I CALLED THEM ballerina slippers, because that's how they made me feel—as light and fleetfooted as a dancer. But really they were more like jelly shoes, a web of soft, rubbery plastic that squished beneath my feet with every step.
At five years old, life was like that. The things of the world could change shape or meaning by the power of my imagination.
Sometimes it was hard to know what was real.
I pulled on the slippers before sprinting out of the house, but I didn't have time to make sure they were snug. Halfway to my sister Ruth's house, one of the slippers flew off. I stumbled and turned, already several steps beyond where it had fallen, beyond where it lay in the street.
Even farther back, in front of our house, my dad held a pole in his hands. He was chasing my mom around our yard. Both of them were screaming.
During my senior year of high school, in Nashville, as I was preparing to apply to college, my mother broke the news to me: I did not have legal documentation to live in the United States. Not only was I not a citizen, I didn't have a social security number, or even a visa. Technically, I could be deported at any time.
My mom had fled Mexico with my sister Zulett and me when I was five years old, to save our lives, but as a teenager I lost sight of the significance of her decisions. In many ways, that past was behind me. I had let go of the few memories I had of life in Mexico and filled my mind with the present tense. I am American, I thought, just as American as anyone else in my school. How could this be?
A year later, at nineteen years old, I stood in Senator Bob Corker's office alongside five of my friends from the movement. We had come to appeal to the Senator to vote in favor of the so-called Dream Act. But with a heavy sigh we were told to look elsewhere. He would be voting No.
"I can't reward your parents' mistakes," he said. "If you're looking for someone to blame, it's them." Of course, I wasn't looking for anyone to blame, I was only looking around at my friends' solemn faces, at my own hazy future, searching for a reasonable solution, a way to become officially part of the nation that had shaped me, and that I, in my own small ways, had helped to shape.
And yet, in that moment, I agreed: It was my mother's fault. She should have brought us here the right way, like everyone said.
I had never been so angry.
At age five—at any age—it's terrifying to see your father trying to kill your mother. But beyond terror, beyond the immediacy of the fear, I was confused. The scene unfolding at our house made no sense, as if my dad was not my dad but an imposter. Why was he chasing my mom? Why did her eyes look that way, puffy and wild?
I would learn later how abusive he was, how dangerous. But that day, for me, it was like a switch had flipped in him and he had become someone else—a villain. Before I had time to think about the cause of his violence, before I could reconcile the dissonance in my mind, my body told me to run.
So did my mom.
'Go get Ruth!' she yelled.
That's when I went inside, pulled on my ballerina slippers, and fled down the street.
I found a job under the table at an ice cream shop, and through a stroke of luck became close with the family who owned the place. They invited me to live with them and I accepted, cutting off nearly all communication with my family, working 70 hours a week, dissolving myself into the liquid of the hours.
The Dream Act failed to pass Congress, and with that, hope vanished. For nearly a year I had avoided the holidays, skipped out on all of my family members' birthdays, and even broken up with my boyfriend Anthony, whom I had been with since the tenth grade. All that would change again—I would reunite with my mom, my sisters, and eventually Anthony—but at the time I had no way to know. I had alienated almost everyone. All I had was my job.
One night, just before close, my co-workers on the night shift were rude to our final customers and rushed them out the door. Even after we turned off the open sign, my co-workers hurried through the nightly chores, skipping over the corners as they swept. I asked them to do it again and they recited "minimum wage, minimum effort". So I told them to clock out and go home, I would finish up by myself.
At this point, because of my status, I couldn't drive, and so I relied on other people to get to and from work. It was then I realized, with a sinking feeling, that I had just dismissed the two people who were supposed to give me a ride. I was stuck. I locked the doors and slept the night on top of the deep freezer in the back of the kitchen, using a stack of paper basket liners as a pillow.
All night I stared at the ceiling, listening to the hum of the motors. In that machine noise, I could hear the voices of my mom and my sisters, whom I had barely talked to in the year since I had left home. In that time my mother had gotten her green card, which meant she was now a permanent resident and could eventually become a citizen, like my younger sisters who were born here.
The day she told me, a fleeting excitement bubbled up through my blood, the excitement that I might get a green card too—only to condense in my shoulders and rain down through my arms and weigh heavily in the tips of my fingers. She had a path toward citizenship, but I still did not. My younger sisters, my stepdad, they all belonged to this country, but I, who had started kindergarten in Haywood Elementary, who had graduated from high school and lobbied before a US Senator, who dished soft-serve to smiling faces seven days a week—here I was, undocumented and alone, on top of a freezer in the small hours of the night.
Because when my dad hissed those four vile words, the last words I ever heard him speak, he meant them.
'Te voy a matar!' he said. I'm going to kill you.
