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It’s Not Going to Change Who I Am

It’s Not Going to Change Who I Am

I may be undocumented, I may never find a solution to this, but...I want to enjoy my life, I want to be happy. I can’t be sad and I can’t be frustrated for the rest of my life until this issue gets fixed because, at the end of that, it’s not going to change who I am.
— Irakere

The Subject

Irakere was two years old when his parents brought him to the United States from Mexico. They settled in Illinois, where his parents worked first in restaurants and then in factories. They prized education and encouraged Irakere and his sister, Kitzia, to work hard and study. It wasn’t until Irakere applied for a driver’s license that he realized his immigration status might affect his ability to pursue his dreams. In 2012, Irakere received protections from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and was able to attend law school. He now works as an attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center. He proposed to his wife, Arianna, in a Story Corps booth, where his proposal and her acceptance were preserved for future generations

The Objects

University of Illinois Diploma

The University of Illinois diploma is a testament to my parents’ sacrifice and their dedication to my future. Even though I was the one going to class and writing the papers, really I couldn’t have been able to even get to that point and graduate without their work and their sacrifice. So even though it’s my diploma and my name’s on it, in many ways it’s theirs too. So in terms of the heirloom, that’s what stands out for me.
— Irakere
My parents and I came [to the United States] from Mexico on tourist visas around 1991…I was about almost 2 years old, and we ended up living in Northern Illinois. [My parents are from] just outside Mexico City.  The name is a little complicated… Nezahualcóyotl….Neza for short…And the story [of their first meeting] I know is that my mom was riding the bus and she was wearing a yellow dress, and she claims that my dad got on the bus, saw this [girl in a] yellow dress, and went straight to her and started talking to her.

My mother had gone to a technical school and [worked] as a secretary—sort of administrative staff—in Mexico, on and off. And then my dad, academically, he struggled but he was very good with his hands and very creative…he was working for a dentist as a dental assistant making dental molds. When we first arrived [in the United States] both of my parents worked in restaurants…then within 4-5 years my parents decided to look for jobs in factories. And at that point it was the mid-nineties so the economy was pretty healthy in the US and they were able to get factory jobs…and they’ve been in factories forever now.

My mom worked in the mornings, my dad worked the second shift. So when we [Irakere and his little sister] got woken up to go to school, my dad was the one that fed us, took us to the bus stop, took us to school…and then when we got home, my mom was there, had dinner ready for us, she’d help us with our homework, take us to after school activities: swim [lessons], dance lessons, guitar lessons, sports, everything. They were very active, very supportive parents…The thing that they always told us and that’s stuck with me, is that they didn’t have all the money in the world, or any money, but the least they could do for us is give us the opportunity of attaining [an] education... So they were always focused that we were doing well in school, that we were well-rounded people, learning different skills and just becoming better human beings…Because of my parents love, support, and also [their] foresight to know that it wasn’t just graduate high school and get a job. They wanted more for my sister and I than they had. They sacrificed a lot.
— Irakere
Ever since I can remember, my mom always…would explain to me that we were from Mexico, that we should be proud of where we come from, our history, and also that we were immigrants. And then, as time went on, she would explain to me ‘We’re immigrants…and things might be difficult later on because we’re sort of different types of immigrants…I think as time went on I became aware of what being ‘special immigrants’ meant. But in terms of, ‘we don’t have papers’ and things like that, I don’t ever remember it being so explicit, but it really scared me. But very young we did talk about the fact that we were Mexican, that we came from a different country, that we had just arrived. So that was definitely a part of my family narrative.
— Irakere
Early in high school I was mostly focused on fitting in, and teenage angst, and sort of regular high school worries for a teenager. But when I started to think about college and the conversations about driver’s licenses, that’s when I started to realize that being my kind of immigrant was a bigger issue for me…The doubt had already set in my head, I started thinking about me working so hard in school, getting good grades, doing extracurricular activities. If I won’t be able to go to college, what was the point of all of this stress?

