Reflecting on my past three years at Cornell, I’ve come to realize how fortunate I am to be on this campus. Cornell has provided me the space to think about our globalized world and where we all come from; to process how different, yet how similar, we are to one another; and to internalize these differences in order to figure out my personal identity. Each individual on this campus has his own identity, and this is precisely what makes Cornell a special place to learn about others and appreciate the life stories that make us unique. I am here, writing this essay, to let you into my life story and my personal struggles as an immigrant growing up in the United States.
I was born in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, Mexico, a small town about five hours from the border town of El Paso, Texas. Also known as the “Capital of the World,” as Chihuahuans like to refer to our small town, I never imagined that my family would one day decide to leave Parral and immigrate to the United States. At the age of five, I knew nothing about my family’s economic situation. My life in Mexico was simple and tranquil.
One day, my father disappeared. My mother, in order to try to emotionally protect my older brother and I, simply told us that he was at work and would come back later. But my father never returned that night, nor the next day, nor the week or month after that.
I later learned that my father, a hardworking and honest man, had to immigrate to El Paso, Texas because of the scarcity of jobs in Parral that often left us with limited food and resources. Using the little money that he was able to save and send back, my mother, older brother, and I finally managed to pay him a visit. During those two to three day visits to El Paso, I was introduced to the American way of life. I went to my first McDonald’s, learned a couple of English words and saw a movie in English for the first time. Every departure back to Mexico was heartbreaking, as I knew that it would be months before I could see my dad again. Yet, one day, we just simply stayed in El Paso. I didn’t question my mom about our prolonged stay since I was ecstatic to be with my dad, but I later came to realize that specific moment marked my first day as an undocumented immigrant living in the United States.
As a young child at the age of six, I could not understand the implications that my parent’s decision to permanently immigrate to the United States would have on my family or myself. My parents successfully enrolled me in kindergarten, and I began to learn more about American culture and society. I grew up like the majority of you at Cornell, watching Saturday morning cartoons, dressing up as a vampire for Halloween and celebrating Thanksgiving every year. At such a young age, I did not understand immigration law and how my undocumented status would define me for the rest of my life. It was not until my high school years, when I was always denied access to Rated-R films because of a lack of ID or when I had to ask for rides every day to school because of my inability to get a license, that I began to internalize my legal status and my conflicting identities as both undocumented and American.
Growing up as an undocumented immigrant has been both a blessing and an incredible setback. There were times when I questioned my self-worth and my place in the world. I often felt desperate knowing that I did not fit in with the rest of my American citizen friends and knowing that I would be treated differently if I were to return to Mexico because of my English-accented Spanish. I grew angry towards my parents, who I would blame constantly when I felt desperate, restrained and suffocated as I internalized the implications of my immigration status. Yet, my status also helped me realize the importance of my education and how education could serve both as a vehicle for upward mobility and as a reminder to my parents that they made the right decision to come to the United States.
My time at Cornell has given me the opportunity to ponder about and better understand my status as an undocumented American. I no longer get angry at my parents, and instead I thank them for taking the biggest risk of their life to bring me and my family to this place where I have been able to learn, thrive and grow as a citizen of the world. Cornell has provided me with a safe space to do activism, help out my fellow undocumented peers and to make sense of my identity. If I’ve learned anything at Cornell from my professors and peers, it is that we should always be willing to listen to and learn about one another’s life stories and how they’ve shaped us. Through my time on campus, I’ve held Ezra Cornell’s motto, “any person, any study,” and his vision for Cornell close to heart as I’ve seen that Cornell is a place where any person, regardless of immigration status or background, can find instruction in any study. Cornellians, lets take advantage of the beautiful diversity on our campus and learn from one another’s challenges, struggles and stories in order to better understand our society, our world and our own Cornell community.
Adrian Uriel Palma is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.