This piece is part of our Beyond Borders blog series, designed to share and amplify the stories of undocumented young people in the South. Though the state of immigration reform remains stalled across the country, some of the country’s strictest policies regarding undocumented students are concentrated in the South. The writers are all members of Freedom University, a modern day freedom school that provides college-level courses, college application assistance, and movement leadership training to undocumented students in Georgia. The author, Valentina Emilia Garcia Gonzalez, graduated from high school in Georgia, is now a student at Freedom University, and will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall.
My name is Valentina Emilia Garcia Gonzalez.
My name takes up 29 spaces and it never fits in the blanks provided.
My name has been shortened to better accommodate the reader.
My name has become a mess to me.
What’s in my name?
I can trace my origin in between the syllables.
I can hear candombe and murga between the vowels and consonants.
I can smell tortas fritas and pascualinas every time my mom shouts my name.
And every single time I run out of space when I’m writing my name, I remember my background…This is it:
Carnaval was a big event for my father. Carnaval, the celebration of the African roots and heritage of the Uruguayan people through music, dance, and street theaters, was something he took part in every year. He was proud to wear the costumes and face paints and sing the beautiful murga songs alongside his peers. He loved it so much that when my mother became pregnant with me, he calculated my due date and begged my mom not to have me during Carnaval.
I was born on February 16, 1996 in the middle of Carnaval. My father was setting up a new production for that year’s festivities when he was told my mother was in labor.
My mother described me as Snow White when I was born: super pale, bloody red lips, and dark hair crowning my head. I was so white, in fact, my father’s mother didn’t think I was his daughter.
I was born in Florida, Uruguay—a state/city that isn’t the wealthiest by a long-shot. I grew up dancing, laughing, and being completely oblivious to my family’s struggles. My father built the home I grew up in from scratch. It took him 11 years. He worked two jobs, sometimes three, in order to keep my family (which welcomed my brother, Federico, on September 4, 1999) fed, clothed, and as healthy as we could possibly be.
I wish I could say more about my country. I was only six years old when I came to Georgia, leaving behind my favorite people, my extended family, in Uruguay. My father had traveled before us, settling near the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, working day and night in order to send my mother money for us to come join him. That was always the plan: take the kids to the United States and hope that their futures would be brighter than they could have been in Uruguay.
Four months later, we were on a plane. My brother, who turned three the day before, and I flanked my mother on both sides. It was our first time on a plane. It was also our worst time on a plane. I was having a vicious nosebleed, my brother was throwing up, and my mother had a killer migraine. I kept pushing the call button and asking for water. Water was the first English word I learned. It came easily to me because “water” was pronounced like “goo-ater” which is “toilet bowl” in Spanish.
Early life in the U.S. was hard. I know this not because of what I barely remember, but from the stories mom tells me. We would clothe ourselves from bags we would pick up behind an old Salvation Army. In the middle of the night, we would go to the back of the building where people would drop off their donations, fill our tiny, decrepit van up with as many bags as we could, and go to where we were living. Once at our home, we would sift through the bags, take what we could use, such as clothes, toys, home supplies, and whatever else we may need. Whatever else we didn’t need, we’d put back into bags and drop them back off behind the building at night, always exchanging old bags for new ones. That’s how we survived the first few years in America.
Once I hit school-age, we encountered our first problem as minorities. When registering me for school, my mother couldn’t speak any English, and at the time neither did I. The lady at the front wanted to register me as white, though I was not. “She is pale and can pass off as white. Once she learns English, she’ll be fine,” she told my mother in Spanish. I am not white. I have a long heritage of Portuguese, Spanish, African heritage in my Uruguayan blood, but I am not white. At the time, the term “mixed” wasn’t something that was widely understood. My mother fought to have my race changed, but to no avail. Up until my senior year in high school I was still considered white.
School itself, on the other hand, was a breeze. My parents couldn’t really help me with homework, or talk to my teachers, or be as involved as I know they wish they could have been, because of the language and cultural barrier. Instead, I learned everything about the school system by myself. I was signed up for English as a second language classes from the get-go, mastered English in three months, and proved that I could handle myself at the “gifted” level. Before first grade ended, I was tested to be put into the gifted education program, passed, and started second grade as a “gifted” student.
Elementary school was rough, just like middle and high school. I didn’t fit in. I was one of a handful of Latinos in my classes and couldn’t explain to my teachers that I needed to have Spanish forms only sent to my home because my parents didn’t understand English. I was ashamed. I wished that my family could speak English so they could come to parent-teacher events and be more involved with my school. I wished my dad didn’t work two to three jobs so that he could have lunch with me once a week like other kids’ parents did. I wanted to be a normal American kid, with a normal American family. I was tired of being teased because of my accent, so I never spoke Spanish in my house again in hopes that, with enough practice, my English would become so fluent that a nice southern drawl would hide my broken Spanish accent.
Middle school wasn’t bad. I remember just wanting to be white more than anything else. When my teacher didn’t want to send Spanish forms home with me, when they refused to spend time to find a translator for parent-teacher conferences, when they would pick on me because I was one of the few Latinas in my class…that’s when I wished more than ever to be white. I struggled with my identity throughout middle and high school. I never felt enough. I was still ashamed to have to be treated a certain way, which my teachers had to go out of their way, that my school had to go out of their way, to accommodate my Spanish-speaking family. I also started realizing that being undocumented was a lot scarier than what my parents were telling me.
Throughout my childhood in the United States, I never saw myself as undocumented. I got used to being scared at the sight of police. I got used to only going out during the middle of the month, when the police weren’t around so much. I got used to not being able to do many things that residents and citizens have the advantage of doing. That’s just how it was.
