I Was a Dreamer
By Marcela Contreras
I was fifteen when I decided I knew what trust meant. This was to be considered revolutionary for me because my parents raised me with the strict belief that you could rely on no one in this world but yourself.
But I thought I knew better.
At fifteen, I thought trust was telling my best friend all about the older one-dimpled boy that I liked. I thought trust was all about the aimless walks through town, or staying at the park at the corner of her house an hour later than both our moms said it was okay. “Charlotte” and I stayed up until 2 A.M. at our sleepovers, talking about how her father left her and how she thought that she might miss him but she wasn’t sure.
All of this pointed me to the idea that I had, in all my years of friendships amiss, found someone I could bare my soul to and be accepted for who I was.
And no, I don’t mean the type of dreamer that looks at the world and sees the possibility of good forces, and love and life. Although, that one John Lennon song about dreamers is lovely, life has taught me not to lose myself in my imagination of a better world.
I was a Dreamer.
The type that was brought to this country before knowing how to string together a coherent sentence without putting w’s into words that didn’t already have them. The type whose father came over to this country, first to set up the beginnings of a new life, but 11 months was enough for two-year-old me to forget who he was or that he even existed. This was a time before things like Skype and Facetime.
They call us “Dreamers” because our parents brought us over with high hopes for the future they would build for us. All of our parents were running from something. From failing economies to corrupt governments, to violence and fear.
Mine were running from an economy destroyed by an authoritarian dictatorship, with limited upward mobility, no middle class, and scars much deeper than they cared to admit. They fell for the same tales of endless opportunities that a growing number of 11 million immigrants wholeheartedly believed in.
What wasn’t advertised in those tales was the fact that endless opportunities were only there for those who worked hard enough to create them. They didn’t tell us about the fear and the walls we would run into, begging us to throw in the towel and just settle for the life we had left behind.
But we kept fighting.
We keep fighting.
Charlotte had told me about her childhood. She had told me about her absent father and the limited memories she had of him. Charlotte shared one memory in particular: the time she ran ahead of her father at the park, her little bare feet barreling her through the grass and past the swings into a world where she didn’t know things were about to change. She confessed that at 15 she still dreamed of escaping to a world where her problems didn’t exist.
At fifteen I felt the same exact way. I too dreamed about the “Great Escape” to a world that didn’t exist. A Harry Potter-like existence where we would be gifted wands to wave and brooms to fly away with.
Charlotte and I attended a school that was infamous for not having funds. We sat in classrooms, bundled up with scarves and hats and gloves because we didn’t have heat, but our teacher still thought we could learn trigonometry, even though our hands were freezing around our pencils. “This wouldn’t happen at Hogwarts,” we would say.
It was the spring after that, while we were studying for APs, that I had gathered enough courage to utter the words I had grown accustomed to keeping on the tip of my tongue.
We were standing in the locker room in gym class—the one that always smelled strongly of drugs—and just as I was about to tell her, my heart fell to the pit of my stomach.
“I have to tell you something…” I chickened out, “…but later, after school, when we’re walking home.”
I spent the rest of the day planning out the conversation in my head. That’s something I’m known for, overthinking and planning too far ahead. Although, I’ve learned that when you over-plan something it rarely ever works out.
I wasn’t sure exactly how I would tell Charlotte, but all I knew for sure was that every time I tried to think of something, my heart would pound at my chest and an overwhelming sense of guilt crawled through my veins.
My parents told me never to tell anyone about our situation. Friends were only temporary and if it ended on a bad note, then what? One phone call to Immigration is all it would take for our lives to be over.
The thought triggered memories of a news segment I saw on Univision when I was eight or nine. ICE had been doing raids in the south, places like Arizona and Texas. Stories of families hiding, lying down on the floor of the bathroom in their own homes for days, hoping that the officers would stop knocking on their doors. ICE coming to immigrants’ houses in the middle of the night, their children being whisked away in their pajamas. I was only a kid when I saw this, and that’s when I started having sleepless nights, clutching my teddy bears to my chest and praying that no one would come knocking at our door.
But I had nothing to worry about. Charlotte would never do that. I knew she would never betray my trust and technically she never did.
Later that day, I had made up my mind. I would tell Charlotte all about the life I kept hidden. The fears that kept me up at night as a child. And she would understand because that’s who Charlotte was. She was understanding and she was always interested in learning about people and all about their walks of life. That was something we shared.
The opportunity presented itself on our walk home. We usually walked with a group but today it was just Charlotte and me. In a way, it felt kind of like fate.
We walked along the raised edge of the sidewalk, our arms held out by our sides to balance, when Charlotte broke my all too contemplative silence.
“So, what’s this big thing you have to tell me?” She asked, her arms wobbling as she tried to maintain her balance. That question was sobering enough that I stepped off, and grabbed her arm to pull her down so she would walk normally alongside me.
“You have to promise not to tell anyone,” I meant to say this sternly, but all of the words coming out of my mouth were rushed and strung together. “It’s a big secret and I don’t want you to look at me differently, and I’ve never told anyone before and…”
“Okay, okay, I get it,” Charlotte giggled. “So, what is it?”
A hint of a smile still played at her lips, as if this was all a game and she expected me to come out with something ridiculous. It wouldn’t be unlike us, we constantly played tricks on each other like that. But this wasn’t a game. Not this time.
“I’m undocumented.” The words came out like vomit. Forced and bitter tasting, they left me nauseous and shaking.
“What does that mean?” Charlotte asked.
For a moment, I hesitated. I had a whole explanation planned out in my head just in case she didn’t know what it meant, but it still seemed odd to me. How could she not know what it meant? How could anyone go through their day, not knowing what was happening right under their noses?
“It means I don’t have papers…” I faltered. Is that how you would say it in English? No tengo papeles. Does “papers” hold the same weight in English that it does in Spanish? Shaking my head, I tried again.
“It means I can’t leave the country, and if I do, I can’t come back.”
“So, you’re illegal?” she asked.
“No, no one is illegal…” This wasn’t going the way I thought it would. “Just undocumented,” I corrected.
“I just don’t get it,” Charlotte said, “why do immigrants come here and then complain?”
That very question left me stunned for years to come. My mouth went dry and my palms got sweaty. I cleared my throat, hoping it was enough to get rid of the knot forming there.
“Well…” I struggled to find the right words to sway Charlotte’s ignorance. It wasn’t her fault. If she knew, if only she knew what we experienced, she would change her mind. “We can’t have health insurance, or jobs on the books. You should see how they treat my mom in hospitals, they treat her like shit. There’s no retirement and no financial aid for college. No licenses. Driving by police officers is the scariest thing.”
“So, why don’t you just go back? If you’re so unhappy here?” she asked, frowning.
I searched her face for any form of understanding. Any sign to show me that she could empathize with me, any sign of a connection. But there was none. No sign of empathy in her striking blue eyes. Just scrutiny. My explanation of undocumented life was lacking and inadequate. I had failed.
“Well, there’s a reason we came here to stay,” I said, but my voice was weak.
There was a moment of silence between us before I cleared my throat once again. Swallowing anything I had left to say to Charlotte, I settled on changing the topic.
“Anyway, did you change your mind about telling Andrew you like him yet? I’m pretty sure I saw him staring at you during Euro.”
Charlotte broke out into a grin once again before going into a detailed play-by-play about her latest interaction with her crush. We never spoke about my legal status again.