Living up to Liberty’s Promise

By Edissa Nicolas, Smart Cookie Program Associate, Women’s Foundation of California

I don’t remember coming to this country; I was only a baby. But I have many stories, mostly from my mother, who reminds with a voice full of reproach and outrage at my father that he wanted to leave us behind in order to experience relative prosperity and ease in a new country. She refused.

In a similar fait accompli, Jose Antonio Vargas’s mother managed to get him to America. Although she stayed behind, she gave her son the access to education and a subsequent career in journalism. In his recent New York Times article, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” award winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s stunning revelations speak to the dilemma of undocumented -children brought to the United States for a better life.

The truth is we don’t know how we arrive. We just know that once we’re here; this is our land.

My mom worked in a factory for many years. It was hard labor. She came home tired with swollen feet. I thought my mom was strange and tough and loud, not unlike me in many ways. The other thing that sticks out in my memories of my mom was that she fought back—all the time. She fought her boss who gave her a pink slip because he wanted to replace her with someone who would work for less money; she fought the produce seller whose thumb rested on the edge of the scale; and she fought to get us away from her violent husband.

Now that I live in California, manage the Smart Cookie Scholarship Fund and teach in a community college, I’ve become aware of my own immigration story in new ways. Through the stories of the students I work with, my understanding of the problems undocumented immigrants face has grown exponentially.  Let’s say, I knew nothing—understood nothing—about these issues before I started this work. I thought, like many perhaps, it’s easy: just go back to your country. Fill out an application. Come back with a green card.

Gulp.

The simplicity with which I’ve viewed the situation in the past fills me with shame. As a woman who doesn’t remember her migration across the water, I realize that many young people were brought to this land by well-intentioned parents or friends. For this lot, there is no “going back to your country.” This is the only country we’ve ever known, documents not withstanding.

I can’t imagine voluntarily leaving my home for ten years in order to possibly obtain legal documents.

In the past year I’ve seen several documentaries such as Papers, about undocumented immigrants. This informal education has deeply affected me, causing me to change my language (completely eliminating the phrase “illegal immigrant” from my personal lexicon), educate and advocate for this group around basic rights, and urge others to use their vote to create progressive change.

It’s also made me see my mother in an entirely different light: a political one.

For women like my mother to feel empowered to fight unfair labor practices, they must feel secure. My mother’s documents gave her the security that too many of my undocumented students lack. My mother never once had to worry that if she demanded her break or complained to the union, she would be reported to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and be deported. This is a big deal. My mother called the police when my father tried to hurt her because she knew she belonged. She demanded a fair price at the market because she knew that she had rights. Undocumented youth should be able to enjoy the same rights and security, yet because they do not, they remain silent.

With Fourth of July around the corner, I’ve been thinking that a truly patriotic ideal would uphold the right of today’s young people to have the same chance to achieve as prior generations of immigrants. They deserve for their lives to matter, to be seen as valuable contributors to our society.

Recently, the DREAM Act has been one way that advocates have tried to give these young people an opportunity to come forward and claim their legacy of freedom and justice for all. They need to be able, like Vargas, to tell their stories without reprisal, without shame, without being targeted for an un-asked for inheritance. DREAMers and their allies must move into the light. In a global environment and market place, the shadows are no place to build a future.

Women’s Foundation grant partners SIREN and Somos Mayfair train immigrant women to be leaders in their communities, women who advocate in their children’s schools, local government and become part of a larger movement for immigrant rights. Women’s Foundation has funded SIREN and Somos Mayfair since 2006 through our Women of Silicon Valley Donor Circle (WOSV). Learn more about the Women’s Foundation donor circles.

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2 Comments

  1. Rosa Perez
    Posted 06/30/2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Edissa,
    Thank you for be willing to rethink your own experience and that of your mother as a result of your work with Smart Cookie. More importantly, your honesty opens up all of the rest of us who read your words to reassess our own perspectives.

  2. Lina Mira
    Posted 07/05/2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Edissa,

    Thank you for sharing your story and standing with undocumented students. I praise you for making the conscious shift of not using the word “illegal” to describe human beings. Language is powerful. Continue your advocacy and keep writing.

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