A Newcomer's Journey
Life is very interesting... in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths. ~ Drew Barrymore
I love the time of year when parents proudly post and share their children's prom and graduation pictures. It's without a doubt an accomplishment worthy of celebration; It's an epoch to cherish forever! 🎓🎉
Now, this might not be the best graduation picture you've seen. It's not even an original! However, it's the only graduation picture I have!
Here I am, in a cap and gown, I was not permitted to wear after the picture was taken.
Allow me to share with you how this picture, for so many years, represented a personal narrative with FAILURE written all over it.
I encourage you to read my personal journey from Guatemala to the United States. This post provides a background of where I came from and how I made it to America as an undocumented and unaccompanied minor.
January 1994 marks the date I started attending school in the United States. I was 15 years old when I was enrolled at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, New York. I was very confused at the thought of starting in high school since I had not completed any of the junior high school years. I was explained that because of my age I needed to be placed in the 9th grade. Talk about widening the achievement gap right?!
Anyway, I was thrilled to start school! I was fascinated by the alluring, towering, and gleaming school. It was so clean and the structure was something I had only seen on TV. I was stunned when they handed me a pass to ride the bus to and from school. For so many years I had walked miles to attend school, and now I get to ride the bus?! Oh, but wait...it got better. Free breakfast and lunch! WOW!
I sincerely could not have asked for more. I realized that school was supplying my essential needs so I can just attend school and LEARN!
From the very first day I started, I gave it ALL I had. I didn't speak a word of English but I made sure I took advantage of every single opportunity available to learn. I enrolled in morning classes, afternoon classes, evening classes, and even weekend English courses. There was no stopping me! I was in a land of opportunities and I was going for it!
ESL, ESL and More ESL
During my first school year, my classes consisted of English as Second Language (ESL) one after the other. I had wonderful ESL teachers. Very friendly, always making me feel welcomed. One ESL teacher knew a little bit of Spanish so if I needed something, she was my go-to person. ESL classes were very old-school structured - textbook guided kind of lessons. There was no interaction, just a lot of note-taking and worksheet practice. I didn't understand then why I wanted to get out of ESL so bad. TODAY I realize that not being able to be part of the courses other students were taking was making me feel somewhat a failure. In some way, walking the school hallways as an ESL student made me feel inferior and worthless of "real" learning. I had different classes, different textbooks, different schedules. I was different.
A determination within me ignited to learn English to get out of the ESL status. So, during my junior year, (one and a half years after starting school), I placed out of ESL after taking the annual language assessment. I was super excited because that meant that I was allowed to enroll in core courses to gain credits for graduation.
I started taking economics, history, math, biology, health...etc. But, oh boy, this is where the real struggle as a language learner began. My sitting spot was always at the front in all my classes. I wanted to be as close as possible to the teachers and the boards. I took as many notes as possible in each class. I brought home all my textbooks to review and to complete assignments. I realized that the school had a library that would give me books to take home, so I checked out 3 different types of dictionaries and thesaurus. I would use these at home to translate my notes and to complete assignments. Of course, my school work was always done after making dinner and putting my siblings to bed! Don't forget, even though we were in the U.S. I was still the oldest child and expected to care for the little ones while mom worked. My mother can attest to how I would stay up till 3:00 am completing assignments and studying my notes! I enjoyed learning. I cherished new information. I was like a sponge soaking it all in!
I will never forget the day I started reading my economics textbook and the terms "supply" and "demand" began to make sense to me! I was understanding the words...I was understanding the content! I was learning!
I must have finished my economics book in a day or two. I started passing my classes and earning the required credits for graduation. I was so focused on school work that didn't care much about "Senior's field trip" or "prom". To be honest, I didn't know how important these events were. All I wanted was to get my credits, and pass the required assessments to graduate! I have learned how important and necessary a high school diploma was to be able to go to college. I wanted to go to college! I wanted to be the first in my family to obtain a career! I wanted to be a teacher! I wanted to make a difference! I had the vigor, so I knew I could do it. What you can't see in the graduation image above is the excitement I felt getting my graduation pictures done with my cap and gown!
The Walk of Shame
During my senior year, I was required to take some standardized state assessments. I don't remember exactly which ones I had to take, but the one I will never forget is the United States History State Exam. I was not prepared for this exam. I have not taken enough classes to learn the required information to pass the test. I had only been in the United States for 2+ years to know its history. However, this standardized exam and every other exam were required no matter what. So I took the exam...not once, but twice. First time in English and failed. Second time in Spanish but failed.
