Carolina Canizales: making her Mamá proud on graduation day at UTSA. Courtesy photo.
Carolina Canizales: making her Mamá proud on graduation day at UTSA. Courtesy photo.

For more than a decade, comprehensive immigration reform has been the subject of rancorous debate in this country. The U.S. economy depends on millions of low wage, undocumented workers filling jobs that citizens do not want and will not take. Yet most workers who come from neighboring Mexico have faced stricter enforcement and deportation efforts. The children of undocumented workers, born in the United States or brought here after birth, are known as Dreamers, a name drawn from federal legislation would have provided them with legal status but fell short by a handful of votes. Dreamers, too, are at risk of being deported to countries that are foreign to them. There are more than two million Dreamers in the United States, 258,000 of them in Texas.

The legal status of Dreamers is a maze of contradictions. Texas allows undocumented students who have been raised in Texas to go to state colleges and universities and pay in-state tuition rates. Yet the very same students are forbidden to hold paid internships, apply for driver’s licenses, or otherwise assimilate into society and the economy. You can make the Dean’s List as an honors student, but that doesn’t mean you can go to work after graduation.

Thursday is National Awareness Day for the Right to Dream Campaign when Dreamers will campaign for the right to become citizens. Dreamers will gather today at 1 p.m. at the Bexar County Democratic Party headquarters, and at an Austin protest at 3 p.m. at 2313 Red River St. — Robert Rivard

Everyone has a moment in life when they desperately want to go back.

As a DREAMer, an undocumented student, an inmigrante from Mexico, or whatever label society has the pleasure of sticking on me— I would go back to fifth grade.

I would go back to my heartfelt feelings as a child when I truly wanted to make Mamá proud by becoming “someone” in life.  Truth is, at 10 years of age, I felt complete. In the ensuing 12 years, however, I haven’t been able to recover that pure sensation.

I spent the first part of my childhood in Monterrey, Mexico, the city of the mountains, in a poor neighborhood, where I stood out as a protected child.  My mother worked in the United States.  She could afford to provide my grandparents, my sister and me with the basic needs and much more.  My friends at school had access to school uniforms and colored pencils, but I had access to the newest toy collection from McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Protection and materialism blinded me from noticing the hardships my family encountered.  But, I know in my heart that my mother did everything she could to give us a better life, the life she never had and still does not have.

I came to the United States as a young girl in 2000, when I was 10 years old. By the time I was 22 I knew that people could only accept certain pieces of me, but they would never accept all of me. The reason is simple: No one living here legally can possibly understand what it means to be undocumented.

Being undocumented goes beyond legal status, race, ethnicity, paperwork and American Dream opportunities.  Being undocumented means finding ways to survive on a daily basis, even when there is no guarantee at the end of the day that you are safe and can relax like a normal person.

Carolina Canizles with her mom
Carolina Canizales:  making her Mamá proud.

There isn’t a single arrival into this land of opportunity. On the contrary, there are many open entries into this land, and each comes with its own cultural shock.  Each one requires a self-defense plan that gets you through the day.  Daily plans work because DREAMers, or anyone who is perceived as non-American, cannot afford to make plans beyond the present. Tomorrow is far too uncertain.

Cambridge Elementary School was my first landing spot in Texas as a young girl.  While I attended class in Alamo heights my mother cleaned houses there. She still does. I didn’t even know what “ABC” meant, and I said “rest-rum” when I needed to use the bathroom. Language barriers were the easiest to overcome; I picked up bilingual illustrated books from the Cambridge school library and practiced my broken English every day after school with Mrs. Shows.  I did not talk to anyone, other than my friend from Costa Rica. Our budding English skills let us trust each other.

I grew ambitious. I indisputably wanted to make my mother proud. In junior high, I had made several friends, all of whom I met in “English as a Second Language” classes, or “ESL kids,” plus a few Hispanics and a few Anglos.  They thought I was cool because I was a fast reader and won the Young Pegasus contest.  They also thought it was cool that I made the honor roll every six weeks. My classmates eventually became friendlier.

Until the eighth grade, I could actually afford to make vague plans for high school.  I was a smart kid and knew I could be competitive.  Americans seemed to like me that way. They liked smart kids, and there were no weird looks when I showed off my report card with As, but there were still weird looks when I showed up in my regular clothes, which were different.

Ninth and tenth grades focused solely on AP classes. No one had their driver’s license. Everyone was dropped off by their parents or they rode the school bus. Some of the things that would set me apart from my peers had yet to make themselves evident.

Junior year in high school revealed the big picture— my second cultural shock.  Why are you not in driver’s ed? Why do you walk home? I tried to enroll, but I didn’t have a Social Security number required to register.  I was reminded again what it was to be undocumented: I was and will always be different.

I grew desperate and fought harder every day. There had to be a way I could go to college.  In order to prove my competence, I went crazy enrolling in every AP class. I became a student leader, which was not about leadership skills, but about great time-management and event-planning skills.

