“In Ecuador I was a friend with everyone the first day, I was really loud. Here I spent years in silence at school.”
Maria Jose works for the Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition.
I remember saying goodbye to my dad in Ecuador, my aunt driving like crazy and hugging dad goodbye. He said, “Be good, listen to your mom, do your homework.” He kisses me, gives me a big bear hug, and says, “I love you with my soul, my life, and my heart.” I was five. My mom left six months later. I remember crying and getting in the car and going home without Mom. Before that I went to my grandma’s on weekends but now I went to live with her. My grandmother switched roles to being a parent. I developed a deep connection to her. I remember phone calls from my parents in the middle of the night, 4:00 AM, before they would leave for work they would call. They sent us presents; they tried to send stuff home, stickers, clothes, letters. I copied Mom’s style and wrote letters back. Angie says, “Why did they leave us here?” It was hard being a little kid away from your parents.
I remember being in school and making a lie to myself that my parents would walk through the door. At school kids would run to their parents and there would be a small group of kids standing to the side. There were many kids in the same situation. We had a good childhood, even without our parents, but it takes forever to heal from family separation. After my dad left, when he returned the first time, I hid. I was concerned I wouldn’t be the daughter he expected.
When my parents came back, I thought it was a lie. I was also afraid I wouldn’t measure up. They came for my first communion—everyone was there. The next thing I know, I was telling my friends I was going to leave. My friends gave us a goodbye parties, and the next thing we are leaving. The first month I came here, I talked to my grandmother every day. My parents had an $800 phone bill.
I have been most fortunate because of the executive order, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), I was able to apply for a permit called Advance Parole, which allows travel for education, work, or if you have a family member that is ill or has passed away. The organization I have been part of for many years has close relationships with organizations in Ecuador. I went back to train staff on how to do self-care and how to deal with children with trauma, something I am very passionate about. It was for 2½ weeks. It was an opportunity to go to Ecuador and see my family. I got to see my country in a new way because I was a kid when I left. It was very scary. When we were landing they handed us a paper, saying this is for immigration. What am I going to do, what am I going to say? Are they going to understand why I am here? I was hoping immigration in Ecuador wouldn’t detain me—I haven’t been in the US legally and now I am coming back home. There is a risk even with this permit that you might not be able to come back to the US.
Waking up in my country—it was like a dream that I had for so long. I just want to be home and to hug my grandma. But to be there without my parents and sisters was heartbreaking. I felt like a stranger in my own country. The people would say, you are from another country, you dress differently and you have an accent. Loja is a bigger city than when I left. I walked around and didn’t know anyone. And there were political changes that I certainly didn’t understand as a child. But I do now, I am involved in politics. There was an election while I was there. I was in the capitol, during election day. I walked by a park where they were setting up for the President’s party celebration. I heard of people trying to buy votes. He lost in all the major cities and I was really happy about that. I was curious to understand life there and talk to many people. I talked to many people who wanted to go to the U.S. The stories repeat.
Growing up in the US, being a young child, you feel like you don’t belong, and back home I don’t really belong either. Neither here nor there. Listening to my dad and mother talk, I realized your parents will do anything for you. The sacrifices are really hard but it is worth it. It bothers me how people have treated my parents.
When we came here we didn’t know English. We’d watch TV shows, some shows we had seen in Spanish and now we were seeing in English. Angie and I decided to talk in English so we would learn faster. I don’t know when we started crossing over with the languages, but we’d make up so many words. People at school thought I couldn’t speak. I was nervous that people were going to make fun of me or that I’d sound stupid. It was a different me here. In Ecuador I was a friend with everyone the first day, I was really loud. Here I spent years in silence at school, it was much harder here.
I work for the PICC (Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition). We do immigration advocacy and work for immigration reform, and we work with partners around the state. We also work to educate people about these issues.
Once Dreamers started to come out and be vocal, I thought I was not alone. I remember when DACA happened. My mom called me, and we watched the announcement when Obama said we could get work permits and be able to travel. I called my grandma and said we’ll be able to see you. The president’s announcement was on June 15, 2012. Because of DACA, Angie and I have been able to change our lives. I worked as a waitress since I was fifteen and after I had worked so hard and graduated from college, I really wondered what I’d be able to do. Growing up undocumented, without papers, I didn’t know if I would have to be a waitress for the rest of my life. Now I have a permit and am able to work. Policy changes lives.
Every day you go out, you hope your parents aren’t being caught by immigration. People come here for different reasons—economic, running to save their lives, to reunite with family, to start over. What people don’t understand are the mistreatment and the sacrifice of being away from the people you love. People pass away and you don’t get to say a final goodbye. It’s been a hard experience but it’s made me a strong person. We work hard. But the system breaks families apart and doesn’t allow you to go to college, to have health insurance, to do an internship. My parents are great role models. They make me realize I can accomplish whatever I want as long as I work hard. I can go as far as I want, regardless of my status here. I want to do everything for them and to protect our family.
Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.