As we entered high school and began preparing for the next four years that would culminate in either an acceptance or rejection to our dream universities, my friend and I began talking about dreams. She mentioned Chapel Hill and a medical degree, marriage to a kind man, and leaving some sort of impact on the world. As it soon came time for me to regurgitate my own dreams, I realized I had none. Most of my small, unacknowledged dreams had already been fulfilled, and the only ones that remained seemed rather sad to mention, so I made some stuff up. I spend an unreasonable amount of time reflecting on that conversation and thinking back to my childhood. Growing up, my childhood was defined by the poignancy of dreams. The unfulfilled dreams of my parents, the result of their sacrifice, and my dreams for their happiness, the product of their labor.
In her book The Undocumented Americans, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio argues that immigrants suffer through the USA’s dehumanization, bad treatment, and grotesque salaries, for one thing: their children. Villavicencio continues by saying that at some point, “our parents become our children,” and their American Dream of happiness for us, becomes our American Dream of happiness for them, in a country that has never made them feel anything other than disillusionment. I remember reading the book and being unable to get up. Of seeing my story so vividly represented in her book.
Safety. That was my dream when I was a child, a dream that gradually eroded as I’ve grown older. Somehow, feeling safe was always in direct correlation with what happiness might feel like, even though the concept itself never really involved me; it revolved around my parents. It seems absurd to think that 8-year-old me wanted to protect my parents so badly. To keep them safe, to never have them “taken away” from me. But it was my most important dream. I had other dreams, like wanting a doll for Christmas, or getting a good grade on a test, but those dreams always passed by so quickly. Safety was something I knew I’d never really get; making me long for it all the more. This dream haunted me every time I heard the word immigration, or when we drove past police cars. It terrified me when I had to watch news reports of parents getting deported and their children having to say goodbye. When Trump won, I saw my mom cry quietly in her room.
There is something wretchedly twisted about immigrants giving everything for their children’s dreams, and their children doing everything in their power to make their sacrifices worth something. It is up to us to honor our parents' sacrifices, and to do better than they did. To do so “through education,” as Villavicencio describes. That is the best way. I play right into the stereotype she refers to. I go to the best-damn school in the state. I didn’t apply because I wanted to “be the best, '' as my classmates said when the teacher asked us why we decided to apply. I applied because my parents had heard about the “prestige” that came with attending such a school. I applied because I wrote, “go to the gilford early colledge and make papá proude” when I was 10 because I so badly wanted to make my parent's sacrifices mean something.
My dad’s hands are ruined. I first noticed it when I was 8 and he couldn't give me a proper high five. His pointer finger wouldn’t straighten correctly, due to holding his work drill for too long. I knew it when he helped me with my math homework, and his fingers trembled and twitched while holding the pencil, due to stress. My dad, my dad, my dad, my aloof, cold, brilliant dad. I can never tell what he’s feeling; I’ve never seen him cry, or mourn the life he left behind in Mexico. I’ve never seen him recognized for how utterly intelligent he is, and it pains me, because of all the people who deserve praise, it ought to be him. There’s an unspeakable amount of personal suffering associated with how brilliant my father is, and how nobody will ever know, because he wasn’t able to attend college or do what he most dreamed of in life.
Villavicencio also observed her father's suffering, going as far as to describe her father’s feet in The Undocumented Americans: the way they swelled, and the way he walked as if the floor was littered with hot coals. At that moment, he was not only her father but my father, and every little girl's immigrant father-- suffering to give them a life they were never given.
My godfather drives from Florida to North Carolina to see his kids every weekend. A 9-hour ride to be with his kids for 2 days of the week out of 5. He leaves a 10-hour shift and hops into his car, heading straight to the highway leading home. And he smiles. He smiles so damn much and it's so obviously because of his children. They are the light of his life.
Villavicencio inspired me to conduct my own sorts of interviews, and so I informally interviewed my godfather for this essay. I asked him what he most wanted in life. “Happiness for my children,” he said without hesitation. I then asked my cousins individually what they most wanted. The youngest one said video games, and the oldest one said peace. One day where he didn't have to worry about his father driving for 9 hours. 9 hours where he could get pulled over and be found without a license, because to be undocumented means you drive without a license to simply go about your day, which means always running the risk of being pulled over, charged, and deported. “I am afraid.” Villavicencio writes when she steps in a car to drive. And yet that is how undocumented immigrants have grown accustomed to living; with fear.
My “uncle” is an alcoholic. I refer to him as my uncle, because I've known him since I was a baby, and calling him a family friend...well that just wouldn't do. He married and had kids in Mexico. He did not immigrate until both his kids were well out of infancy and his wife had developed a few wrinkles on her face. He immigrated alone, leaving his children and his wife to come work here because even though work here is soul-wrecking, it pays the bills at home. He’s the saddest man I know. Works double shifts, and drinks, and drinks, and drinks. He reminds me of Julián, one of the men Villavicencio interviewed. Like Julián, he sends money home and spends the rest on alcohol. Some people can't handle their problems but “they can buy a Corona.” (Villavicencio 22).
I only see his eyes brighten when he looks at a picture he has of his kids on his phone. He showed it to me once 2 years ago. “See the boy on the right? That’s Matteo. Cheeky boy, he has my smile. The one on the left? My Jose. So serious, like his mother.” His chest swelled up with pride as he bragged about his sons to me and whoever else was listening. I still see him glance at the picture from time to time. Unlike Julián, he can't afford to cross the border again. It's simply too dangerous. Sometimes I wonder how those boys will grow up. Will they resent their father for not being present? Blame him for personal problems, hate him for disappearing? Or will they recognize his sacrifice as American-born children of immigrants do? If they too, will carry their father’s burden on their shoulders.
There were moments in The Undocumented Americans, where I felt as though I were reading my own father’s interview, and seeing my own mother’s words form on the pages. Villavicencio’s claim isn't so much a claim as it is a lifestyle. What starts as a defense to an argument becomes a story rooted in the knowledge that there is no need to provide external evidence because I and millions of others born to immigrant parents are the very beings of the evidence. My relatives and friends have lived out the stories written in the book. Their experiences and their dreams have been stamped on their hearts, their sacrifices molding me into who I am today. Villavicencio speaks on the twisted inversion of labor-bought dreams. That the dreams parents labor to buy for their children, end up being paid for by the desire of the child to give the very same dream back.
When I graduate, I don't envision myself dressing up in a cap and gown, and I don’t picture myself walking across the stage. I see myself decorating my cap in a way to honor my parents. I envision them seeing the cap, and bursting into tears of joy, the same way Villavicencio’s father burst into great heaving sobs when she handed him her diploma from the best school in the world: Harvard. I don't see myself going to college to fulfill my future dreams, I see myself going to college as a tribute to my family and friends that weren't able to. And when I turn 21 and can secure their citizenship, when we are all able to feel safe; that’s when my dream will be accomplished. When my personal happiness will be fulfilled. I haven't made plans for after. Everything else is dust. What’s left of my hopes and dreams after that, is all there is.
Haile E. is a Mexican American writer who lives in NC. If not writing, she is probably holed up in a library somewhere, reading.