Image credit: Gerardo Mendez; artwork by Victo Ngia
Editor's Note: After President Obama's announcement that he plans to push an immigration reform overhaul forward despite Republican opposition, up to five million undocumented immigrants await the possibility of protection from deportation and the opportunity for work permits. From the November 2012 issue of our magazine, this essay by Columbian-born, New York–raised activist Angy Rivera is a powerful story of activism and courage among undocumented youth organizers.
When I was younger, I knew I was undocumented. My mother would always tell me we didn’t have papers. She would waitress and bar tend to make ends meet, and she even took up construction work despite her small frame. But I didn’t believe that my immigration status would make my life difficult. After all, I was being raised in America, the land of opportunities.
Instead of opportunities, I found fear. My mother’s friends suggested we go into hiding and stay away from public places like hospitals, post offices, and airports. I was warned never to reveal our secret to anyone.
It wasn’t until I became a high school student that my immigration status actually started to make an impact on my life. I accompanied my friends as they applied for working papers. I listened to them discuss their adventures at the DMV, as well as their tales about voting for the first time and traveling outside of the country. I sat and stared from the passenger’s seat—never the driver’s seat. I silently struggled with this exclusion, not knowing that I wasn’t the only person in the state, or the country, in this situation.
When I was a senior, I attended a City Youth Conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that highlighted several issues faced by Latino youth. One of the workshops was about immigration. I first heard about the DREAM Act, and undocumented youth organizing in the state of New York, during this workshop that was facilitated by the New York State Youth Leadership Council. I listened carefully, took notes, collected handouts, and signed up for their newsletter, but I never revealed my immigration status.
I was accepted into several colleges, but the problem was financing my education. In June 2009, I found myself walking across a stage, receiving my high school diploma with my first semester of college covered with the help of the Leadership Council’s fellowship program and my mother’s savings. I felt guilty for having her spend her hard-earned money on me, and I swore that it would never happen again. I would attend college in the fall of August 2009 and would make it on my own.
I became more actively involved with the council during this time, and it was there that the wall I had built around myself to protect my secret—and my mother’s—would be put to the test. In solidarity with the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Illinois, we decided to host our first Coming Out of the Shadows event in New York in March 2010. This would be the first time undocumented youth publicly declared their undocumented status. I would be one of them. I had been practicing my story for some months already with other members of the organization, and I couldn’t get past the first sentence without my vision being clouded by tears. My throat would close up, and I couldn’t get a word out after that. We started spray painting T-shirts with the slogan “I am undocumented.” I took mine home, preparing myself for what I would be telling my mom once she saw it.
I still have her tears from the night I told her I would be coming out—tears laced with fear, etched on my heart. My mom blankly stared at me, and then she accused me of wanting to put myself and our family at risk. I was going against all the warnings she had given me. The look in her eyes convinced me that this was something I needed to do, not just for myself but also for her.
I couldn’t stand to see how government officials had power over my mother’s freedom and over mine, as well.
I couldn’t stand to see how each day we were living in fear pretending to be invisible. We were settling for anything that was handed to us instead of demanding to be treated as equals and to have our voices heard.
In her eyes, I saw that she believed the entire stigma attached to our undocumented status, and it angered me. This anger pushed me further into action as I laid my shirt out and got the rest of my clothes ready for the big day.
Coming out wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, there were immigration agents at the event listening to our stories. But none of them said anything or approached us in any way. They just stood there trying to intimidate us or maybe they were mocking us, but no one paid attention to them. There was a small group of us, full of love and support each time someone shared his or her story. We shed happy tears of freedom, and we gave hugs all around.
Coming out was an emotional experience that I will never regret. I was able to state something about myself that had remained hidden for so long. I didn’t have to lie about not having a license, not receiving financial aid or not being able to travel back to my country of origin.
Coming out was like breaking invisible chains that tied me down. I crushed my chains and my mother’s—all at once.
Two years later, my mother has not joined me at a coming out event, but she has completed her first interview, through the phone, with a reporter, and she even let an online magazine publish a photo of her. At her own pace, my mother has been able to let go of her fears, partly by watching me do it. She is still scared to wear the T-shirt; however, she has shared her story more openly with friends and has come to a realization that hiding won't change anything. My mother is a courageous woman who left everything behind to provide both of us with a better life. My mother’s story goes untold in so many spaces. When her experience is actually shared, she is criminalized for wanting to raise her daughter in a safer living condition.
It is up to me to make sure she is elevated and acknowledged through my story. By coming out. I didn’t only embrace my story and my struggle, but I embraced my mother, too.
Angy Rivera is a Colombian-born New York-raised undocumented immigrant. She came to the United States at the age of three with her mother, escaping violence and poverty. While in high school, she first heard about the DREAM Act and has been involved with the NYSYLC ever since. She created the first national undocumented youth advice column called "Ask Angy," addressing all issues about immigration.