Waking Up from the American Dream | The New Yorker

If you are an undocumented person anywhere in America, some of the things you do to make a dignified life for yourself and your loved ones are illegal. Others require a special set of skills. The elders know some great tricks—crossing deserts in the dead of night, studying the Rio Grande for weeks to find the shallowest bend of river to cross, getting a job on their first day in the country, finding apartments that don’t need a lease, learning English at public libraries, community colleges, or from “Frasier.” I would not have been able to do a single thing that the elders have done. But the elders often have only one hope for survival, which we tend not to mention. I’m talking about children. And no, it’s not an “anchor baby” thing. Our parents have kids for the same reasons as most people, but their sacrifice for us is impossible to articulate, and its weight is felt deep down, in the body. That is the pact between immigrants and their children in America: they give us a better life, and we spend the rest of that life figuring out how much of our flesh will pay off the debt.

I am a first-generation immigrant, undocumented for most of my life, then on DACA, now a permanent resident. But my real identity, the one that follows me around like a migraine, is that I am the daughter of immigrants. As such, I have some skills of my own.

You pick them up young. Something we always hear about, because Americans love this shit, is that immigrant children often translate for their parents. I began doing this as a little girl, because I lost my accent, dumb luck, and because I was adorable in the way that adults like, which is to say I had large, frightened eyes and a flamboyant vocabulary. As soon as doctors or teachers began talking, I felt my parents’ nervous energy, and I’d either answer for them or interpret their response. It was like my little Model U.N. job. I was around seven. My career as a professional daughter of immigrants had begun.

In my teens, I began to specialize. I became a performance artist. I accompanied my parents to places where I knew they would be discriminated against, and where I could insure that their rights would be granted. If a bank teller wasn’t accepting their I.D., I’d stroll in with an oversized Forever 21 blazer, red lipstick, a slicked-back bun, and fresh Stan Smiths. I brought a pleather folder and made sure my handshake broke bones. Sometimes I appealed to decency, sometimes to law, sometimes to God. Sometimes I leaned back in my chair, like a sexy gangster, and said, “So, you tell me how you want my mom to survive in this country without a bank account. You close at four, but I have all the time in the world.” Then I’d wink. It was vaudeville, but it worked.

My parents came to America in their early twenties, naïve about what awaited them. Back in Ecuador, they had encountered images of a wealthy nation—the requisite flashes of Clint Eastwood and the New York City skyline—and heard stories about migrants who had done O.K. for themselves there. But my parents were not starry-eyed people. They were just kids, lost and reckless, running away from the dead ends around them.

My father is the only son of a callous mother and an absent father. My mother, the result of her mother’s rape, grew up cared for by an aunt and uncle. When she married my father, it was for the reasons a lot of women marry: for love, and to escape. The day I was born, she once told me, was the happiest day of her life.

Soon after that, my parents, owners of a small auto-body business, found themselves in debt. When I was eighteen months old, they left me with family and settled in Brooklyn, hoping to work for a year and move back once they’d saved up some money. I haven’t asked them much about this time—I’ve never felt the urge—but I know that one year became three. I also know that they began to be lured by the prospect of better opportunities for their daughter. Teachers had remarked that I was talented. My mother, especially, felt that Ecuador was not the place for me. She knew how the country would limit the woman she imagined I would become—Hillary Clinton, perhaps, or Princess Di.

My parents sent loving letters to Ecuador. They said that they were facing a range of hardships so that I could have a better life. They said that we would reunite soon, though the date was unspecified. They said that I had to behave, not walk into traffic—I seem to have developed a habit of doing this—and work hard, so they could send me little gifts and chocolates. I was a toddler, but I understood. My parents left to give me things, and I had to do other things in order to repay them. It was simple math.

They sent for me when I was just shy of five years old. I arrived at J.F.K. airport. My father, who seemed like a total stranger, ran to me and picked me up and kissed me, and my mother looked on and wept. I recall thinking she was pretty, and being embarrassed by the attention. They had brought roses, Teddy bears, and Tweety Bird balloons.

Getting to know one another was easy enough. My father liked to read and lecture, and had a bad temper. My mother was soft-spoken around him but funny and mean—like a drag queen—with me. She liked Vogue. I was enrolled in a Catholic school and quickly learned English—through immersion, but also through “Reading Rainbow” and a Franklin talking dictionary that my father bought me. It gave me a colorful vocabulary and weirdly over-enunciated diction. If I typed the right terms, it even gave me erotica.

Meanwhile, I had confirmed that my parents were not tony expats. At home, meals could be rice and a fried egg. We sometimes hid from our landlord by crouching next to my bed and drawing the blinds. My father had started out driving a cab, but after 9/11, when the governor revoked the driver’s licenses of undocumented immigrants, he began working as a deliveryman, carrying meals to Wall Street executives, the plastic bags slicing into his fingers. Some of those executives forced him to ride on freight elevators. Others tipped him in spare change.

