I’ve always loved hearing Ellis Island stories. When people trace their ancestry, the struggles endured and the hope they felt inspires me. My family immigrated too. But as a kid, I didn’t feel like the American dream story belonged to us.
Nor did I feel like we belonged. Our family lived by the unwritten code of our illegal status: work hard, keep quiet, and try to stay invisible. And our “coming to America” moment was very different.
We immigrated when I was two years old. My mom carried me strapped to her chest, and my dad had my older brother in his arms. They crossed highways, rode in the back of buses, stayed with strangers in unknown places – all without guarantees of a safe arrival. Guatemala was a dangerous place, its beauty burdened by conflict. A corrupt government battled corrupt rebels. Citizens were left to protect themselves. An unstable economy made feeding a family impossible. And parents raised children in fear.
My parents were just starting their family, and faced a choice I can’t imagine today. Real privilege comes from not having to make these decisions. And I realize this privilege was given to me as my parents left all they knew and fought to come to the United States to build a better life for all of us.
The battles were different when we got here. Sometimes we hide parts of who we are for self-preservation. Sometimes we hide because it’s how we survive. As an immigrant, your life often depends on who knows about your legal status. There is a constant fear that you’ll cross the path of someone who doesn’t accept you. And simple actions, like driving to the store, are taken in fear of who might discover who you really are.
But the greatest truth about my story is this: a life can change with the help of a stranger. From rides to immigration hearings to donated clothes and furniture, our lives flourished because of those who believed in our American dream. I think back to the doctors, teachers and neighbors who looked beyond our status and became our champions. It’s amazing how big a difference small acts of kindness can make. And it was the people who saw our truth – never questioning that our family was part of their country – that let me know I belonged.
We eventually settled in Long Island. Those are my stomping grounds; field trips to Stepping Stone Park, ice cream at the Mets stadium. We even made it to the Statue of Liberty . . . Ellis Island. My mom was cleaning houses, my dad worked at a carwash. At night they both worked cleaning an office building a few blocks from our home. Our first apartment was in a small basement, with small windows. My brother and I wore clothes bought at garage sales and our furniture never matched. But all of this, it was what my parents wanted.
There is a beauty in truly valuing a life of freedom and safety. All immigrants will tell you is that nothing is easy. But they’ll also say that hope is the best paycheck you’ll ever receive.
As an adult, I see that my immigration story is just as much a part of the American dream as the Ellis Island stories. All immigrants’ stories are part of the fabric of the community that embraces them. My family was naturalized a few years ago, but I felt welcomed in our Long Island community long before that.
All of that has shaped me. Today, I work for the world’s largest privately-funded nonprofit, United Way, which fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community. More than 8 million people are investing in the success of strangers, across 40+ countries. I’m proud to be part of a global effort that helps immigrants build successful lives. (Read more about it here.) And I’m proud to be part of the American dream.