Reflections on My Journey, by Juan Rodriguez of SWER

22 Oct

I was six years old, the first time I ever boarded a plane, not even able to say goodbye to three of my sisters in Colombia. I still remember that mix of nervousness and excitement as I felt myself lifted into the sky for the first time–never realizing that it would be one of the most symbolic flights of my existence. My father was taking me to “America,” a magical word for me at that age which I correlated with Mickey Mouse and enchanted castles. Little did I know that America would become my new home, refuge, and eventually, a fundamental part of my identity.

My plane landed in Miami International Airport in the summer of 1996. That was when my father told me that we would never return to Colombia. I bowed my head and accepted the destiny that had been chosen for me. What else was I supposed to think at that time? Your dad is your dad and I respected him, trusting that he would continue to guide me and look out for my best interests. He wanted a better life for his kids. He dreamed of the day that I could go off to college, become a professional, and pay for his retirement, just like practically any other father does. I took his words to heart that day and certainly didn’t know if I ever would get to go back to Colombia at all and see my sisters again.

It took at least six years for anyone in my family to finally be granted any official legal status in this country. I remember how we spent so many years with “pending cases,” which I started thinking of as “spending cases” due to the thousands and thousands of dollars that were lost every year on various lawyers and paperwork processes that seemed to have no end. Not everybody was lucky. After six years, though some of my family found the relief of being able to stay, the majority of them were denied and eventually forced to leave. Year by year I saw my family breaking down, from a cohesive whole that practically had Thanksgiving every other weekend, to scattered pieces divided by broken immigration laws that showed no justice or mercy to anyone regardless of their character or merit. I had infant cousins (American citizens) that I had to hug goodbye at the Miami airport because their parents were not granted any relief to stay. I, on the other hand, found myself in an irresolvable limbo due to the fact that I had been brought to the U.S. as a minor but became an adult without having secured any form of status.

I still wonder how it is that a person can just wake up one morning “UNDOCUMENTED”–-treated as if one came down with some sort of plague or genetic mutation that needed to be exterminated. I still haven’t been able to figure out at which point of my high school career I went from being the honors student and member of so many extra-curricular clubs and the school swim and track teams to being “an illegal.” Seeing it happen every day, even now, to people who arbitrarily do or don’t receive a letter in the mail with a little torch on it from the Department of Homeland Security…I continue to remain baffled. How is it possible that the country I grew to love so much could continuously create members of a lesser social class simply for lack of a plastic card or a nine digit number?

Why shouldn’t I have been allowed to work after high school? Everyone else I grew up with was given the opportunity, and why if I WANTED to willingly enter the workforce, did I have to be rejected? Why was I also denied from even getting a state-issued identification card, if the problem was me being undocumented?

It was a miracle, the day my stepmother petitioned for me to get my papers. Seeing how thousands of my friends had no citizen relatives, I understood the astounding privilege that I had in being helped this way. My stepmother saved me…and had it not been for this one loving deed, I would have been another of the 65,000 American high school graduates getting deported on an annual basis.

Yes, I do identify as an American. Going back to Colombia for the first time made it even more clear to me that I don’t remember my own country at all. I wouldn’t have any idea how to get around the cities I can barely pronounce properly, let alone figure out any way to survive or provide for myself. No, this IS my country, and I can tell you thousands of stories of the childhood experiences I had in practically every street and avenue of Hollywood, Florida; in Plantation; in Miami.

I choose to return because I needed to understand exactly what it was that I left behind, acknowledge my connection to that culture, and hopefully reconnect with siblings I have had no contact with in more than 14 years.

Before I got on the plane to go back, I got a call from my grandfather. He said, “Please hug my niece and nephew for me. Hug them very tight because I can’t any longer.” It wasn’t right for my grandfather to have his niece and nephew taken away. It wasn’t right for my cousins be taken away from the love of their grandfather. I find it inhumane how so many families are split apart.

I got to spend a couple of days with my cousins and my sisters. I kissed their little heads and told them that I love them with every fiber of my being. I got to tell my sisters in person that they are the most beautiful women in the world. I feel so lucky. I understood that I was the only one in my family that could go back to Colombia without being punished in some way by the U.S. immigration system. It was hard for me not to be afraid during my flight there, out of my lifelong panic that the U.S. might not let me come back.

Now I am back–continuing my work on the path to liberation for the millions of other immigrants who are still suffering in this country; striving to fulfill a dream; and struggling to make ends meet in difficult circumstances.

I landed in Miami International Airport again, and this time I came wearing my “UNDOCUMENTED: Students Working for Equal Rights” shirt, prepared to keep building a movement that has become a huge part of my life’s calling. We HAVE to pass the DREAM Act. We have to secure just and humane immigration reform for all students, workers and families. We must stay strong.

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