On Giving Back

“When you work with undocumented students,” she said to the group, “You have to encourage them a lot. They’re used to giving up on themselves. Many of them finish the whole college application but then decide to not submit it.”

I sat at a table with two nerdy white guys and a Puerto Rican girl around my age, a few older white men, and a white girl. One man was retired and wanted something to do. Another, you could tell had been a hippy since his 20s. The girl was applying to grad school. One of the guys was originally from Chicago and was there to talk to us about the ACT. We were all there for orientation.

“They’re just like regular high schoolers. They care about what they look like, and wanna date, and have smart phones. But they’ve experienced more disappointment than the average American student. They’ve grown up hearing they don’t belong, being told No over and over again. A majority of our job is to make sure we’re encouraging them.”

I wanted to cry. Here I was, getting involved with Freedom University, preparing to train undocumented students on the SAT. And here was this woman who runs the program talking to me about how hard these kids have it. About what they need.

Where were they 10 years ago?

Imagine if they’d been around 15 years ago for my sister Mara.

15 years ago, we didn’t know what to do after high school. We were raised in the suburb with majority white Americans. The high school counselors weren’t ready to help us. When I had my review in 11th grade, after the counselor told me I was in good shape and should start looking into FAFSA, I told him I was undocumented. First, he didn’t really know what that meant. When I explained it to him, he said “Sorry, then. I don’t know how to help you.”

We didn’t know anything about the SAT. Was it not just a test they give you during the school year? We had to schedule it? We had to pay? There were ways to study? We found all this out late. Everyone was ahead of my sister.

Her counselor, early on in high school, removed her from the college prep track because she thought Mara should be a cook. When she graduated, she didn’t even know she hadn’t been on the right track that would allow her to go to college.

“So, do they speak English?” one of the older men asked.

“Yes! These kids have been here most their lives,” she seemed frustrated with the question, “A majority of them come to the US between the ages of 2 and 6. They were raised here. They speak English.”

And I’m happy I get to do this now. To give to these students what I never had. But there is a sadness inside me I can’t let go of. The what-ifs. The loss. The timing.

Now go read this article:

NPR’s article on Larissa Martinez and Mayte Lara Ibarra. Chelsea Beck/NPR.

My Boss Wrote a Poem

My boss wrote a poem called “Undocumented” and it’s beautiful. He said he wrote it because he’s been reading up on undocumented immigrants. He said he knows it’s my life and he doesn’t want to be in any way offensive. But he said “It’s actually your life. But I think that’s why I wanted to write something.”

And here we’re on the same boat: It’s my life. And I want to write something.

But poetry takes contemplation. And concentration. And meditation. And I could easily meditate on poverty, stare at it with a magnifying glass, switching instruments to inspect it. And maybe I could come up with beautiful words, and write a poem. That distance is forgiving. It’s a glass, not a mirror.

Could I write a beautiful, authentic poem about being undocumented? Is that impossible? Or am I just too weak? Have I no courage to face that mirror, that title, head on and do my own rumination?

A white man wrote “Strange Fruit.” I didn’t know this. He stared at a picture of a man lynched, hanging from a branch, and he contemplated the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. He thought of the trees and the way a body rots like fruit rots. And Abel Meeropol wrote a haunting, beautiful poem. Could a black man write it?

But what about Langston Hughes who had to convince America (whatever that means) that he too could sing? That he too had value? Who contemplated rivers? And what of Maya Angelou who pondered caged birds?

Maybe I am too weak to look in the mirror. Too afraid to write beautiful poetry on my own experience. And if it’s my own fault, then should I keep my white American boss from writing? Should I say that because I can’t, he can’t either? To what end? One fewer beautiful poem. One fewer voice speaking about undocumented immigration. More silence to add to mine.


That One Boyfriend I Had

I dated a Brazilian. My one boyfriend. So I guess that’s my disclaimer: I’ve only had one boyfriend. And he was 6 years older than me, which usually shocks Americans. But, trust me, it’s a cultural thing. We went out for 3 years. That said, you’d think dating a Brazilian immigrant would be the way to go, right? We were even from the same state, Goiás. But Max was older when he moved from Brazil.

He would refuse to speak English around me because I was better at it than him. So I ordered the food. He’d give me the money and I’d buy the movie tickets. We only spoke in Portuguese with one another.

There’s a division in Brazilian immigrants: those who are Americanized and those who aren’t. Mara and I are part of the ones who are. But how could we help ourselves? When you live here since 2nd grade and never go back, you start to adapt. But the other group thinks we’re snobs for speaking English. Posers. Traitors? I don’t know. They’re usually part of the group who come here older—in high school or after.

