Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of three reports on the DREAMer movement. The first part can be read here.
The Diary of Joaquín Magón Entry 28: The Dreamer Chronicles, Part 2
SALINAS — By the time Alma Torres turned 12, her father had been back and forth between the family’s home in Michoacan, Mexico and the United States so many times that he decided it would be best to just bring the entire family to live with him in King City, California.
The elder Torres, seeing that the price of bread had increased to the point that he could no longer make a living working as a security guard at the local television station, began going to California in the mid-90s to supplement his earnings by working in the fields. But by the early 2000’s, the elder Torres had had enough.
As his daughter, now 23, puts it: “It was in 2002 when we came here for the first, and last, time.”
The Torres family was part of a wave of immigrants who arrived in the mid-90s during a period of economic and politic tumult in Mexico. In 1994, the gruesome assassination in Tijuana of presidential candidate Luis Donato Colosio spurred a massive exodus of international investors; Ernesto Zedillo, a neoliberal, was elected president; and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) inundated the country with cheap, U.S.-produced food products, at the expense of Mexican farmers.
The immigration stories told by young people, like Torres, who crossed the US-Mexico border as children, are often much different than those of their parents, who speak of days spent crossing unforgiving deserts, swimming across rivers and running full speed to avoid La Migra.
“We came with a lady — it was (me), my sister and two other cousins,” she recalls. “They were younger and I was the oldest. We went to the airport and landed in Tijuana. I went with one lady and my mother with another. I remember that we were crossing the border through the main gate. One of the children that came with us got sick and began to vomit. So we had to get out of the line and go back. This time they gave us a pill to sleep. By the time I awoke, I was on this side.”
Moving to a new city is hard enough for any 12-year-old. But for Torres, moving to King City from her small ranch in Michoacan meant adjusting to a new country, a new language, and a foreign culture.
“I entered school (in the U.S.) in the seventh grade. The language, the people, the customs, everything was different and it was very hard to adapt … I didn’t understand what people were telling me, and I became isolated. My sisters would cry because it was so difficult.”
And, like so many undocumented teens in the U.S., when it came time to think about college, Torres had no idea what her options were, let alone where to begin.
“After I graduated high school I didn’t know that I could go to college. I had no idea what I wanted to study; I didn’t know what my major would be; I just knew that I wanted to [continue going] to school.”
In a scenario all too familiar to many immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, Alma remembers how her parents gave her “the talk” — that she might have to choose the cheapest option, a community college maybe, because she was undocumented.
“I think I always knew I was undocumented. But it wasn’t until high school that I learned that I don’t have the same benefits or opportunities as other people,” she says. “Others would talk about going to college or getting their drivers license but not [my sisters and I]. I knew. It’s in high school that it clicks that you don’t have the same opportunities.”
Not knowing what options were available for her after high school graduation, she got a job working at a packing shed, working a late shift from 2 pm to 11 pm. After spending a year on the job, Torres had gathered enough information on her own to enroll at Hartnell Community Collge in nearby Salinas. Once enrolled, it took a great deal of sacrifice to pay for her tuition and related expenses.
“It’s around $47 per unit, you’re looking at 3 units per class, [and] you take 3 classes,” she says, not to mention the books and the gas for her trips from King City to Salinas, an hour and a half round trip.
Relief came earlier this year, however, after the enactment of AB 540, a California state law making Dreamers like Torres eligible for college financial aid programs funded by the state.
“I already got a semester paid for and it’s such a great relief,” says Torres.
Also this year, Torres’ application was accepted for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a federal program that gives temporary legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children.
“Before [DACA] I didn’t have any plans set. I didn’t see my future. I just kept going to school, waiting for whatever came up. Now I feel like I can finish school, I can have a driver’s license, I don’t have to be afraid of driving, I have the chance of applying for better jobs with better pay, and can definitely graduate from a university,” she says. “Once I got my (work) permit (through DACA), things started falling into place.”
Torres has one semester left at Hartnell, and plans to begin applying to four-year universities in October. Her top choices are within the California State University system — San Jose, Monterey, Sacramento and Long Beach. She intends to major in psychology with the goal of eventually earning a PhD.
Having legal status through DACA emboldened Torres to become increasingly vocal about her support for comprehensive federal immigration reform. She attended a “Caravan for Citizenship” rally in Bakersfield over the summer, and has even hosted house meetings to share information about immigration reform with her community.
“Comprehensive immigration reform is important for my family,” says Torres. “It’s not only about me, about me being able to have a life or about me being able to have a good job. It’s also about my parents. The biggest fear for my parents is that they’ll never be able to go back (to Mexico) to see their parents … that they won’t be able to go back in time.”
The Diary of Joaquín Magón is written by Jesús E. Valenzuela Félix, a reporter from Coachella living in Salinas and working for the United Farm Workers Foundation. He is a regular contributor to Coachella Unincorporated and New America Media.