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American Dream: The girl who inspired a US congressman to turn a DREAM into law

Edited by Gaby Pacheco

In the ongoing effort to highlight the stories of DREAMers on Latina Lista, I want to introduce readers to Tereza Lee. It was her story that spurred Sen. Durbin to introduce the DREAM Act, illustrating the fact that the DREAM Act isn’t just about or for Latino students.

I didn’t know that I was undocumented until I was 12, when my father told me how it happened. My parents had come to America legally after emigrating from South Korea, then still a war-torn country. They had first moved to São Paulo, Brazil, where I was born, and we moved to Chicago when I was two.

Our visas expired, but my dad, a Presbyterian minister, was sure that he was going to get an immigrant status as a religious worker. He warned us never to tell anyone about our status. He told us that if anyone found out, our family would be separated, and that I would be deported to Brazil (where I wouldn’t even understand the language).

As I struggled to come to terms with all this over the next few years, my one outlet was playing the piano. I loved music, and it was at this time that I decided to devote myself entirely to my passion. I believed, however naively, that if I became a famous pianist, no one would want to deport us.

I wasn’t alone, though, thanks to the dedication and support of the teachers at Chicago’s amazing Merit School of Music (shout out!). After winning a piano competition, I got to play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with the world-famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A musical dream had come true, but when Merit’s Artistic Director, Ann Monaco, tried to help me fill out college applications, I broke down. She was the first person I “came out” to as undocumented. I thought I would never even be able to go to college, but she wouldn’t let me give up, and she eventually contacted Senator Dick Durbin to tell him my story.

Senator Durbin and others began working on what would become the D.R.E.A.M. Act. As they learned the stories of more and more DREAMers, the bill expanded in scope, and there was even a hearing scheduled for September 12, 2001. This was cancelled, however, after the September 11 attacks, and a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment meant that it would be years before the D.R.E.A.M. Act would have a chance.

In the meantime, a whole movement of brave young student activists has developed around this proposed legislation. I’ve met so many of them now, and am always amazed by how much we share — the fear we grew up with, the nightmares, often depression, but mostly it’s their courage and sense of community and justice that inspires me and gives me hope.

As for myself, I did go to college, and am now pursuing a doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. I met my husband, a U.S. citizen, while in school, and I became a citizen in 2010. I remain a strong supporter of the movement, and I know that America will be a stronger, richer country by allowing DREAMers to contribute.

Let’s get the D.R.E.A.M. Act passed!

Gaby Pacheco, editor of Latina Lista’s “American Dream” section, is an undocumented American and an immigrant rights leader from Miami, Florida. Since 2004 she has been working on the DREAM Act. Her passion for education and immigrant rights prompted her and three friends in 2010 to walked 1,500 miles form Miami to Washington DC, to bring to light the plight of immigrants in this country, this walk was dubbed the Trail of DREAMs.

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