I first experienced the difference in 9th grade when I was excluded from the Brazilian group because I was no longer in ESL and spoke English so well.

Max was a part of the non-Americanized. But we didn’t mind.

Then the Shrek movies started coming out. We’d go to the movies to watch them. But he wouldn’t laugh when everyone else did. And he’d ask me to explain what was funny. I then realized the jokes in Shrek were culturally exclusive. That was when I started noticing the biggest difference between us.

Whenever I tried to talk to him about it, he just didn’t understand my struggle with two cultures and two identities. Max is a Brazilian who lives in the United States. It’s not a back and forth with him. I think it’s one of the reasons I broke up with him.

I think I was jealous of how easy being Brazilian came to him. He didn’t question it, didn’t try to be anything else. He didn’t even try to be Brazilian. He just was. I’m not saying he fit stereotypes, either. Trust me, if he had, we would not have been together. (He didn’t only wear brand names and he didn’t spend hours on his hair and he didn’t demand I cook for him or that I wear makeup or that I lose weight.)

But there wasn’t one part of Max that rejected being Brazilian. I envy that.


My Dentist Visit

The TV in the small room was on mute, showing me CNN anchors interviewing congressmen on the current Democratic Convention. I sat down on the chair and leaned my head back, ready for an hour of lying there with my mouth open. My dental hygienist (whose name will be changed throughout this piece due to my not knowing her name) took my retainers to the back to be cleaned as I watched the newscast.

“Are you tired of all this politics crap? You want me to change the channel?” Diane, the hygienist, asks, her voice chippy as usual.

“I’m actually kind of a politics nerd. So just leave it.” I smile at her.

“Oh! Well, usually the patients ask for me to change the channel because everyone is over the politics.”

I nod and there’s silence.

“So what made you become a political nerd?” (You need to imagine her voice…it’s like your friend’s mom’s voice when you’re visiting, constantly offering lemonade.)

“Well, I’m an immigrant,” I tell her, “And when you’re an immigrant, you’re always a hot topic. So you gotta choose: either you tune in or you avoid it. I choose to tune in.”

“Ah yes,” Karen (the same hygienist) sticks both hands in my mouth, “I’m totally fine with immigrants. That’s my viewpoint. As long as they’re being productive in society.”

The scraping digs at my gums and pulls up from my bottom teeth.

“I mean, it’d be like an American going to another country and just not doing anything. I don’t agree with that.”

You see, I tend to speak up when something like this is said to me. If you’re someone’s grandma, you’d probably call me “mouthy.” I call it “outspoken.” But in that moment I couldn’t respond because she had a sharp object poking at and scraping my teeth.

But here is what stopped short of my mouth:

The idea that any immigrant would leave their family and livelihood to go to another country to “not do anything” is in itself ridiculous. So I agree, though I have yet to meet an immigrant like that. 

I would’ve followed it with a joke or a smile because my mom taught me to be amicable.

I already have a problem with people avoiding politics. It leads people to believe Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are two sides to the same coin. Someone who believes that is not worried a Trump presidency would directly affect them. That person is probably not of color given that Donald has bad-mouthed immigrants, Muslims, and his candidacy has inspired David Duke to run for office. That person worries about theories and the idea that both candidates are equal symbols of depravity or lawlessness or whatever. They don’t think about how Donald would do away with Obama’s executive action like DACA, and Hillary wouldn’t. Or about how he has promoted violence toward minorities in his rallies, and she hasn’t.

Avoiding politics also made them not watch the RNC and witness how horrific those speeches were. I was hoping the Republican Convention would be enough to scare people back to their senses, but what good did it do if people weren’t watching?

But my biggest problem with Sharon, the hygienist, was that she would think something so ridiculous about a reasonable human being. When she thinks of immigrants, she considers them to be so different from her that they would do something so nonsensical that she herself would never consider doing. Vivian herself wouldn’t move to another country to do nothing. But these immigrants….well, they do.

I think it’s the lack of exposure. Lori looks around herself and thinks she sees no immigrants, either because she is actually not around them or she thinks immigrant is such a negative word that she wouldn’t associate her friends and coworkers with it.

So if there are no immigrants around her and if we continue being misrepresented and underrepresented in the media, causing people like Tina to not literally see us, then obviously we’re sitting around at home not doing anything. (And randomly going to the dentist, apparently.)