My mother worked in a factory. For seven days a week, sometimes in twelve-hour shifts, she sewed in a heat that caught in your throat like lint, while her bosses, also immigrants, hurled racist slurs at her. Some days I sat on the factory floor, making dolls with swatches of fabric, cosplaying childhood. I didn’t put a lot of effort into making the dolls—I sort of just screwed around, with an eye on my mom at her sewing station, stiffening whenever her supervisor came by to see how fast she was working. What could I do to protect her? Well, murder, I guess.

Our problem appeared to be poverty, which even then, before I’d seen “Rent,” seemed glamorous, or at least normal. All the protagonists in the books I read were poor. Ramona Quimby on Klickitat Street, the kids in “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.” Every fictional child was hungry, an orphan, or tubercular. But there was something else setting us apart. At school, I looked at my nonwhite classmates and wondered how their parents could be nurses, or own houses, or leave the country on vacation. It was none of my business—everyone in New York had secrets—but I cautiously gathered intel, toothpick in mouth. I finally cracked the case when I tried to apply to an essay contest and asked my parents for my Social Security number. My father was probably reading a newspaper, and I doubt he even looked up to say, “We don’t have papers, so we don’t have a Social.”

It was not traumatic. I turned on our computer, waited for the dial-up, and searched what it meant not to have a Social Security number. “Undocumented immigrant” had not yet entered the discourse. Back then, the politically correct term, the term I saw online, was “illegal immigrant,” which grated—it was hurtful in a clinical way, like having your teeth drilled. Various angry comments sections offered another option: illegal alien. I knew it was form language, legalese meant to wound me, but it didn’t. It was punk as hell. We were hated, and maybe not entirely of this world. I had just discovered Kurt Cobain.

Obviously, I learned that my parents and I could be deported at any time. Was that scary? Sure. But a deportation still seemed like spy-movie stuff. And, luckily, I had an ally. My brother was born when I was ten years old. He was our family’s first citizen, and he was named after a captain of the New York Yankees. Before he was old enough to appreciate art, I took him to the Met. I introduced him to “S.N.L.” and “Letterman” and “Fun Home” and “Persepolis”—all the things I felt an upper-middle-class parent would do—so that he could thrive at school, get a great job, and make money. We would need to armor our parents with our success.

We moved to Queens, and I entered high school. One day, my dad heard about a new bill in Congress on Spanish radio. It was called the DREAM Act, and it proposed a path to legalization for undocumented kids who had gone to school here or served in the military. My dad guaranteed that it’d pass by the time I graduated. I never react to good news—stoicism is part of the brand—but I was optimistic. The bill was bipartisan. John McCain supported it, and I knew he had been a P.O.W., and that made me feel connected to a real American hero. Each time I saw an “R” next to a sponsor’s name my heart fluttered with joy. People who were supposed to hate me had now decided to love me.

But the bill was rejected and reintroduced, again and again, for years. It never passed. And, in a distinctly American twist, its gauzy rhetoric was all that survived. Now there was a new term on the block: “Dreamers.” Politicians began to use it to refer to the “good” children of immigrants, the ones who did well in school and stayed off the mean streets—the innocents. There are about a million undocumented children in America. The non-innocents, one presumes, are the ones in cages, covered in foil blankets, or lost, disappeared by the government.

I never called myself a Dreamer. The word was saccharine and dumb, and it yoked basic human rights to getting an A on a report card. Dreamers couldn’t flunk out of high school, or have D.U.I.s, or work at McDonald’s. Those kids lived with the pressure of needing a literal miracle in order to save their families, but the miracle didn’t happen, because the odds were against them, because the odds were against all of us. And so America decided that they didn’t deserve an I.D.

The Dream, it turned out, needed to demonize others in order to help the chosen few. Our parents, too, would be sacrificed. The price of our innocence was the guilt of our loved ones. Jeff Sessions, while he was Attorney General, suggested that we had been trafficked against our will. People actually pitied me because my parents brought me to America. Without even consulting me.

The irony, of course, is that the Dream was our inheritance. We were Dreamers because our parents had dreams.

It’s painful to think about this. My mother, an aspiring interior designer, has gone twenty-eight years without a sick day. My dad, who loves problem-solving, has spent his life wanting a restaurant. He’s a talented cook and a brilliant manager, and he often did the work of his actual managers for them. But, without papers, he could advance only so far in a job. He needed to be paid in cash; he could never receive benefits.

He often used a soccer metaphor to describe our journey in America. Our family was a team, but I scored the goals. Everything my family did was, in some sense, a pass to me. Then the American Dream could be mine, and then we could start passing to my brother. That’s how my dad explained his limp every night, his feet blistered from speed-running deliveries. It’s why we sometimes didn’t have money for electricity or shampoo. Those were fouls. Sometimes my parents did tricky things to survive that you’ll never know about. Those were nutmegs. In 2015, when the U.S. women’s team won the World Cup, my dad went to the parade and sent me a selfie. “Girl power!” the text read.


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