"To not have to be anonymous and scared"

I hesitated for many months to share my story.  For 20 years I hid under false pretenses, I learned to be what I thought was a model ‘American,” and I lost myself in it.  Even though I am now an American citizen, scars remain from my time as an undocumented person.  

The email below was one of the most touching responses I received- there were many. This response brought me to tears and let me know I did the right thing in sharing ALL of my story- even the details about using fake papers to gain employment on Wall Street. 

I told Jose Torres-Don that I could post his email as anonymous, and his response was “I don’t mind my name being on it at all … I think that’s part of what we have been fighting for collectively … to not have to be anonymous and scared”.

I recently read the article on Elle about your immigration story and your journey to citizenship. It was amazing to read and I felt like through this article there was a collective scream — of joy and pain — let out by undocumented people. I wanted to reach out and say thanks for sharing. I could not read the article in one sitting … that was too hard because at several points tears just came falling. I know this country has done so much wrong to our families and, yet, here we are. I think it will take a while for me to really understand just how we can go through all these things and still not be defeated. We are definitely broken but not defeated. 

I’m also from TX and graduated from UT-Austin in 2010. Your story hit so close to home … from the sad and traumatic moments involving parents to small acts of rebellion/survival like getting a fake ssn (I always tell people I became a “citizen” outside the H-E-B near Rundberg in Austin haha). That snn got me a much needed job after college even if it was just at a gas station!

Me and older sister were very lucky to have been able to go to college under HB1403/SB1528 but as you know, that is a struggle all in its own. I loved that the article mentioned Linda Christofilis, btw. She is quite amazing and somehow always remembers HB1403 students! 

Being on the UT campus taught me a lot … while I was there we pushed for a resolution in support of the dream act. It passed through the student government but it was such a big struggle. I think I really regret it … mainly because at one point the debate became more about defending our humanity. No one should ever have to do that and especially not in a school to which we pay money. 

I think, though, some of the most important lessons for me have come after college and having to deal with being undocumented as an adult and having my parents and brothers and sisters not have any status. 

Last year I got DACA and now I am finally working legally. I have a job in DC and thinking about grad school. DACA has so many shortfalls but it is what so many of us needed. 

Anyway, I hope this finds you well. Again, thanks for sharing your story and if you come to the DC area give me shout … it would be awesome to chat and share stories. 

Best and Hook ’em, 

Jose  

Papers Can't Change My Face

Do you know what Prada is? 

Has anyone asked you that question before? Have they asked it, as they reach to retrieve the necklace you are trying on?

Every woman has a go-to store that magically produces exactly the thing they need.  Mine is was Club Monaco.  When I worked on Wall Street my suits were Club Monaco, my bags were Club Monaco, my winter gloves were Club Monaco.  I always found it a fashionable, fits my tiny ass, affordable store.  

I was in Los Angeles, staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for the PEN Literary Awards.  My good friend Jose Antonio Vargas was honored with the Freedom to Write Award, which I later shattered to pieces, but that’s another story for another time. Norman Lear was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Amy Poehler.  Lena Dunham, John Cusack and other Hollywood-types filled the room.  Naturally, I wanted to look my best for my first ‘Hollywood’ event.  Jose was going to have me wear a gala gown; I would have died walking into the event wearing a gown.  Luckily, I found out that the event was much more casual before disaster struck. I got the perfect LBD before catching my flight to Los Angeles but still needed heels, a necklace and a clutch— I had about an hour to find them all, which brings us back to Club Monaco (off Rodeo Drive).

I was trying on a necklace when a sales associate came up to me and said, “Do you know what Prada is? Because that’s what that necklace is.” And she proceeded to take the necklace from my hand. 

It took me a second to realize what had just transpired- I had been racially profiled.  I wanted to ask her if she really just asked me, if I knew what Prada was, and more importantly why she would ask me that? Was it the way I was dressed?   I was wearing jeans, booties, and a sweater.  Was it because my skin is brown?  But I completely froze.  I gave her the necklace and wondered around the store, my face red, my heart racing, and my throat dry.  I managed to find a very cute clutch at Club Monaco, pay for it and leave, without letting it all out. 

