I’m never too sure what to share with people when it comes to conversations about being an Immigrant. Every time someone brings it up, I can only ask myself, What gave it away? Am I not American enough for you to assume that I was born here?
Every once in a while growing up, people would comment on how well I spoke English for a Mexican, or they would jump right in and ask, "Does that mean you’re Illegal?" To this day, I never know how to answer those questions. The truth is I was brought into this country before my mind had any capacity to store long-term memories.
I was raised in a Spanish-speaking home by two hardworking Mexican parents with the American school system as a co-parent while they were at work. I can’t speak to what life was like in Mexico, because I have no memory of it. I can’t reflect on what it was like trying to assimilate to a whole new culture because I’ve never had to.
I've never seen myself as different from my peers. I got A’s and B’s, went to all the same dances, joined the same sports teams and attended the same ceremonies. We kicked off every Monday in school reciting the same pledge to the same flag. In my mind (while still retaining my Mexican culture, language, and customs) I was as American as it could get.
Self-Portrait: Jaime Candia
I never dwelled on what it actually meant to be "American" until I was a freshman in high school. One day I came home after successfully completing drivers education and asked my parents to take me to the DMV to get my permit. They told me that getting a license is impossible for anyone that wasn’t legal. It was so hard for me to understand what they were implying, mostly because I was stubborn and wanted to be "like the other kids." I cried myself to sleep that night, because everything at 15 feels more escalated than reality. It wasn’t long before the feeling passed and I realized I didn’t need a car, especially if it meant I had to pay for gas.
I made it through high school without a problem; I still got A’s and B’s, went to the same dances, played on the same teams and recited the same pledge. There, I discovered my calling for visual art and applied on my own to an art’s high school where I would finish my last two years before college.
After being accepted, I was allowed to explore myself across two years—what I wanted, both for myself and for my family. When senior year rolled around, the reality of college began to sink in. Around this time DACA was introduced under the Obama administration, and I'd never felt more invincible—all the dreams, goals and aspirations I had for myself seemed more attainable than ever. All of the sacrifices my parents made and their hard work felt worth something now.
Jaime Candia & His Brother in Mexico (Taken Between 1996-97)
Applying for DACA was a scary process, only because it required me to out myself and my parents to the government. They had all my family’s private information now—there was no turning back. I took comfort in knowing that if I got approved, it would mean I could go to college, get a job and finally be able to drive. I'd already sent in my early admission applications to dream schools, and one-by-one I began to get accepted. All I was waiting for was my DACA approval and only then would I be able to launch myself at a school.
I got my DACA approval notice in the spring right before graduation. At the same time, I learned about FAFSA and that I didn’t qualify for any government financial aid. I looked for every possible way around it, but it was too late and I'd already waited too long for most scholarships. I had to turn down every school because the last thing I was going to do was make my parents take on a tuition I knew they had no resources to pay for.
I'd never felt more defeated in my life, turned my sadness into rage and took it out on my parents. I questioned their purpose, along with my own. I had no one to blame but myself for dreaming too big.
Self-Portrait: Jaime Candia
It took time for me to come to terms with the restrictions that DACA had, but in the end everything worked out. I started and completed all my courses in community college. I’ve been able to work so I could pay my way through, successfully managed to do my taxes each passing year, and finally got my license and a car. I’m not mad at the way things turned out and I can only hope that more people get the same opportunity. Through DACA, I got to live a comfortable life without fear of deportation at any second.
So far, the Trump administration has done a great job at demonizing people with stories exactly like mine. They've aggressively pushed their anti-immigrant agenda across the country and instilled fear back into my community.
Now more than ever all Dreamers, along with our allies, need to come together to challenge the narrative that we are "drug dealers, criminals and rapists." I hope the media continues to humanize immigrants by sharing their stories to show that we are not a burden, but an essential component to this country—that we belong here. I won’t lose hope that congress will make the right choice and find an ethical, humane solution to immigration reform—but until then, we must all do our part.