When the slipper came loose, I had two options: scramble back and pull it on again, snug this time, or keep running toward Ruth's house and leave my slipper for the dogs.
Even at five years old, confused and terrified, I knew I was running for my life. I knew this moment, this one split second, would change everything—that this decision would transcend its small place in time. For a single beat, long enough for the scene to etch itself permanently in my memory, I looked at my slipper and thought: turn back? or keep running?
Over the years many people—friends, family, those who know me only in a single context—have suggested, jokingly, but also seriously: Why don't you and Anthony just get married? You wouldn't have to worry about immigration then.
I'm sure for some that seems like a simple solution. But for me, as an eighteen-year old, as a twenty-one-year old, even entertaining the idea felt like a betrayal to the years Anthony and I had spent together. In all that time I never asked him what he thought about marrying for citizenship. But knowing him, having heard him defend me on countless occasions and tell me, over and over, he would never let me be taken away, I believe he would have agreed to it, had I asked.
But I never asked. I never wanted to put him in that situation. And I never wanted to get married before I was ready to be a wife.
So we waited. Now we both have stable jobs. We both have college degrees. Despite my father's violence, despite the feelings of isolation and estrangement, the hardships my family has been through, I have at last begun to understand what it means to be a partner. I feel ready.
It was a few weeks before Christmas last year, when Anthony and I were sitting at my kitchen table, talking. He said to me, with a tone of surprise, as if he had thought out every syllable only to be startled at the sound of them flowing from his mouth, 'Let's get married. I want to get married. I want you to marry me.' And I said 'yes, yes, yes, I want that. I want to get married, too.'
In many ways, I am a marginalized person. I am a woman, Latina, undocumented. I am able to hold a driver's license and earn a living only under the slippery auspices of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Last year I graduated from Lipscomb University with a degree in public relations. As a student I worked for the admissions office, and upon graduation they hired me as a recruiter. Now I spend my days helping young people to fulfill their loftiest dreams. I am an active voice in my community, advocating at the local, state and federal levels of government. This fall I will start graduate school, attending classes paid for by my employer, and in a year's time I will have a master's degree.
I come from a family and a nation torn apart by violence. I have not seen my grandfather or my Tia Duvi since I was a child. My mom and my stepdad and my younger sisters go back to Mexico to visit, and I stay here. One of the greatest privileges in this life is the ability to leave home and return without fear. To situate the present squarely between the past and the future.
Right now I am passing all of these very American, very middle class milestones—a college degree, a career, graduate school, marriage—and yet the results of this year's presidential election could strip all that away. With the stroke of a pen, one man could dismantle everything I have built. It's an insecurity that makes my privileges vivid. How lucky I've been compared to those who missed the DACA cutoff by a matter of weeks, or a filing deadline by a matter of days, or who have never had a chance to escape the violence that circumscribes their lives. Family members, friends, fellow activists. People I know and love and people I will never have the chance to meet. People everywhere, who grew up not so different than me, have so much less than I have.
This is privilege.
I have never been struck by the man I am about to marry. I will never fear him one day beating my pregnant belly. I will never have to emigrate from my homeland under the cover of night to escape his violence. I will never have to tell my child, in a blood-choked voice, Run!
At some point, every daughter must reconcile herself with the self of her mother. For years I have watched my mom's hands as she folds laundry, rolls taquitos, picks roses or drives nails into the frame of a new house. For years I have seen the small spots on those hands grow darker, more pronounced, and feared that one day my hands, too, will bloom with these soft clusters of age. Every daughter must have one thing, one quality of her mother that she dreads manifesting in herself. For some, maybe it's a tone of voice, an odd phrase often repeated, or some other ineffable symbol. For me it is those spots.
Lately, as I turned the gaze of my camera lens onto those hands, I saw a strength and an endurance I had not seen before. I used to wish that my hands would never be blemished. Now, I don't know, I've begun to wish that this silly fear would go away. It's a small change, but one that for me signals a kind of acceptance.
The violence in Mexico is not simple. Read the news and you might think everyone in Mexico is involved in the drug trade. Obviously that's ridiculous, untrue. But the violence that surrounds that situation is real, and it touches innocent people's lives in ways that are difficult to measure.
In any case, my mom and sister and I fled Mexico to get away from a kind of violence that, tragically, exists everywhere. And yet I can't help wondering if machismo played a part in the particulars of my dad's violence, and if that mindset has anything to do with the violence of the cartels.
What history might have been written had we stayed? Where would I be now? With whom? Who would be alive, and who would be dead?
None of that matters. I am here, and so is my family. We are Americans, leading American lives.
Somewhere on a street in Jalisco, Mexico a ballerina slipper lies in the dust. Whether or not I return to find it, and under what conditions, is a history that remains to be written.