As I walked to the next store to buy heels, I tried to process the question I’d been asked.  I wanted to go back to the store and tell the sales associate all sorts of mean things- a) just because Club Monaco now carries Prada necklaces doesn’t mean you are Prada b) do you know what Prada is on your Club Monaco sales associate salary (but maybe she was a trust-fund baby or something) c) bitch, I know what Prada is and I can buy 5 of those necklaces if I wanted to. 

But I realized that what bothered me the most, wasn’t that she assumed I couldn’t afford the necklace, that she only asked me that question because of the way I look.  What really bothered me was the realization that the assumptions she made about me could make my face turn red, my throat go dry and leave me speechless.  She, someone who knows nothing about me, her words, could make me feel so powerless.  

I thought about all the times I shopped at Club Monaco on 5th Ave, when I worked on Wall Street, as an undocumented American.  I walked into all the stores without papers, without legal status, and yet no one ever looked at me as though I did not belong.  Now, I have a United States passport, now I officially belong to this country, and now I’ve experienced the racial bias that exists in our country.  

Papers can’t my change my face, papers let me come and go, in and out of the U.S.A as I please.  But within the U.S.A, papers, my passport, my social security, my bank account, do not guarantee me acceptance.  I always thought of papers as the end game, but now I realize they are just the beginning.  Our culture must change— to see me, to see my brown face, my long black hair, and it must learn to accept me as part of itself. 

When I got back to my fancy Beverly Wilshire room, feeling not so fancy, I cried for five minutes, and then I pulled myself together and got ready for what turned out to be an amazing, inspiring evening.  I am still mad I went without a necklace though. 

As the great Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.”  Bless the sales associate’s heart, she just didn’t know better. 

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I am still missing my necklace.

 

My One Year Affair

You know when you are so sore that you can’t even sit on the toilet without your hands aiding you?  That’s what happened to me after my first intro to crossfit class at Brick New York.  Notice the squatting picture in the middle, my chest forward, my hips not below my knees, that was me a year ago- day one.  But just the other day, I back-squatted 150lbs! 

The past year has brought some many changes in my life, I became a citizen of the United States, I was laid off only to find the job of my dreams, my family went through some challenging times but no matter what else has been going on in my life, I always feel like a badass when I crossfit.  After every WOD, I think to myself, I just did that?!  

Crossfit has been more than a physical journey.  I’ve never been a skinny girl, I probably never will be, but what I am, is a strong girl!  I am stronger than my muscles show, crossfit has helped me to see that so many of the limitations I put on myself are only mental.  

I am so thankful to my good friend Art, who harassed me to try crossfit for almost a year.  To my friend Fiana, who embarked on this journey with me and kept me going. To Aaron for befriending me, pushing me, and spotting me!  To every single coach, Heidi, Erica, Josh, Ben, Amy, Go, Greg, Ian, Dell, Will, Sherry, Michael… All of them have taught me so much, pushed me, and made me go places I never thought possible.  And all my fellow crossfiters who make the BRICKNATION community one hell of a place to get strong, get fit and get pass mental fears. 

I can’t wait to get back to New York on Monday and go see my Brick Fam!

My Vote. My Voice.

I was an undocumented American when I turned 18 in 2001.  I didn’t elect George Bush as our President in 2001 or 2009.   I couldn’t vote in the historical election that gave us our first Black President, or in any of the mid-term elections that gave us our Congress.

But all that changed yesterday, for the first time, as a proud new American, I voted. I became a citizen of the United States on August 8, 2014 and I never felt so officially American as when I casted my ballot.  I felt a deep privilege as I filled in the bubbles that elected our New York Governor, Senator, and other officials.  

Casting a ballot meant having my voice be heard—it said, I am here, and regardless of where I came from, where I work, what color my skin is- you have to count my vote.

There are 11.5 million undocumented Americans who are still waiting for their voice to be heard, and in this critical time for our country, I wonder how long it will take to give them a voice?

Corn and our Beef with Immigration.

I recently watched the film, Food, Inc., as self-encouragement to complete a 25-day food and fitness challenge.  I knew the film would expose me to how bad processed food is for my body, but I didn’t expect to be exposed to root causes of illegal immigration.

