immigration

Protesters carry the Mexican and U.S. flags during a demonstration for immigration reform in Chicago, Illinois, 1 May 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

By Daniela Martinez

There’s something satisfying about being made for the sun.

I’ve always taken secret satisfaction switching languages in mid-sentence. Or in knowing my parents can cross deserts and in checking off “Hispanic” on applications. My culture drips with color, tradition and ambition. I am different, and it’s satisfying.

But it’s not always delightful to be the daughter of undocumented immigrants.

I had seen seven springs go by when one afternoon, my father picked up my little sister and me from school.

The air was sticky inside the car, and my sister was quick to fall asleep. I began to do the same. Suddenly, the music on the radio fell silent as the car rolled to a stop.

A man with a deep voice asked my father for his driver’s license. My stomach dropped. He knows how to drive, I wanted to explain. He doesn’t have a card, but he doesn’t need one. He works hard and every single day. He’s good.

But I said nothing. Papá stammered in his thickly accented English. The car door opened, the police put my father’s hands behind his back and handcuffs snapped shut. I dug my nails into my skin and clutched my sleeping sister.

“I was afraid they’d take him away.”

Another police officer peered into the car, sunglasses obscuring his eyes. “Do you speak English?” he asked me slowly, articulating every syllable. I held my sister closer, swallowed, then nodded. I wondered if he could hear my heart pounding.

Mamá was there in a couple of minutes. Back home, I waited by the window with my sister. We watched the sunset. My baby brother waddled over to us and tugged on my braid. He held his arms up toward me. He was in a fresh pair of pyjamas and smelled of soap.

Then the front door swung open, and we heard the sound of our father’s footsteps. Running to him, I almost dropped the baby. He laughed as he squatted to gather all three of us in his arms. He kissed the top of our heads. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his wrists were still red.

Between sobs, I asked him how he had got out. “You know your piggy bank?” he sighed. I nodded. “They asked me for mine,” he said, smiling. “It wasn’t that big of a fine.”

For the next couple of days, I did not want to go to school. I was afraid they’d take him away while I was away from home. I’m still afraid.

“My parents are undocumented, not illegal.”

Strangely, this fear propelled me forward. I told myself: I have American citizenship, I might as well use it. I hit the books. And I decided to follow my passions and try to make a difference in other people’s lives.

Like many things, a good education comes at a cost. Financial status is not an issue for every immigrant’s kid, but it matters in our household. Thanks to organizations that assist low-income students, I am able to study abroad in France, and I plan to continue my education at a top boarding school that ordinarily would have been out of my financial grasp.

I have met other students like me, young people from different backgrounds, with different mother tongues and unique childhood memories. We are resilient dreamers.

My father’s arrest may have disturbed me, but it also stirred my pride in who I am. I am proud of my tan skin, of where I come from, of my Mexican heritage. Our income does not approach that of my classmates, but so what?

There’s something about America that transcends our current condition. There are organizations and aid programs that give me confidence that students and their parents will be treated fairly and offered a chance to grow and thrive in America.

My parents are undocumented, not illegal. No one is.

This land was made for you and me.


Daniela Martinez Arcos was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and is the eldest of  three children. She attends St Mark’s School near Boston, and this year is studying at School Year Abroad France. She enjoys riding horseback, traveling, writing and reading literature.

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Culture Discovery Immigration: “I’m proud of my tan skin.”