By Eileen Truax
There are about twelve million undocumented people living in the United States. As many as two million of them came as children. They grow up here, going to elementary, middle, and high school, and then the country they call home won’t—in most states—offer financial aid for college and they’re unable to be legally employed. In 2001, US senator Dick Durbin introduced the DREAM Act to Congress, an initiative that would allow these young people to become legal residents if they met certain requirements. The DREAM Act has yet to be passed. But this young generation has been organizing. Some of them are also from the LGBT community. As journalist Eileen Truax shows in Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for Their American Dream, they live with two identities that go against the accepted norm. Here she shares the experiences and struggles of a Dreamer who had to come out as undocumented and queer.
Just as with every Dreamer I meet, I found out about Jorge through someone else, who had met him through a friend. I met him in El Hormiguero, a community center in the San Fernando Valley in northern Los Angeles, where students, activists, and other members of the community hold meetings on various topics. The meeting where I met Jorge had such a provocative title, I had no choice but to go and see what it was all about: “Undocuqueer Healing Oasis.” It was a space where gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites, and transgender people could share their experiences and talk about what it’s like to live with not just one but two identities that go against the accepted norm. They share how they struggle to get ahead or just keep going, even though it takes more work, and sometimes you just feel tired and overwhelmed.
Jorge was the special guest at this session. The meetings at El Hormiguero usually have ten to fifteen participants, sometimes more. At each one, someone is invited to share an experience in a particular area that he or she has to deal with every day or to tell a success story. Jorge’s area of struggle is definitely coming to terms with his identity as an “undocuqueer.”
Jorge was born in El Cora, a ranching area in the state of Nayarit, Mexico. His family was poor and made their living by farming. His father grew papayas, mangos, cocoa, and avocados to feed the family and to sell. As the children got older, they helped out with the crops.
Jorge’s parents’ relationship was far from perfect. His childhood was scarred by domestic violence and abuse. Even now, at twenty-eight, looking back on what he calls “my first confrontation with injustice” caused his voice to break with emotion. When he was six or seven, he already knew he was different by the way he played with the other children and how he felt, but at the time he didn’t understand exactly what it was. And he knew his parents noticed too, but they never talked about it with him. One day Jorge was playing with a little girl, and although he doesn’t remember the exact nature of the game, he remembers very well that it was something that irritated his father to no end when he came home from work and saw them. His father grabbed Jorge by his shirt and violently yanked him up, then threw him onto the floor and said, “I don’t want any faggots in my house.”
“I didn’t cry. I was more confused than angry, because I didn’t know what he was calling me, but I could tell by his tone of voice and how he was treating me that it was something really bad,” Jorge said, his eyes wide, as if he were remembering something that had happened just a few days ago. “Ever since then, I knew I was different.”
For Jorge, his journey across the border was a pleasant, almost happy experience. He remembers a little pickup truck with almost ten people riding in the back that left from Tepic, the capital of Nayarit, and drove up to Tijuana. They got there on a Friday around noon and crossed the border later that day when an uncle came to pick them up. By eight o’clock that evening they were in their new home. Since his uncle was documented and had a car, they had worked it out to cross over with him (Jorge reminded me that the situation at the border was very different sixteen years ago, in a pre-9/11 world). An aunt was waiting for them, and so began Jorge’s new life in Orange County, about forty miles south of Los Angeles. Unlike other Dreamers who describe their arrival in the United States as marking a painful rupture with their previous life in Mexico, Jorge recalled it as a positive time. Although it marked the beginning of his life as an undocumented immigrant, it also put an end to his father’s physical and emotional abuse.
While his mother worked cleaning houses, her children started going to school. It was hardest for her oldest son, as adapting to a new culture and language at eighteen was not easy. It was easier for Jorge and his other brother, who was one year younger. They were able to make friends and always attended the same school. Even though everything was going pretty well, Jorge always felt burdened by the stigma of being “different.” Now he knew that there were other people like him, and he had the words to identify himself. He knew he was gay, but he could not say it openly.
“At that age, thirteen, fourteen years old, I liked one boy and then another,” Jorge said. “Your body is changing, but I couldn’t enjoy those experiences because I had the shadow of my father hanging over me. At the time I wanted to tell my mom, but I was afraid she would react the same way my father did. What had happened with him kept me from coming out of the closet; it haunted me. Those were at least two very dark years in my life. I was depressed and had low self-esteem; it was really painful. I felt like my mom could tell, but she didn’t have the vocabulary to ask me.”