I was called into the guidance counselor's office to chat with a guidance counselor who kindly explained to me that passing the U.S. History exam was a requirement for graduation and without it, I was NOT going to be able to graduate. She said, "You have all your required credits for graduation so you don't have to continue in school."; "Go home, study, and come back next year to take the test again. Once you pass, you'll get your diploma."
r"Go home"; "Study"; "Come back next year"; "You're done"
These words echoed in my head as tears ran down my cheeks. That afternoon I walked out of Martin Van Buren High School for the LAST time.
The walk of shame from the guidance counselor's office and down every step outside the building felt like an eternity! I was crushed. I was so disappointed in myself. I was disappointed in the school system for the lack of support. How was I going to explain this to my family? Where was I going to get the strengths to "study" for the test once I was out of school? I have failed. I was a failure.
I became part of the statistics of a Latino high school dropout in the United States because I didn't go back. "Why go back?" I thought... "I failed it twice, there's no way I can make it now."
So, if I wasn't going to school then I had to work. So at the age of 18, I got my first full-time job as a cashier at a local supermarket. My first job in the USA. I was a cashier at C-Town in Floral Park, NY. I was a very efficient worker. I worked hours after hours to earn money...or perhaps to forget and avoid how I was feeling.
This, of course, is not how my story ends...
Did you notice the quote above?!?
Life is very interesting... in the end, some of your greatest pains, become your greatest strengths. ~ Drew Barrymore
This was just an epoch in my life that motivated me to become who I am today. So, stay tuned for my next post and learn how my personal narrative changes from FAILURE to SUCCESS because of education.
👀 Read my post on resources to support newcomers be successful in school! 👀
Thank you for reading!
New Land, New Opportunity
"It isn't where you came from, its where you're going that counts."
To be honest, I am not sure what Ella Fitzgerald was referring to when she said the quote above. To me, where I came from COUNTS a lot! The second part of the quote is where my focus has been ever since I moved to the United States from Guatemala.
I was born in Guatemala and lived there for 15 years. I am the oldest of 5 children, 4 girls, and 1 boy. My mother was a single mother who worked day and night to provide for her children as best as she could. I didn't live with my mother until I was 7 years old. I stayed with random family members or sitters since my mother had to work.
Life was very difficult for me and my siblings during our childhood. We all encountered verbal and physical abuse, not to mention all the house chores we were to do on a daily basis.
Two days I will never forget: The day my mother told me we were going to start living together, and the day she told me she was leaving Guatemala to go to the U.S.
As the oldest child, my job was to care for my sisters and brother while our mother was working. My job was to cook, clean, do grocery shopping, care for the little ones, etc. My sisters will never forget the first time I made them scrambled eggs...I didn't know I was supposed to let the eggs gel and "cook" before I served them! Yeah, they were a little runny!
School?!? oh, yeah, I attended school when I could and when my mom was home. I was always from school to school, from teachers to teachers. There might have been one or two school years I completed the year at the same school. You see, education is not a priority in Guatemala. Not because there's no interest in education, but because survival takes a higher priority over education. Third grade was the highest grade my mother and most of my relatives completed in Guatemala. On many occasions, I missed school in order to help my mother at the market to sell oranges, cauliflowers, or used clothes. But even though I missed a lot of school days, I was able to obtain my 6th-grade diploma. I completed the 6th-grade at the age of 14! I was very proud of this accomplishment. You see, this diploma is an honor to obtain in Guatemala. Its value is equivalent to obtaining a high school diploma here in the U.S.
The saddest part was not having my mother with me to celebrate this great accomplishment.
It was 1992 the year my mother gave me the news that she was leaving Guatemala to make a better way and life for us in the United States of America. I don't think I can find the words to explain how her decision made me feel. The thought of being without my mother terrified me, but I knew it was best for all.
Once again, my siblings and I were divided. My second sister and I stayed with my dad, my third sister stayed with church friends, and my little sister and little brother stayed together with a recommended sitter. It was very difficult for all to be apart from each other again. Not to mention not having our mother with us. You might think that my mother's decision was crazy or perhaps cruel as many people told me; but in the end, it was all worth it. You see, my mother promised she'll fight for us, she promised to make the impossible possible for us. I had school friends and people come up to me and say, "She'll never come back!", "She is going to forget about you once she makes her new life in the U.S.", "You're on your own now!" I didn't believe any of these statements! I knew from the bottom of my heart how much my mother cared for us! We wrote to each other constantly! We sent each other pictures and talked about our future together.