I had visited the University of Illinois when I was a junior in high school. I was in band, and the university invited a bunch of high school bands from across the state to play in their half-time show for one of their pre-season games. I’d never been to a university campus and because of this high school band trip I was able to see the campus at U of I, and I fell in love with it…So I applied. I got in. And then we looked at the tuition and all the costs. My parents said: we need to figure out how to pay for this. Because if you want to go here we might only be able to pay for one semester. Again, the frustration and the sadness and…disappointment was all I could think about. We ended up setting up a meeting with a financial aid counselor at U of I in Champaign…My parents and I drove from Rockford to Champaign which is about three hours away…And I think the meeting was at ten o’clock…We must have left about 6:30-7:00 in the morning. It was summer so the campus was kind of empty. We met with the financial aid officer and…basically told the officer: this is my situation, I’m undocumented, I got into the school but there’s no way that we can get financial aid. What resources are available? And he bluntly said: ‘I think that it might be better for you to reconsider going to college and consider going to community college.’

And that was just completely devastating.

We were at the meeting for maybe ten minutes before it was over. So we left the office, and walked back to the car, and I was completely dejected, and my mom was like: ‘Don’t worry. Your dad and I will figure out how to make this work. Just make sure you get good grades and we’ll make this work.’

Later that fall my parents were able to pay for the first semester. For the second semester they were able to get a second mortgage on the house, and they maxed out their credit cards…I took summer classes at community college between years so I could get my gen-eds out of the way so I could graduate a semester early, so my parents wouldn’t have to pay another eight to ten thousand dollars of tuition. And I got one scholarship, but it wasn’t enough to cover more than one semester of book costs. That’s basically how my parents were able to send me to college.
— Irakere

Law School Diploma

The law degree…more than anything signifies my growth as a person. Someone who was sort of timid about my situation, my story, my status, basically all the way through college. I was involved in a panel discussion at U of I, and I came out for the first time during that discussion—it was the first time I’d actually spoken publically about my [undocumented] status. But even after I graduated I was still afraid of asking for help and asking for advice. I was still very isolated because of my status. But when I was working in Chicago, I grew as a person, learned how to be an organizer, and took those skills and applied them to my personal life…When I started applying to law schools, I applied to NIU, got accepted, got the letter in the mail, and again, the same issue: how am I going to pay for $20,000 of tuition every semester for the next two years? So I ended up scheduling a meeting with the dean of admissions, went to DeKalb, and had a forty-five minute meeting with her. I said: ‘I got accepted, thank you for admitting me, I’m really excited about going to law school, I really want to become an attorney, but I can’t afford paying for three years of law school. What resources are available?’ And the admissions counselor said: ‘Don’t worry. The dean and I are going to talk about this. We’re going to figure something out. We really want you to come to school here. And about two weeks after the meeting, I got a letter in the mail from the dean of the Law School…and the letter said they were willing to offer me a full-ride tuition waiver as ling as I kept a certain GPA. And you know, I wouldn’t have been able to go to law school if I hadn’t set up those meetings and said: how can you help me?
— Irakere
I was organizing for a little bit in Chicago…Organizing requires a lot of conflict, a lot of agitation…it needs to be conflictive so that things can move forward…I wasn’t very good at being in those difficult situations. I ended up getting volunteered to be a bus captain for two buses that were going to Alabama to protest that state’s anti-immigrant bill. On that trip we ended up taking a detour to Birmingham, to the capital, and…they have the civil rights museum. [There] I learned more about the civil rights movement and the seminal cases: Thurgood Marshall, Brown vs. Board of Education. I had an idea of this stuff, but I’d never seen it in the same context as the work that Martin Luther King was doing, and Malcolm X…and also within the context of the grassroots work, the lunch counter protests and the freedom riders. That’s when I understood that the movement had three different leaderships: there was the policy/legal branch; the protests and the civil action and civil disobedience branch; and the political stuff, the national leaders. And all three of those branches worked together to bring about the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act. So thinking about that in the context of the immigration movement and immigration reform and immigrants’ rights, I realized that organizing was something I could do but I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it, or I wouldn’t be of best use there. I also didn’t want to be a senator or in the spot light. And I’ve always appreciated logical and analytical thinking... I could see myself working for some kind of social justice movement but within the realm of policy and law. That’s when I decided I wanted to do law school. And on that same trip was when I met my wife.
— Irakere
The first time we met was when I was a bus captain on this bus going to Alabama, and she was a freelance journalist. She interviewed me…That was the first time we’d ever spoken to each other…It was very professional. It was an interview and that was it. I thought she was very nice. I thought it was cool that they had a journalist writing a story about this...