The Alamo Heights environment truly made me competitive and determined; I would not be left behind.  Being undocumented and unafraid allowed me to apply and eventually enroll at the University of Incarnate Word. Unfortunately, thanks to my unrealistic cost calculations, I had to drop out of college after my first semester.

Carolina Canizales
Carolina Canizales: “I would go back to fifth grade.”

Cultural shock number three appeared when I developed situational depression in the spring of 2009.  School in San Antonio had been my only life for nine years; my good grades won acceptance in my adopted city and culture. In reality, I had spent all these years trying to fit that perfect profile of “deserving student.” I had a 4.0 grade average, I was extremely involved in school, I had participated in tons of extracurricular activities, and I wanted to be a lawyer.  I knew I fit the American ideal and I tried to convince society to give me a spot.

That desired spot never came. By summer, I had become a part-time jornalera, a domestic worker. Lying in bed truly sickened me. I had to get up and find some sort of motivation working at every type of side job I could possibly find: babysitting, cleaning motel rooms, even selling tamales.  I discovered the world outside of Alamo Heights.  I hung out with humble and underprivileged people for the first time, people who had overcome greater hardships. I met other Mexican people for God’s sake!  There was an alienating difference between us. These new people in my life were unschooled. They hadn’t had the benefit of ESL classes. They still struggled to speak English.

My fourth cultural shock was this: Being an undocumented student in Alamo Heights is as privileged as you are going to get when you are undocumented. Beyond the ’09 borders, San Antonio, I discovered, had big problems. There was the gap between rich and poor, but even worse, there was the gap between the educated and uneducated. How could I afford to go to college for one semester, while others from the Southside or Eastside dropped out of school in dramatic numbers? I became a tutor for the TASK test and ESL kids; I was trying to make a difference.

Fall 2009, I had to prove once again why I deserved an education. Shouldn’t education be a universal right anyway? Honestly, I truly desired to be in a classroom again, meet more people and get involved. Those overachiever instincts were slowly gathering force again.

UTSA offered me exactly what I was looking for: a world-class education.  I met other DREAMers for the first time, all of whom had amazing stories to share.  I joined the organizations my heart told me to join. I no longer sought approval from my peers. Graduation was my goal, even as I feared the possibility that something would happen to stop me. Instead of making plans after graduation, I focused on living every day until graduation.

My fifth cultural shock: Even at a diverse school, people only accept the pieces of you that match their views and personalities.  There is no chance for dialogue. The best way to “come out” as undocumented to my friends was after they got to know me as a student.  They noticed how hard I worked; in their eyes, I deserved what I had obtained. I created a safe spot where I could come out without being judged. There weren’t many dramatic coming out actions though; just a few people who remained my friends after coming to know my status.

I became a student leader, a real one this time.  I became an activist. I joined a hunger strike for 11 days in 2010. The passage of the DREAM Act fell five votes short in the U.S. Senate. Six months later, I came out as an undocumented student at a Texas Public Radio town hall.  Proving a point in front of the Tea Party is the craziest decision I have ever made.

I saw beyond my own limitations. There were many like me who were growing desperate inside their houses and had no support.  The immigrant youth at UTSA became their support. We had each other and we represented a national movement. In order to become a successful organizer, I had to do community outreach, educational and legal workshops. These activities allowed us to provide our community with a better shot at higher education.

In order to be a successful activist, I had to attend national campaigns, rallies, and congressional hearings and create an absurd amount of media attention.  All of this helped give a human dimension to the DREAM Act. Each day still holds some fear. The scariest part of our reality is this: The more opportunities we create for ourselves, the more we realize we are caught in limbo.

Sixth cultural shock: Graduating.

I graduated with a B.A. in Technical Communication from UTSA with Highest Honors this May.  I have been told I will do great things in life. I have been told that I can go to graduate school and I have been told the guidelines I need to follow—the new pieces I need to fit to shape this next profile, if I want to continue my academic career.

I don’t have a car.  I can’t afford one. And I still don’t know how to drive. Even if I learned I cannot obtain a driver’s license.  I don’t receive financial aid, or grants or any type of loans.  I cannot afford graduate school. I can’t work with my degree and my only question is, now what?

I can do many things for my community, but I still have limitations. The system only accepts my good parts: my extensive community service, tutoring and research, implemented educational projects, and educational and motivational workshops. But people do not want to legally acknowledge my presence in the country or employ me. I can’t legally accept payment for professional  work I do.

There are hundreds of others like me in San Antonio, young and ready to be completely accepted into the system. We are educated and motivated to work, yet after years of struggle, this is as far as we can get. We are stymied.

Today, my daily self-survival mechanism consists of creating public awareness about what it truly means to be undocumented, to provide a thorough explanation of the issue, and to hope that one day I will able to continue my education because I represent the New American. There will be no need to demonstrate to a society that fears globalization how “deserving” I am. All I want people to understand is how good I could be if they were to accept me as a whole person.

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Carolina Canizales

Carolina Carnizales, a former Rivard Report intern, graduated with honors from UTSA and now works in Washington D.C. in the national DREAM movement.