Once I hit high school, though, and once we saw the election of our first black president, my documentation status was no longer something I could avoid: it was slapped in my face wherever I went.
During my freshman year in high school, I found threads online that were anti-immigrant. I read horrible comments, nasty articles, and angry anecdotes from people who saw undocumented people as just “freeloading scum.” I thought of my dad. I thought of how his whole life, he’s worked. I thought of how he sacrificed seeing his kids grow up, just to be able to put food in front of them, be able to clothe them, and be sure that they were safe and under a sturdy roof. I thought of my mom. I thought of how her whole life in the U.S., she has been stuck inside four walls. I thought of her fear and anxiety, every day, waiting for my dad to come home and hope that he had not been stopped by the police, hurt at work, or really anything that could put him—and ultimately us—in jeopardy.
I thought of myself. I thought of how the first two things I memorized after coming to this country were the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner.” I thought of how I was always top of my class, always getting good grades, always making my parents proud through my academic achievements.
I didn’t see my family as scum. I didn’t see them as freeloaders. I saw them as hard-working people that escaped a country in hopes for a better future, sacrificing their freedom, their time, their bodies, and their lives for their children’s futures.
So, I made a video. I researched for weeks about immigration, undocumented people, and the debates surrounding those topics. I stuck to facts. Then, I filmed myself reading my essay. I clicked “upload” and I felt a weight off of my shoulders. I had said my peace. I had put my little grain of sand out in the wind, I had told my story, I had raised my voice.
I didn’t expect the response I received. Marines sent messages telling me how proud they were of me, other kids told me that they saw my video and were so scared to say something themselves. Before I knew it, I became the first “out” undocumented person in my high school. I also received the typical backlash online. That was my first taste of activism. That was my first time that I felt such a deep sense of anger at the injustices I faced over a piece of paper.
I cried many times during my high school experience. But I never cried as much as I did my senior year.
My first semester, I cried in my counselor’s office after he couldn’t help me apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. DACA is a program that allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to access benefits typically denied to undocumented immigrants, like work permits and driver’s licenses. He had no clue what it was. Instead, he referred me to the only Latina in the counseling department and gave me a piece of paper that said to request transcripts. That was it. I cried when I realized I had to file my DACA documents myself because we had no money for a lawyer. I cried when I realized all the forms I’d have to fill out, the information I’d have to gather, and the money I’d have to spend just to file for DACA. My parents could only help with transportation and support while I filed for it. They didn’t understand as well as I did what all the forms and what the process meant. Once I finally filed my DACA, I cried from relief. It was done. Then, another obstacle came across my path: college.
Going to college was always my dream. I always envisioned myself going to and from classes, talking in study groups, taking notes in lectures, and dorming with other college students as we lived it up, college-style. Then I found out I couldn’t go to college. Because of changes the Georgia Board of Regents made in 2011, as an undocumented student I can no longer apply to the top five public universities in the state or receive in-state tuition at any of the state’s other public universities. No UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, GCSU, or Georgia Southern. I didn’t know what to do. As my close friends were applying to UGA, Tech, and surrounding schools, I had to sit by and think of ways to actually get myself into college. The same friends that I had grown up with, the same kids that had cheated off of my tests, that I had shared lunches, homework, and secrets with got to apply and be accepted into the schools of their dreams, while I had to apply to community college and find some way to pay the tripled out-of-state tuition.
Before winter break started and the last few college applications were being sent out by my friends, I heard about a seminar for undocumented students trying to get to college and trying to receive scholarships. I attended the seminar at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Gwinnett and met JoAnn Weiss, who showed me to a seat along with my mother. We heard stories from three Freedom University students, all recounting their travels to the United States as undocumented immigrants and their journey to trying to achieve a college education as an undocumented student in Georgia. I cried—no, I bawled. I felt so connected to these three strangers, these three kids that had been through the same things that I had been through as an undocumented person, but I never paid much attention to. I signed up to join their organization, Freedom University, and attended the first class on January of 2014.
My mom did not want me to be an activist. She told me that staying hidden and quiet had worked for 12 years, why not keep going. What did I get out of screaming and putting my information out there? I was risking my safety and future, as well as my family’s safety and future. Unlike her, though, I was never one to stay quiet.
“You taught me to be strong. You taught me to take no shit. I’m not going to apologize for who I am. I’m going to fight for what I deserve,” I told her in the kitchen the night before my first rally at UGA.
“Yes, but you have no guarantee you’re going to win. You don’t know if they’ll let you in college. You don’t know if this fight will end this week or next month or even this year.”
“But if not me then who? Who else is going to fight for me? For us? I can’t be quiet. You may be okay with staying hidden in the shadows, but I want the light. I want the education I deserve. I’m going to fight for it.”
“Just don’t get arrested,” she relented.
I didn’t get arrested. Instead, screaming into a megaphone, I led a group of undocumented students to UGA President Moorehead’s office and waited for a response.
Freedom University gave me that confidence. If it hadn’t been for the Freedom University community, I never would have been able to cry in front of police officers, demanding justice. If it wasn’t for my Freedom University professors, I never could have recited policies banning undocumented students and their consequences at other college professors and faculty. I would’ve never been able to go to the University of South Carolina and teach a class, alongside fellow Freedom University peers, about the struggles undocumented students face.
If it hadn’t been for Freedom University, I—Valentina Emilia Garcia Gonzalez—would never be going to Dartmouth College in the fall.