longed for, the one I wanted to achieve, but in order to accept my dream, school requested me to submit my financial aid package. This required my parents to provide me with specific legal information. When my mom first came to this country she did not think much about the U.S, she imagined working hard enough to go back and build their dream home. The plan was to go back to Mexico. She had just turned 18 when she got pregnant with me here in the U.S. But she feared the hospitals, and feared the idea that because of language barrier and legal status something would happen to me. So she fled back to Mexico City. Two weeks later she gave birth to me. Two months after, she migrated at 18 for the second time again, but now with a 2-month old baby on her back. With the help of my aunt, she crossed through Nogales, Arizona.
No tienes papeles No tienes papeles No naciste aquí Qué Qué Qué Nunca me preguntaste Si eres de aquí Creciste aquí Pero no naciste aquí
I can’t remember exactly what was said except that I was undocumented. I can just recall the feeling. I can just recall running out of our two-bedroom apartment and running away. I remember her face: combination of being apologetic and fearful. I couldn’t blame her; I was just angry that she kept it from me. I tried to piece my life together, how could I be undocumented? We traveled from state to state, my mom loved adventure and took us on family vacations. How could she hide something like this the whole time? How was she not afraid of being stopped by anyone? It wasn’t until three years after that I realized how she managed, how she was beyond brave and fearless. On a trip to Georgia, waiting online to board our bus in Florida, Homeland Security stood 5 feet away from us. I turned to my mom with tears climbing up my eyes, she stared at me with a serious face and whispered to me “Relájate, actúa normal”. This was my mother’s secret. To act normal. Even though we were. During a recent interview with Univision I was asked if I ever wanted to be normal. I looked at the journalist and rolled my eyes on camera. I am normal. I am like any mid-twenties adult. Confused and broke. The difference is, opportunity wise, I am not on the same playing field and that is something I want to be clear about. Undocumented people are like everyone else. Human feelings such as depression or happiness do not discriminate based on legal status. Legal status does not know experiences or age. We still go through every motion and life situations. Being an undocumented immigrant does mean being illegal. No human is illegal. With a lot of struggle and support from more amazing professors and mentors, I managed to finish my associates degree. My mentor and theater mom Susana Tubert, a well-known theater director, encouraged me to finish my full degree. She often reminded me that while my status was a constant No in life, I had to look for my Yes. Truthfully, getting my associates degree was hard. I worked three jobs and did not want to endure any more juggling of work and school. However, I had lost my passion for creating and this worried Susana. It was during this time that I really understood why I made art, why I needed to write. It was because it saved my life when I felt like there was nothing else for me. I took another year to really reflect on this and save up for the next chapter in my life, all while working and learning alongside Susana as she directed The Latino International Theater Festival. I began to feel the spark again to write and create. Just because this country had me constricted by this border did not mean that the world’s I created had to be constricted as well. In 2014, I applied for the CUNY BECAS scholarship at the City University of New York. This scholarship, funded by the Jaime Lucero Institute of Mexican Studies, provides a full ride scholarship per semester to students despite immigration status. The focus of the scholarship is to support first generation students and to encourage them to give back to their community in the process. During the time I was working in a cafe, as a community organizer for migrant domestic violence victims in Brooklyn and as a babysitter. I remember submitting and hoping that it would allow me to continue my studies and finally major in theater. Receiving this scholarship changed my life. It didn’t only allow me to work one job and focus on school but it introduced me to my best friends: Antonio, Jazmin and Yatziri, fellow Dreamers who like me where trying to write their stories in a country that did not welcome us. Antonio was born in Veracruz, Mexico. He migrated when he was eleven years old. The first time I heard his story we were sitting in a restaurant, drinking micheladas a tradition of ours. He migrated over with both his parents, leaving his grandparents and younger brother behind. Antonio’s face looks distant and on the verge of tears as he begins to tell us his journey across the border. He was taken to Mexico City and then flew to Hermosillo, where a van was waiting for him. He spent three days in a house in the middle of nowhere, before he knew it was time to cross the border with only three bottles of water, cans of tuna and corn. Eventually they were out of food and water. Mother earth provided them an irrigation canal in the middle of the desert, he says as he sips his michelada. I remember feeling an urge to hug him. After three days, they arrived to Arizona, from Arizona to Los Angeles and then finally to New York. I honestly cannot imagine my life without Antonio, but this was selfish to think as he was finishing his story. Arriving here meant having to learn a new language, new culture but above all living without his grandparents and younger brother. In 2011, Antonio’s world was turned upside down. His grandfather passed away, followed by his grandmother in 2012. His parents were