Carolina in front of the Lincoln Memorial at Washington D.C.

It was a beautiful evening on July 27, 2009, the night my grandmother died. Death at such a distance — she in Mexico, me in San Antonio — was not how I had imagined our farewell.  That afternoon I could not stop contemplating the reddish sky; I liked submerging myself into its warm wave of colors.

“Carolina, ya vamanos,” time to go, my sister said.  We were on our way to pick up my mother from work.  After 15 minutes of cruising streets full of mansions in a ’94 Isuzu Rodeo, we arrived at her place of work: The Loyola Family house.

Mami, ya estamos afuera.” We are outside.I hung up the phone.  I felt too American to get out  of the car to knock on the front door.  As a young girl, my abuelo taught me to be courteous when I visited someone else’s house.  I would go near the door, knock, and wait. If I did not receive an answer, I must then call out, “Buenas tardes, dísculpe la molestía.” Good afternoon, excuse the disturbance. And then I was to wait.

The “cordial greeting method” never failed me. People would always answer the door right away. My mom would come out, get in the car, and we would pick up salads at McDonald’s for dinner. My mother and older sister sat at the kitchen table. I sat on the floor since we only had two chairs.

We had just begun to eat that night — July 27, 2009 — when the phone rang.  For my Mom, the news from Mexico was devastating. More than 1,000 miles away, my grandmother lay dead in her hospital bed.

The last picture of me and my beloved grandmother. I was nine years old.

This is the third anniversary of my grandmother’s death. As incredible as it sounds, I do not regret not being present at her funeral.  I had no other option. If my family and I had left the U.S., we would’ve given up the lives we had already established with tremendous effort.

It wasn’t easy weighing my mother’s sacrifices, my growing academic success, and that surreal shot at a better life versus our absence at my grandmother’s death, and at the traditional Catholic mass and funeral services. Those were the kind of life choices we faced in my family in San Antonio, where we lived without documentation, yet very much part of the community.

My grandmother surely knows that I bet my life on the choices we made, and so we stayed. We stayed, breaking  extended family ties in Mexico. We were criticized, even blamed for my grandmother’s death. However, my mother was the only member of the family who continuously sent money to Mexico on a monthly basis, the fruits of her housecleaning in Alamo Heights where my sister and I were able to attend the best public schools in the city.

Working in the States as a housekeeper pays better than any semi-professional job in Mexico.  My mother could provide more help by staying. Two weeks after my grandmother’s death, a cousin of mine sent photos of my grandmother’s funeral. Years later, I still have not summoned the strength to view the images. They sit in a box somewhere, locked up with all my guilt and fear.

Today, I still hardly know how to feel. My life experiences since her death would challenge the assumptions of anyone my age. Three months ago I had no idea what to do about my life. I was a DREAMer with a college degree from UTSA, about to enter free fall, an honors student forbidden to work for wages, forbidden even to take a test for a driver’s license. This was not the American Dream I once imagined and I worked so hard and did so well in school.

Today, I am a DREAMer with a college degree and soon to be the beneficiary of something called deferred action. For the moment, while the two political parties campaign for votes in November, I can no longer be deported, and I even have the possibility of obtaining a work permit, social security number, and a driver’s license. I’ll be able to earn wages and pay taxes.

Today, I sit and second guess myself, wondering if telling my grandfather that we would not go to my grandmother’s funeral was, indeed, the best decision. I wonder if the hard work of my mother and my sister are finally paying off.  Hundreds of memories race through my mind as I relive moments of our long, shared journey. My memory of Mexico is looking out the window from a Greyhound bus. I remember my very first stay at Cambridge Elementary School in Alamo Heights, learning English, winning the Young Pegasus Contest in middle school, and having such a great time in high school even after I became socially aware of my second class status.

Carolina with her mentor, the author, documentary film maker and UTSA professor John Philips Santos. (Photo courtesy of Martin Cavazos/UTSA.)

I see myself going through college and the many all-nighters writing my honors thesis. All the days that I spent on the long VIA bus rides, sleeping and reading, and sometimes crying because I grew so desperate as graduation day approached.  I feel goose bumps every time I remember crossing that stage with my decorated hat and being sashed by my academic mentor, Prof. John Phillip Santos, in my Honors College graduation. Also, remembering how President Ricardo Romo stood up and shook my hand at graduation.

I still remember sitting as a hunger striker in 2010, becoming a DREAM Act activist and organizer. Coming out as undocumented in front of Tea Party supporters, coming out in the national media and having to silently accept the label of “illegal alien” as a term that defines me in the press.  I can’t forget my sweating hands at the San Antonio International Airport, showing the security guard my Mexican passport as I flew for the first time to D.C.

I remember watching President Obama’s new immigration policy announcement on June 15, along with my beloved friend, Pamela Reséndiz, both of us assaulted by media inquiries afterwards. Afterwards, we mobilized, organizing deferred action community forums to educate 12,000 DREAMers in San Antonio about this new opportunity.  We were viewed as heroes by parents who, like my mother, were the real heroes. But then we reined ourselves in: the presidential order is a temporary, two-year reprieve. It is not a resolution. There are no guarantees.

Carolina in front of the Lincoln Memorial at Washington D.C.

Remembering has taught me how to take deep breaths and take things one day at a time.

This summer I have spent the days working at The Rivard Report, occupying a seat in an 10th floor conference room at the Weston Centre, grateful for the opportunity and the credit I will receive to complete my course work, but also unable to collect wages like my fellow intern, Don Dimick. Instead, a scholarship bank is being created to help me pay for graduate school because the people who I have worked for believe in me, believe in my work, and believe I have the same right to live here freely just as they do. As I sit in the Rivard Report conference room for interns, I am grateful for having a space where I can share my story. I want to thank Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle for giving me the opportunity to be part of this amazing project, which I hope will continue to enhance the creative class and minds of our city.

With deferred action I can have temporary “legal status” for two years. I still hope I can attend graduate school and obtain a Ph.D. I still do not know where I will be accepted, but I do hope to go and experience the East Coast. However, I do plan on coming back to San Antonio and hopefully writing about it in the Rivard Report.

As for very short-term plans, I am going to spend this upcoming Sunday with my family. I am going to finally have a graduation celebration with my friends. I will continue to host community forums for deferred action in churches, community centers and wherever they are required. Then I will make sure DREAMers apply for deferred action when the process begins on August 15. I have stepped down as the San Antonio Immigrant Youth Movement Coordinator because I have been offered a bigger job as the San Antonio Civic Engagement Coordinator for the national movement, United We Dream.  This will give me the opportunity to help increase Latino voter turnout in the coming election. I start next week, so I only have one day to take a break.

The Rivard Report founding team (Left to right: Don Dimick, Robert Rivard, Carolina Canizales and Monika Maeckle.)

This fall is going to be a challenging passage in my life. Not only does my academic future get settled but also my future as an American.  I know I am up for the challenge ahead, even as part of me sends warnings that I am on the verge of a breakdown. In those rare moments where I want to quit, I remember my fellow DREAMers, immigrants and jornaleros who continue to fight for a more representative system. I think about my mother and my sister. And I remember my grandmother and how she told me to take care in the last phone call we had.

And that is exactly what I am going to do. I am going to take care of myself, my family and my community because there’s still too much uncertainty in the years to come.

Photos provided by Carolina Canizales.

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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.