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Growing Up With A Secret

My parents were illegal immigrants — and we didn’t tell anyone

There’s a lot of baggage attached to being an immigrant that most Americans don’t think about. There’s a stigma attached to having an accent that reveals you’re not a native, and that stigma is multiplied if anyone finds out that you’re here illegally. So my family and I didn’t tell anyone that we were.

I was born in Boston in 1995, the child of two Brazilian expatriates who’d decided to leave their country after the election of Collor de Mello, a red flag that showed Brazil’s political corruption wasn’t changing anytime soon. My parents arrived legally in the United States, but like many other immigrants, their visa expired — after they’d already built a life in the States. As time passed, glimpses of hope came in the form of American politicians who promised immigration reform. My mother hung on to their words in hopes that this time they’d follow through, that this time there might be a new path toward legalization that didn’t cost thousands of dollars that my parents didn’t have. By 1997, my parents were raising three kids on the wages of illegal immigrants, and the process of legalization was extremely expensive. So I grew up with a secret that sometimes even I questioned if I could handle.

As a child, I barely understood what being an immigrant meant, never mind an illegal one. I couldn’t understand why the only country I’d ever known didn’t want to accept my parents as residents. All I knew was that if anyone found out, they could call Immigration and Customs Enforcement and make sure I never saw my parents again. Under threat of losing my family, I lifted the burden of secrecy over my shoulders and kept my mouth shut outside of our home. Inside, I could ask all the questions I wanted, and I often asked my mother why she and my father weren’t legal already. My aunt was going through the legalization process — why couldn’t my parents?

“We decided to buy a house instead,” she told me.

My parents’ status had stuck them in between a rock and a hard place: Stay in a cramped two-bedroom apartment with three growing children, or stay illegal. With legal bills, lawyer expenses, and paperwork fees, the cost of legalization was daunting, and there was not even a guarantee that my parents would be granted legal status after footing the bill. “They” — the immigration authorities — had the power, and “they,” my mother explained to me, could just say no at any time and send us packing. So my parents chose what was better for me and my brothers instead of what was better for their own lives and livelihoods.

We moved into the western suburbs of Massachusetts in 2003. As a shy child growing up in a new neighborhood, I wasn’t keen on making new friends, but we began to slowly find a place among a community of other homeschooling families. While I may not have been old enough to notice before, I was aware that this community was crucially different from our small community of Boston immigrants: Everyone here was white. Early on in short-lived friendships, everyone would try to guess my ethnicity and fail. In Boston, all of my friends and my family’s friends already knew where I was from, but in my new neighborhood, far removed from the culture I’d been raised with, no one even knew that Brazilians don’t speak Spanish — we speak Portuguese.

Compounded by the fact that no one I knew understood my culture, I began to see my physical differences as a negative. All of my friends, heroes, and favorite celebrities were blonde and blue-eyed, and I didn’t understand why I’d been born looking more like Princess Jasmine than Cinderella. This carried on through puberty, and when my body developed hourglass hips and a generous bust, the awkwardness of youth was made worse by the fact that these were the curves of Brazilian women, not the A-cups and narrow hips of a white woman. At age 12, it was mortifying. Ten years later, I’ve grown to be proud of my body, my skin color, and my heritage, but “I’m Brazilian” means something very different to me than it does to the men I meet. To them, “I’m Brazilian” translates as an excuse to fetishize me and my family, a smirk and a suggestive quirk of the eyebrow implying that Brazilian women are fundamentally different from American women — we’re “foreign.”

There were many things about being Brazilian that I couldn’t have understood before seeing the land my family came from, where generations of my ancestors had lived and died leading up to my own. I had to wait until I was 18 before I could visit, but the decision to miss out on a summer at home in order to meet my extended family for the first time was an easy one to make. The 21st century has allowed for more and more communication with my extended family — whether’s it’s Skype or WhatsApp, we’re able to come together to talk much easier than in the past — but the 2-D picture of a relative through a computer screen doesn’t compare, not by a long shot, to reconnecting in person with grandparents, aunts, and uncles: people I knew but had never met, people who spoke my language, people who had my same color skin and curly hair. My family.

I didn’t understand why my skin was brown and my hair was black before I visited Brazil. I knew about genetics, of course, and I understood the science, but only when I saw my grandmother and her children, and saw that they looked like me, too, was I genuinely proud of who I was. I was proud of the warm red undertone in my skin that tells the story of my country — the same color and shade that my grandmother grew up with, and her daughter, and my cousins. I wish I had realized it sooner, and on my own, but what made my heritage beautiful to me was not simply the country I came from, but the people in it. The men and women who came before me and showed me that my country, for all its many, many flaws, is a land not only of exotic beaches and thick jungles, but of strength, resilience, and beauty.

Back in America, however, my family’s battle for citizenship hasn’t had such a happy ending quite yet. Like the issue of immigration reform itself, my parents have been stuck in limbo since their most recent attempt at legal residency. After another round of lawyers, paperwork, and hefty fees, my parents received separate envelopes, sent weeks apart. The first envelope came addressed to my mother. After all the interviews, a 25-year dream came true: She had been granted permanent residency. We celebrated only for a week before we received notice that my father’s application had been rejected. In a twist of sick irony, we learned that he had been rejected on the grounds that, years ago, he had falsely claimed to have permission to work legally in the United States in order to provide a better life for his growing family.

As an American-born citizen, I’m disappointed my country could do this to a family, and specifically to a father trying to make the best choice when he had so few. But my parents have no resentment toward the United States. Armed with the belief that there’s still a way to legally remain here, and the certainty that a life here is better and safer than one in Brazil, my father plans to enter another final battle for legal residency.

So here’s to another round of lawyers, paperwork, and legal bills — all for a better life, for the elusive American Dream.

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