One year away from each other was all we could handle. We started sharing and noticing the abuse we were experiencing. I couldn't bear the thought of my little sisters and brother going through the abuse I had experienced. My mom was going to return to Guatemala when she found out what was happening. Yes, we needed our mother with us...but what about the sacrifice she made crossing the border?!? What about the sacrifice we all made for over a year?!? What about the plans we've made for a better future?!? There had to be another way...and there was! My mom sent enough money to build a small shed where we could all live together and I was going to be responsible for all the kids. In a matter of days, at the age of 14, I became fully responsible and took guardianship of my 3 sisters and my baby brother.
We had what we needed to survive. We had food, clothes, and shelter, but we were kids who needed a mother. I needed my mother.
One year. That was all my mother could handle seeing us in the situation we were in.
So what now?
This was the question I asked. In reality, the only comprehensible solution was for my mother to return to Guatemala and start life all over again.
Until, someone asked my mother, "Why don't you bring your kids here to the U.S.?"
At that moment the idea of bringing 5 kids alone from Guatemala to the United States seemed impossible. However, doors began to open and the plans to join my mother in the U.S. were becoming a reality!
It was November of 1993 when we started packing the little bit we had to join my mother. My little sister and brother were lucky to make it to the U.S. in a month. Their dad was able to bring them without any problems. They were able to spend Christmas of 1993 with our mother and new relatives.
The journey from Guatemala to the U.S. was different for me and my two younger sisters. My mother made arrangements for coyotes "smugglers" to bring us to the U.S.
So mid-November 1993 we were picked up by strangers we have never met, but trusted that they were taking us where we needed to go. We were very fortunate to be taken care of by the coyotes and their family. We were fed, had a comfortable place to sleep, and never needed anything. But we would wake up day after day for two months wondering if that was the day when we finally would see our mother. We traveled on land for several days. We rode cars, buses, trains, horses, and we also walked. We were desperate to see our mother. We were not allowed to communicate with mom or anyone. Meanwhile, my mother lived in panic day after day for two months not knowing where and/or how we were doing. Though my experience as an unaccompanied minor was very stressful and perhaps unsure about what was going to happen; it was not even close to the experiences other unaccompanied minors go through to make to the U.S.
Like I said earlier, my sisters and I were very fortunate to have made it through safely.
A snapshot of a day traveling through Mexico
Finally, the day came when we were to board a plane in Mexico City and reunite with our mother. It was January 14th, 1994. As you can see in this picture, we wore our best outfit, and "our Mexican jackets", for our special day.
Our plane arrived around noon. We made it to JFK International airport in New York City. We had been instructed to say that the gentleman who was bringing us was our dad and that we were coming to New York to visit family. We went through immigration, show our passports, and were asked questions. They must have noticed I was not telling the truth because we were taken into a room for more questions.
My sisters began to cry, and I was panicking because we knew it was over when we saw authorities handcuffing the gentleman who was bringing us. They started asking more and more questions until we broke down and told them the truth. I told them my mother had paid people to bring us to be with her. I told them that we didn't have any family in Guatemala to go back to and begged them to please not send us back. My little sisters would not stop crying, I couldn't stop crying! They kept asking me where my mother lived and who was she staying with. I honestly told them I didn't know where she lived and that I didn't know how to contact her.
We were there for hours. We were confined 12 hours to be exact! Questions after questions...is mostly what I remember. We were tired! We were scared! We were hopeless!
Of course, my mother did not show up because she knew that the moment she walked in, they would have taken her and immediately deport her and her children. My mother was in the U.S. with illegal immigration status. It would have been over for all of us if she showed up to claim us.
Suddenly I see two older ladies talking and yelling at the immigration agents. They seemed to be talking about us because they kept pointing at us. Well, these two amazing ladies were my grandmother (mom's mom) and her sister (mom's aunt). I didn't know them because they've lived in the U.S. and had little to no contact over the years with my mother. These two ladies, as American citizens, fought for us and claimed our lives. They made sure immigration knew that sending us back was perhaps ending with our lives since there was no one to take care of us back home. After more hours of discussion, my grandmother ended up claiming my mother, and her children as well. My grandmother made herself responsible for caring for and providing for us. She also made available all the required paperwork to allow us to stay in the U.S. with LEGAL immigration status.
After pictures, fingerprints, and signatures, we walked out of the airport on a cold winter night and into a yellow NYC cab! That night we were able to hug and sleep with our mother after two years.
Finally, we were together! Finally, we were happy!
And 25 years later...we're still together...and Happy!
Thank you for reading!