On December 8, 1993, Mexico, Canada and the U.S., signed the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The goal of NAFTA was to eliminate barriers to investment and trade (wiki) between the three countries, and in theory it would help bring economic growth to all three countries.  There have been dozens of reports on the effectiveness of NAFTA and the agreement has been faced with many controversies. 

One very well documented truth is the increased demand of meat from Mexico (as of 2000, Mexico is the #2 importer of U.S. meat, wiki), which has in turn increased production in the U.S., which has led to U.S. corporations’ need  for more laborers.  In theory, the U.S. corporations would hire U.S. laborers, but instead the corporations go to Mexico and recruit, yes they go into Mexico to recruit, peanut-cheap labor.  Many of the undocumented workers who come work in meat processing plants are former Mexican corn farmers. 

In 2010, the U.S. government’s subsidies of corn totaled north of $10.1 billion and chargers of dumping (into Mexico) have ensued.  So when Mexican farmers are out of work, potentially due to extra-cheap corn that puts them out of business, and big U.S. corporations come to their home and offer them work and (illegal) entrance into the U.S., their choices are few.

The worst tragedy is that when immigration raids happen, it is the workers that get criminalized not the U.S. corporations that hired them in the first place.  Undocumented immigrants are hated and abused while we enjoy our cheap meat and corn.  Personally, I am also guilty of benefiting from owning Monsato’s stock (and other food companies), that’s going to change ASAP.

"Food Inc," has me furious.  Our tax dollars get used for the corn subsidies.  We get heart attacks, diabetes and fat from the terrible food we consume.  My people get criminalized, hated on, and once they’ve built a home in America they get deported and separated from their families. 

I wish we could all go on a 25-day Food and Hate Challenge— and lose the fat and lose the hate, increase our muscle mass and our knowledge.

"When did you realize you were Black?"

When did you realize you were black? That’s a question in a new book I am reading, “How to be Black.” It got me thinking, when did I realize I am Mexican?

I spent the first ten years of my life in Mexico, where everyone is Mexican. Mexico has a significant Lebanese population, and a growing Asian one, but we never called them Lebanese-Mexicans, or Asian-Mexicans they were just Mexicans. I never thought of myself as Mexican, I just was. My parents never told me I was Mexican, when they moved me to San Antonio, or that other kids were White, or Black or Indian, or Asian. I introduced myself as being from Mexico not as a personal identity statement, but as a geographical one.

My parents did no explicitly teach me Mexican pride or culture, their ways were more subtle. We never missed a Mexican National Team soccer game, ever. My dad told me stories, told to him by his indigenous mother, of the exploitation of our people by the Spanish (Spanish people are those born in Spain, not those who are Hispanic, or speak Spanish). My mother values family more than anything else in the world. Both my mom and dad were incredibly welcoming and hard-working, and yes, they fed me really spicy food. They never said, “You are Mexican, therefore: eat the spicy food, love your aunts and uncles, work hard, enjoy yourself at parties, throw a party for any occasion, invite a lot of people, enjoy yourself at weddings that last all night—all because you are Mexican”.

The height of my Mexican pride came when I was nine years old and before I moved to the United States full time. My parents took my sisters and I to visit the Texas Capitol and I made a huge declaration. I had just learned in History class how Mexico lost Texas (told from the Mexico side of things) and I was mad. How could we lose half our land, how could we just give it up? Hadn’t we just gotten back our land from the Spain? So, as a nine-year old, facing the Texas Capitol and my arms raised in my best political stance, I told my parents that one day I would be the President of Mexico and take back our land. My dad said I scared him, and gave me a hug. Then my parents brought me to live in the USA, and my dreams of being the Mexican President and my dad’s fears faded.

In middle school, when White kids asked me where I was from, I too would wonder where are they from? When they said they were from the U.S. I thought, are they Native American? But I could barely speak English and I had a hard time making new friends so I just smiled and kept those thoughts to myself. But I always wondered, if I am Mexican, what were they? White and Black are blanco y negro and those words meant colors to me.

Recently, I was told to go back to my country of origin, over twitter, and I wondered what’s their country of origin? And why are they telling me to go back? I am an American Citizen and this is my country. Someone else asked me if I am illegal based on a picture of my good friend, Jose Antonio Vargas, and me.

