By Erick, Alumnus from KIPP Bay Area Schools
I only have a few memories from Oaxaca: A bright red chair in front of our house. An unpaved road up a mountainside. My mom sitting alone and listening to music. That’s it. Mexico, to me, is just a handful of indistinct images with no context. Our trip north, however, is more vivid. I remember getting on the bus and settling in for a long ride. I remember waving goodbye to my extended family. I remember the border. When we were close, the coyote who had been hired to help us navigate informed our family that we would have to split up. My mother would need to swim across a channel of water, my eldest brother was to walk through the desert and jump on a train, and my eight-year-old brother and I were to travel through a checkpoint with a complete stranger. The separation happened so fast. My mom kissed me, told me things would be ok, and just like that, she was gone. I was only five years old.
For the next three days, we stayed in the stranger’s house, and I remember sobbing beneath an orange tree in the backyard. My brother initially tried to console me, but eventually he gave up and we just sat together silently, both in tears. Sixteen years later, I still cry at the memory, but not because I’m nostalgic for a country I barely remember. I was too young at the time to understand the motive of our move. I didn’t understand what borders were, or comprehend the difference between two countries. I just knew that one moment I was carefree and the next I was scared. My brother and I crossed a different kind of invisible line during our migration; in the shadow of that orange tree, we moved from a simple life to an uncertain one.
Over the next fourteen years in East San Jose, my family and I lived in fifteen different homes, often in places where we would all share a single room. But our living situation would not dictate my future. “Education”, my parents said, “is the key to a better life.” I saw the sacrifices my parents made for us. In Mexico, my dad had gone to school to be a doctor; here, he worked construction seven days a week so that we could have a brighter future. I wanted to make sure those sacrifices were not made in vain, and dedicated myself to school. I enrolled in sessions of summer school and sought out extra help from my teachers. And every night, I would come home and do my homework on the mattress in our shared room. When life seemed too uncertain, I would repeat my mantra: “Still I rise and this too shall pass, still I rise and this too shall pass, still I rise…” I rose. I was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania. At my high school graduation, I spotted my parents from the stage. I could see them crying and clapping in the audience. I will never forget how they looked. For the first time in my life, I saw how proud they were.
Although I am undocumented, I have come to realize that I am not at the bottom of the barrel. In fact, the opposite is true: I am privileged. I have a sense of hope, and, most importantly, I have an education. I graduated with honors from an Ivy League school with a degree in Urban Studies. After graduation, I chose to come home to East San Jose and teach high school. My goal in life has always been to make an impact, and it is a tremendous honor to teach my Government and Economics class to 160 juniors and seniors every day. I have the opportunity to show my students—many of whom have stories like mine—that success is not determined by status. One day, I hope, my story and my success will not be an exception.
In my classroom, I teach my seniors that our country is built by people who overcome great obstacles: from our Founding Fathers to modern day politicians, the American story is about people who transcend humble beginnings and make a difference in our society. I represent that American narrative. I am not the first to experience uncertainty in a new land. And I am certainly not alone in wanting to contribute to the country that has given me so much. That opportunity and our commonality are what makes America great.
Together, we rise.