By Mariana Zamboni
I am free at last!
But, even though I received my green card just six months ago, it still doesn’t wash away the 16 years of mental incarceration and humiliation one lives with when they are labeled undocumented and illegal in a place that is known globally as the â€œLand of the Free.â€
Deep inside, I still can feel the pain, the tears, the nudo en la garganta (knot in the throat). Even today, as I stand on the highest privileged ground of higher education in this country â€” Harvard.
I’m currently studying for my Masterâ€™s, gearing up for another week of school. But before I talk about my experience here, I need to recap and share a little bit about my past.
My name is Mariana Zamboni. I was born in Guatemala and came to Los Angeles to be reunited with my mother in 1991. I attended the local Los Angeles Unified School District schools, was affected in some way or other by the Rodney King riots, Prop 187, and HR 4437.
Yet through the collective efforts of many, I was able to remain focused on school. When I discovered that my undocumented status created additional barriers in attending institutions of higher education, a part of me died.
To my rescue came the passage of Assembly Bill 540, months before graduating from high school. So transferring from California State University, Los Angeles to Los Angeles City College to UCLA, I was able to graduate with a degree in Psychology in June 2007.
The monetary assistance of extended family members, my parents, scholarships and my jobs helped me finance my education.
With help, I was admitted to a competitive research program that encourages underrepresented students to apply to graduate school.
Although, I never envisioned myself in graduate school (my undocumented status was going to hinder my ability to access funds) I applied to 4 schools. I kept thinking that it was a waste of time and went through a depressive episode during my last year at UCLA.
I kept thinking â€œis all this worth it?â€ I saw friends with degrees in Chemistry and Political Science from UCLA being waitresses or volunteering at local non-profits because no one would hire them due to their undocumented status.
Lawyers kept telling me that staying in school was the best thing I could do: â€œSchool is your sanctuary as an undocumented student.â€
Therefore, I followed some advice and applied to graduate school. I applied to two â€œimpossibleâ€ schools â€” Harvard and Brown, and to two â€œsafeâ€ schools â€” UCLA and Claremont.
When I read my acceptance letter via e-mail from Harvard, I went back to check to make sure it wasnâ€™t spam. I couldnâ€™t believe it.
I never dreamed of attending Harvard. I only applied because my advisor encouraged me to apply to “schools you donâ€™t think you will get into.”
After reading my acceptance letter, I remembered a separate letter I had attached to my application explaining to the Admissions Committee how complicated my citizenship status was.
I told them: “I’ve lived in the U.S. for most of my life but don’t have a Social Security Number, work permit, or a green card. I am legally a citizen of Guatemala but have lived there only for 7 years and I have spent 16 years in Los Angeles, therefore I am not an international student.
â€œI hope that my immigration status does not hinder me from getting accepted or receiving financial assistance.”
Maybe that letter paid off in the end.
Receiving my green card in late March 2007 was a very happy surprise. It allowed me to accept my admission into Harvard. I now qualify for federal loans that are helping me finance my education â€” and I can do other things.
I am able to get on a plane. I can apply to any job and write a nine-digit number that belongs to me!
I am able to go dance at a club with my friends or catch a drink at the local bar because I have an ID now (you need a SSN to get an ID in most states).
It is easier to open a bank account and I can begin to establish credit. I can get a driver’s license and most importantly, I am able to prove who I am.
I can apply for scholarships and fellowships. I am able to HAVE an IDENTITY.
I will be able to return to Guatemala and reconcile with the life of the little girl that I left behind â€” but most importantly, I will be able to meet the father I never knew.
Harvard is a difficult place. I have been having a difficult time adjusting to all the changes. For the first time, I am able to compare how different and unique my experiences are.
Hanging out with people that share the same struggles, ideologies, concerns, and hope gives me security and comfort.
Most people that I am currently meeting are unaware of the challenges undocumented youth face. Some have shared that they cannot recall any challenges in their lives! I cannot honestly imagine a life without struggles.
Little by little, I hope to understand that it is imperative to embrace my experiences because they are not only mine â€” but ours.
As I end this note, I ponder on the possibility of seeing more of mi gente in this privileged space.
It is only through the passage of the DREAM Act or a comprehensive immigration bill that will make that possibility a reality.
I long for when more people can share the feeling of being free at last!