It’s only in the last two months, since leaving Corporate America, that I have realized just how Mexican I really am. That’s saying a whole lot, because Corporate America also let me know I was Mexican many times.

I love being Mexican and I love being able to express myself in a different language, some things don’t translate. The Mexican culture is beautiful and rich and colorful. I’ve learned that Mexican in America means something different for some people.

Pictured: Not all things Mexican.

American Football

heartfootball:

I was a terrible cheerleader in middle school, I couldn’t jump to save my life, and I butchered half the cheers, but regardless I felt part of something.  I quickly learned the basic rules of football, after all, I had to know when to raise my pom poms!  In high school I was part of the Patriot dance team at Roosevelt High School (How does it feel to be a Patriot, a Patriot, how does it feel to kick up so high?!), and as fate would have it, I went to the BEST college football school in all the land-THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS.

Defining America

My Naturalization ceremony this morning was so powerful and emotional that I struggled to speak and to say the Oath of Allegiance.  I took a breath and continued.  It was so important for me to say the words out loud, to mean them, in their entirety.   

The Judge who presided the ceremony said it best, “What is America? Look around you, you represent 57 different countries.  Becoming an American Citizen means accepting the world as your nation"….. and that is how I Define American! 

@defineamerican

Immigration Myths

This Friday, August 8th, I will become a citizen of the United States of America.  A process that began twenty years ago when my parents brought me to live in America.  As I’ve shared the process with friends and family, it struck me how many myths there are about immigration and citizenship.  The process is extremely complicated, so why would anyone know the facts about the process, the obligations and the rights of documented and undocumented immigrants unless they were personally going through the process.  I am not an immigration or tax expert, but there are a few questions, misconceptions and facts I’ve come across in the last twenty years that I’d like to share.  The folks at FWD.us made a great video with a few of those of those myths.

#1 Myth: Undocumented Immigrants don’t pay taxes.

Fact: In 2010, undocumented immigrants paid $10.6bn in Taxes.  

#2 Myth: Lawful permanent residents don’t pay social security taxes

Fact: Green card (permanent residents) holders pay social security taxes, and are eligible to receive social security benefits.

#3 Myth: When permanent residents become citizens, they get a green card

Fact:  When permanent residents naturalize to become citizens they give up their green card and have the same rights and responsibilities as natural-born citizens.  In essence natural born or naturalized citizens are the same for all intends and purposes. (So happy about this fact!)

#4 Myth: If you marry a U.S. Citizen you can become legalized immediately.

Fact: Marrying a U.S. Citizen does not guarantee permanent residency.  In fact, if someone entered the U.S illegally, even if they marry a U.S. citizen they may still need to leave the country for up to 10 years before they can return.  The financial requirements are also very high, and not everyone meets them.

#5 Myth: Criminals can become citizens

Fact: Under current immigration law, anyone with a felony conviction is completely banned from permanent residency or citizenship.  There are times when undocumented immigrants get charged with identity fraud, which is a felony conviction for using doctored papers to work.

These are just a few of the many, many myths surrounding immigration and citizenship in America.  I wish the process was more simple and easier to understand, but just like our tax code, our immigration code is very complicated.

I am still confused!

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100 Days of Happiness

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From changing careers, to traveling to Paris and Barcelona, to simply enjoying a meal at home, the last 100 days have truly been filled with happiness, joy and discovery.

My 100 Happy Days Chronicle was not about a long list of things to do, to change in order to be a happier person.  It was simply a way to stop and smell the roses.  To recognize that in every day there is something to smile about.  Sometimes those things were life-changing like joining Define American, and sometimes they were small things like the smell of a great cup of coffee.

My first picture was at BRICK, Day 1, and I really thought my 100th picture would be of me looking like a hot crossfit girl, instead I went too hard and got myself injured and now I haven’t been able to train in almost a month.  I look pretty much the same, haha.  But I don’t feel the same.  

The biggest thing I discovered is that I just have to live a life I CHOSE. 

When I look back at all the pics I posted a few things are clear:

I love to lift heavy things, and sweat and be an athlete at BRICK.  

I love to eat good food, and drink good wine.

I LOVE spending time with my loved ones, including my cats. 

I am IN LOVE with my Define American team, we’re chaining the world! 

#day100 #100happydays #ja100 

My creative writing homework

The Traffic Light

By Julissa Arce

I was stopped at a traffic light and was about to drive across a major street for the first time.  I could hear my heart beating. 

My dad was sitting in the passenger seat telling me put both hands on the wheel. 

I was thirteen and didn’t have a driving permit; he was wasted and smelled of Lone Star.

 Like many other Saturdays, we had spent the afternoon at his friend’s mechanic shop.  During the first few hours of our visits, he would teach me things about cars.  He said that if I wanted to be a good driver, I had to know more than just how to drive a car.  He taught me how to change a tire, how to change the oil, and what to make of different sounds coming from an engine. 

 He would send me to the wait in the truck after more and more beers were consumed by him and his buddies.  I would do homework while I waited for him.   When he was ready to go, he would drive us to the Seven Eleven near our house, buy a six-pack of beer and an icee for me.  When we got home, he would retire to his room and tell me to order a pizza for dinner. 

But that particular Saturday, I waited until dark and then went back inside to get him.  He was sleeping on a chair, his buddies were playing cards. 

I woke him, “Daddy, it’s dark outside.  I’m hungry.”

“Oh.  I am jusssst taking a lil nap,” he said as nearly fell off the chair. 

“Ok daddy, why don’t you come take a nap in the truck”

“ Ok.”  He got up and put his arm around my shoulder as I guided him to the truck. 

“ Good-bye fellows, I am going to sleep in the car,” he said to his friends. They waved a hand and continued their card game.

 We were in the truck for a few minutes when my dad woke up and demanded to know why he was in the truck and not playing card games.  

 “You drank too much daddy,” I told him. 

“ Hell, I did.  Aren’t you hungry? It’s dark out,” he replied.  “ Let’s get you a pizza”.

 He reached in his pocket to get the keys out, and I reminded him that the truck was already on.  “Smart,” he said. “Running the radio for that long would have drained the battery if the engine wasn’t on.”  I smiled and put my seat belt on.

 He started driving toward the Seven Eleven and veered off the road onto the sidewalk.  I let out a scream.

“What the hell!” he said as he re-gained control of the wheel. 

“Are you ok?” he asked me.

“Yes, I am alright”.

 He managed to take drive us to the Seven Eleven but we were still a few miles from our house.  He turned the truck off and said he needed to take a nap before driving us home.  I went inside the store to buy him some water and chips.  

“Make sure to get your icee” he shouted as I walked away.

When I came back, he was laying across both seats. 

A few people started at us as I tried to sit him up on the passenger seat.   I sat in the driver’s seat for a while and decided I was going to drive us home. 

He had been teaching me how to drive since I was 11.  We had done enough laps around our old apartment complex, surely I could drive us a couple of miles.

I leaned over and put his seatbelt on, adjusted the mirrors, and turned the engine on.

The more I drove, the more scared I got.  As we were sitting at the traffic light, he opened his eyes and realized what was happening.  I thought he would be furious. He told me to stay calm, and to remember to put both hands on the wheel. 

“Your left foot better be doing nothing,” he said.

“It’s not daddy.” 

“That’s my girl,” he said as he smiled and closed his eyes again. 

Day 40: Twelve Pounds Later

Yesterday was the last day of the 40 day Makers Diet program.  I have lost twelve pounds in 40 days, but most importantly I have shown myself that I can finish what I started.  I will never go 40 days without eating something I am not suppose to eat, but my love-hate relationship with food is more love than hate these days. 

I love food, truly enjoy eating a good meal. I savored it, I picture it, it brings me joy.  But my whole life I have struggled with my weight, with eating a lot of bad stuff, and then trying to lose weight in five minutes.  My journey is far from over, truly it has just begun.

There were days during the last forty where I wanted to give up, where I looked at myself and said, well, this is just they way I will look.  But thanks to the encouragement of everyone around me and this inner strength that God has given me, I did not give up.  I am still thirteen pounds away from when I felt my sexiest, however, I no longer feel defeated when I eat unhealthy.  

Some people might think this new way of eating is very restrictive, but on the contrary it is freeing.  I no longer beat myself up for having a bad meal, I just make the next five meals according to my new standards— and that is victory for me. 

Training is over, now is real life.