And right before I went to law school, we ran into each other [again] at an organization’s fundraiser, and I asked her out on a date… Obviously we clicked because we were both Mexican. She was born in the US, her dad was born in the US, and her mom came from Mexico, so she kind of understands the bi-cultural, bi-national context. So we definitely shared that: having grown up here, having gone to school in the US, having a lot of the American culture but also having been engrained with a lot of Mexican culture… But then as we got to know each other more, I definitely learned that she is much smarter than I am. [Laughs.] She was a much better student that I was. She is very detail-oriented, very determined—much more so than I am. So those are qualities that I liked in her.

We were dating…almost 3 months when I started my first semester of law school. She was living in Chicago and I basically moved to DeKalb about 60 miles west of here…I was in school for the work week and sometimes we’d see each other on weekends…I was really focused on school…And financially she was working, so whenever I needed help with books, or a train ticket to come see her, or whenever we hung out on the weekends, she would buy me lunch. And also, at school whenever I had a hard time in class or was just stressed about anything, she was there to listen to me, and really bring me down to earth and calm me down and refocus my energy. In that way, she was very supportive…She never held back. She said: no let me help you…She was very willing to help both emotionally and financially.
— Irakere

University of Illinois Shirt

Growing up and watching movies, you see the uncle or the grandfather wearing the Harvard sweatshirt, or Duke or Notre Dame sweatshirt. And what does that mean? Why are they wearing that? Having that very classic looking t-shirt…represents achieving that American goal or dream of having that college experience that is very American. Going to college football games, being involved on campus, being dumb and having fun with friends.

Even though I’m undocumented, I was still able to have a normal experience in that way, a very traditional experience. And I think that’s very important because oftentimes, for folks like me, we are focused too much on the stress and anxiety and worrying…we don’t’ really get to experience the moments fully. …That’s something that I’ve been very intent on.

I may be undocumented, I may never find a solution to this, but I always want to have a good experience. I want to enjoy my life, I want to be happy. I can’t be sad and I can’t be frustrated for the rest of my life until this issue gets fixed because, at the end of that, it’s not going to change who I am. My experiences and the person that I am doesn’t change whether I’m a US citizen or not, or a permanent resident or not. I have to make the best of the situation, live a fulfilling and happy life, and that’s what I’ve been focused on doing for the last 3, 4, 5 years.
— Irakere

Illinois Bar Association Card

At the moment I am practicing immigration law, which ironically is not what I want to do…I’m able to work on different types of cases; I’m able to go to immigration court, which, just going to court for me is something I’ve always wanted to do since law school. I really enjoy being in front of a judge…but professionally it’s very frustrating to practice immigration law because, unlike other forms of law, you’re not going against another equal-footed party. You’re going up against the government. And they have a lot of discretion in each client’s case. And personally it can be very taxing because I’m reminded of myself and my parents, my family members and friends who are in similar situations to my clients. And that can be very exhausting.

I’ve grown up with the experience of…being undocumented, of being an immigrant, of feeling like an “other,” and I expect (or obviously I would like to expect) that this doesn’t have to be my entire life. My immigration status doesn’t have to define my entire life. That’s why I want to move away from immigration law, though I still want to do social justice work…
— Irakere

The Questions

Since most of these objects belong to you, is there anything you’d like to ask your parents about their lives?

Because I’ve had the opportunity to go to college and get an education and not have to worry about raising kids or really working to survive, that allowed me to think of other things in life: purposes and interests and hobbies…I think I’m very lucky and I’m a little too selfish, because I have the opportunity to determine my life and what future I want, whereas my parents didn’t necessarily have that opportunity because…they were always struggling. They basically worked to survive…even though things have gotten better for them and they are much more established. Just last weekend I went home to see my parents and my mom told me that they just sent in their last mortgage payment, which is…amazing and incredible.

I would want to ask them: if there were no obstacles, in an ideal world, what would you have wanted to do? What did you dream about? What did you hope for?

I don’t think they ever had the opportunity or the space to ever think about [that]. When I do talk to my parents…my mom who is very expressive, says: ‘Everything—all of the sacrifice— is worth it, just to see both of you, where you are now. That makes us happy.’
— Irakere

What lessons or ideas do these objects communicate that you hope your children will carry through their lives? 

That’s a difficult question because…there’s nothing really in our house that I can think of that’s been passed down… I don’t know if that’s because of their [Irakere’s parents] poor upbringing…I can’t think of anything that’s been passed down to us.

The way I see [it], the heirlooms themselves [are] my parents showing my sister and I what it means to sacrifice. What it means to risk it all. What it means to love your family. I think I will carry that forever, and hopefully pass it on to my kids.
— Irakere
The Past is With Us, Always

The Past is With Us, Always