'A Worry We Had to Carry': An Immigrant's Story

By Cindy Rojas

Cindy Family

The concept of “immigrant” isn’t something I was born understanding. But it became a word — an idea — that defined not only my parents’ life but, by extension, my own. It was a word only spoken within the walls of our home but never in public. A word that was always the hottest topic at our family gatherings but never left the room. A word of angst.

I was born to Colombian immigrant parents in Flushing, New York. My father made his career as an executive driver and my mother as a housecleaner. We lived together in a one-bedroom apartment with my younger brother and sister and our grandmother from my father's side.

Since I can remember, my parents taught me to be quiet outside of my home – children can be a risk when you're illegal in a country. It was almost like an unspoken agreement: we would protect each other from the outside world by remembering to keep to ourselves.

By the time I was old enough to go to school, my responsibility was to protect my parents by staying out of trouble and not drawing attention to myself. I was reminded of these responsibilities often since I had become the chatterbox of the class. It terrified my parents when my teacher would call my parents to inform them of my disruptive behavior; for them, these interactions revealed a broken English that they feared would reveal their resident status. Any engagement could lead to unnecessary conversations, exposure to information, and conclusions. Those conclusions could mean investigations, police, social workers, deportation, and separating our family.

I can't begin to express the level of discomfort my parents experienced when someone unexpected would knock on our door. My parents would freeze; the children would flee to our grandmother, as we waited to see who it was at the door.

As their American, I became the de facto representative for my parents. I would speak on their behalf. I would protect them. I served as their translator for their appointments and filled out their paperwork. I grew to know what to say and what not to say.

Thankfully, my father received his citizenship eventually and my mother is currently completing her years as an “official” resident to qualify for her citizenship, though she had to wait until I became 21 and we had enough money saved to become her sponsor.

Immigrant: a worry we had to carry — and still carry — through life. I understand what it means to be an immigrant in this country. I have lived the tension, the fear, and the angst alongside my parents. I have lived the nightmares of someone finding out about my family being here illegally. Most importantly, I understand the responsibility we have to our families to protect them from an inflexible system.