On this day, 30 years ago, my mother and I arrived in Los Angeles, California from San Salvador, El Salvador.
My story is different from that of many other Salvadoran-Americans who had to make a grueling trip to the United States by land. I didn’t understand my privileges as a child, but there were several.
My mother had the opportunity to go to college and work at a job as an accountant. We weren’t even planning to stay in the U.S. She planned to take English and Computer classes for two years.
But then my mom qualified for some permit. I don’t know legal jargon but as I understand it, it resembled TPS or DACA—she had a social security number and work permit, but was unable to leave the country.
This wasn’t a big deal until one of my cousins was killed sometime when I was 9 and she didn’t go to the funeral because as it turns out, I was entitled to an SSN and work permit but a lawyer’s mistake meant I didn’t have it. I was afraid, and she stayed with me.
I remember there was a brief period at school and church where adults kept giving me letters. I got called into the principal’s office one day believing I was in trouble, but instead I was simply given a letter in a sealed envelope and told that I needed to give it to my mom.
These letters were meant to help me get my work permit. For a few years, I’d get pulled out of school once a year to renew this permit.
I didn’t understand the process. I just knew that I’d go from Huntington Park to the foreign land of Little Tokyo, and since I liked learning about other cultures and always wanted to go Japan (and still do), I thought it was fun to walk around there, even though our visit to the lawyer’s office bored me.
Then I remember the Green Card process. Again, I was just glad to be pulled out of school and didn’t understand the gravity of our situation. At this point, my mother remarried to my stepfather, who was in a similar situation and had a similar permit. We applied for our green cards together.
Sometime around the year 2000 or early 2001 (I think) we went to the immigration judge. I remember we went to San Gabriel Valley, which I thought was fun, and then some other place.
I kept cracking jokes, much to the chagrin of my parents, who tried to get me to realize I was talking to immigration judges, that some regulation meant that as a 14-year-old from El Salvador I’d have to talk with them alone, without their assistance, and without a lawyer because those were the rules back then. But clowning around aside, we got the green card.
In 2010, I was finally making enough to afford my citizenship application. I filled it out because my green card was only valid for about another year. The USCIS granted me citizenship in 2011.
I didn’t know that becoming a U.S. citizen was kind of a party. Some people did and they brought family members. I went to a small sushi restaurant in Oxford, Mississippi and celebrated with some sushi and a Blue Moon.
I still remember the sense of relief I got once it happened. Being a U.S. citizen didn’t open a portal into a new universe, but I also saw that many would never get this opportunity and we live in a country where not having a social security number is a hindrance—and this is a generous way to put things.
Now that I’m 32 (turning 33) next month, I have a lot of catching up to do. Though I consider myself a strong writer, I do my best to continue reading because I don’t believe the skills I learned in college were enough to succeed.
Navigating code-switching, biculturalism, and a competitive environment aren’t easy for anybody. There are still many prejudices against immigrants today, especially Central Americans like myself. I know I have it easier than many others. I’m not sure how to help, or if I can help my community in any significant ways, but I hope to assist through writing.
Someday I’d like to give writing, pitching, and networking classes to women of color so I can help save them time and frustration navigating the white world. To accomplish this, I’ll have to make other dreams come true first, but it’s a part of my 5-year-plan.
Until the next anniversary.