inconsolable, and decided that it was time to return. Antonio, however, stayed behind. He’s lived with his aunt ever since. Frankly, at this point I chug my michelada and order another one. Our friend Jazmin, hugs Antonio. Jazmin, the youngest of us, looks at us before speaking. Her migration story is different. Born in Mexico City, Mexico, at the age of five, her dad packed her things and woke her up. They boarded a white truck and never looked back. She was dropped off at a house when her dad explained to her he was going to leave her there for a few days and that she needed to pay attention and listen to everyone. “Before he left, the lady with some other folks, made me memorize my new name, and who my make-believe parents and new siblings were.” “Wait” I interrupt her. “You had to pretend being someone else’s kid? “ “I think so” she responds. “Recently I started getting flashbacks of when we were at the border with the Border Patrol checking and double checking documents to make sure they were who they said they were. It was a three row camioneta, I was in the second row, and a baby who was dropped off with me, was in the last row. I remember he wouldn’t stop crying.” We all laughed. “While we were driving to the border I remember they told me to stay very quiet and to not move. I remember the border officer looked inside the car, and I vaguely remember seeing my reflection on his dark sunglasses —but it was nighttime— like really late. After this we had McDonald’s…” she looks down and plays with her hands. “When my dad and I were in Mexico, we used to travel between Puebla and Mexico City, and everywhere we went we just like drove past McDonald’s. This is how I understood things changed.” They turn to me and wait for me to tell my story, except I don’t feel like I really have one. I can’t remember. I feel like I just sprouted from the dirt, when Yatziri finally speaks. “I came to the US when I was two years old. I came with my parents, my brothers weren’t born yet. We came because my mom and dad had a deli around where we lived, but new people started coming around and they began to tell my dad that if he wanted to keep his store “safe” he will have to begin paying them a monthly fee. My dad had an idea of what was happening so eventually he knew he would not be able to sustain the store. He also wanted a better life for me and my mother. It was best for us to move to the U.S. My aunt had come a year earlier because my cousin was really sick and they didn’t know what he had; the doctors in Mexico didn’t tell them anything, and they also didn’t have money to pay for private doctors there. They though if they came to the US and worked hard, they could take him to the doctor here. And that’s how we ended up in New York” When thinking about this I realized that Yatziri never said how she crossed over. I ask her and she says “Through the border”, and my response “Do you remember?” leaves her silent. “I wish I could remember; I wish I had seen what has held against me”. But she reminds of something else. “I have, but I don’t like to touch that subject with them because I can only imagine how difficult and traumatizing that journey could have been, and I don’t want to put my parents through that again. Plus, I can sense that it will also trigger emotions regarding how they left their families behind.” I never considered this, and reflecting on this response made me realize that maybe that’s why my mom and dad held it from me. They wanted to give me wings to fly even if it was just for a bit to taste the sky. As I think back, to this day I get a feeling of nostalgia, sadness and comfort. I wasn’t alone in feeling the effects of being without status. I’m not alone. There are 3.6 million Dreamers in the U.S. Only 1.8 million who would qualify for DACA in 2012. Such as Jazmin, Antonio and I. There are 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in total, who reminisce of what was left behind in their home countries. We spend the rest of our time together talking about our childhoods, our dreams, the classes we took; we spend the rest of our time being normal college students and drinking our micheladas. Our friendship revolves around WhatsApp conversations, going out to dance, organizing our community and protesting. Honestly, my mental health through college stopped me several times from wanting to continue to fight, but it was the becari@s and my friends who gave me the energy and will to keep pushing. On my graduation day, everyone was there with me, cheering me on as I walked to receive my degree. The first of my family, north and south of the border, to graduate from college. Even though it took me six years, I did it. A month later I was offered a job and moved out of my parents’ house. Independence and living on my own allowed me to really be able to find answers to myself. Like, what did I really want? Where did I want to go? How far could I actually go? Then, November 2017 brought me back to reality. Rumors of the end of DACA were floating in the air, and truthfully we all knew it would happen sooner or later. Were we ready for it? Is anyone ever ready for something like this? In two weeks, my DACA will expire, with no signs of a new one arriving soon. I prepare myself mentally for what is coming my way. I’m trying to stay positive that good things are coming. It’s all I have left. Positivity. I find comfort by knowing that I am not defined by status and that I’m not alone. At least, I made the best out of my experience: I finished school, traveled to Mexico after twenty-three years, worked and made a name for myself. I find comfort by knowing that while legally I will not be able to work, it cannot stop me from writing, and this is my form of resistance. I find comfort in knowing that during this time in my life I have the opportunity to write this piece and honor my story.