Until one day she did find the words. As they were driving home one afternoon, Jorge’s mother stopped the car at a red light, turned down the radio, looked over at her son, and said in her gentlest tone of voice, “I want to ask you something because I’m confused: Do you like boys or girls?”
Jorge thought of his father and felt the pain rising in him as strongly as ever as he turned away. His first impulse was to lie and say he liked girls, to protect himself.
“I like boys.”
The light changed, and his mother kept driving. She pulled the car into a parking lot, turned off the engine, and got out. Jorge imagined the worst: she was leaving him there alone in the middle of the parking lot, in his school uniform. Alone. In spite of his panic, a strange feeling of relief washed over him for a fraction of a second, knowing that he had told the truth. But then something entirely unexpected happened: his mother opened his car door and gave him a hug: “Maybe I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said, “but we’ll figure it out together. We’ll be okay.”
Now the emotion that Jorge hadn’t conveyed as he told me about his immigration experience broke through the surface as he remembered that special moment.
“A woman on her own, an undocumented immigrant, who only went to school until the second grade, challenging the system, fighting machismo, and homophobia, and relying on her love for me as a mother—she said: This is my son, and I’m going to protect him. In that moment all the pain that my father caused started to melt away, little by little, and I started to enjoy being gay. I told some of my friends, even some teachers at school, and I began to feel supported and loved,” he said.
“I knew that my father had renounced our relationship. I’ve tried to reconcile with him, but he didn’t care…I recently made the decision to not let him have that power over me. For two years, I’ve had to work with that pain and tell myself that it was time to let the wound heal, what happened wasn’t my fault. I’ve tried to understand where my father was coming from, a Catholic, machista family. In a way he is a victim of those belief systems, and if he decided to close the door, that’s on him. I have to be happy and heal the pain so I can experience intense love and happiness and not let that scar me.”
Though Jorge took an important step forward by accepting his homosexual identity, there was another bitter pill left to swallow with his immigration status. Thanks to their mother’s strength and determination the Gutierrez children had enjoyed a certain degree of stability by living in the same neighborhood. But when it came time to go off to college, it was the same old story: the crushing implications of being undocumented hit them head-on.
“You start to see what being undocumented means, but you don’t really get it until your friends from school start getting driver’s licenses and you can’t, and that’s really hard,” Jorge said. “You want to get a job, but you don’t have a Social Security number, and when you fill in your college application and it asks you for that number again, and you know you don’t have one…I felt like that was somehow going to magically change. I came home and asked my mom, ‘Do I have a Social Security number?’ And I already knew the answer, but I felt like something was going to change during the walk home from school.”
I stopped Jorge at this point in his story. As I was writing this book, many Dreamers expressed to me that same hope that something magical would somehow occur to change their circumstances. I asked Jorge what he thought was behind this.
“I think when you get here as a child and they tell you if you get good grades, if you’re a good student, you can be whatever you want,” Jorge said. “So you think things are going to change, that you’re special, and that’s not going to happen to you. But life is different. At the time I sent my application to California State University, Fullerton, based on a counselor’s advice. It was a very difficult experience for me. I was really mad at my family, at my situation, for not having any resources, for not being able to go to the school I wanted, because I really wanted to go to Berkeley.”
The first three years at Fullerton were utterly exhausting for Jorge. His mother kept on working to support the family, but she had no money to help with school, so Jorge had been working since he was fourteen. While he went to college, he worked at a pizzeria, an ice cream parlor, and a photo store and helped his mother on weekends with a side business doing party decorations. The money he earned went toward tuition, clothes, books, and sometimes helping with the rent. Jorge went from home to work and back again. He felt frustrated and questioned whether what he was doing made any sense. He didn’t know how to talk about it, and he didn’t know anybody in the same situation he was in. Then, a semester before graduation, just as he was about to throw in the towel, he was invited to join the Orange County Dream Team.
About the Author
Originally from Mexico, Eileen Truax is a journalist and immigrant currently living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to Hoy Los Angeles and Unidos and writes for Latin American publications including Proceso, El Universal, and Gatopardo. Truax often speaks at colleges and universities about the Dreamer movement and immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @.