At 5 years old, all Ivan Gonzalez was worried about was keeping his head down.
He and the other four people in his family were crossing the California border to come to the United States from Mexico, trying to hide from the helicopters that patrolled the evening skies. The trip had spanned a couple of nights, and the family had driven from their home in Mexico City to a spot closer to the border — but to remain undetected, they needed to complete the rest of the journey on foot.
Or, rather, on hands and knees.
The family was forced to crawl through random farmlands as they moved closer to where they would try to cross the border. As they crawled through these strange, foreign fields, the moon lit the night sky only enough so that the family could see dirt building up under their fingernails. The faint noise of rustling leaves could easily be mistaken for the snakes with which these fields were said to be filled.
“I remember my dad just being like, ‘Oh, don’t get up, don’t get up — just keep crawling,’ like we were just playing a little game,” says Ivan, a sophomore Cal track and field athlete.
The night not only provided protection from being detected, but proved critical for another reason: If the family was to travel during the day, the heat of the Mexican summer would literally melt the children’s shoes into the ground. But that wasn’t the only concern.
“I remember one time that Ivan got poked in the eye by something he couldn’t see. I think it was a stick, and he wanted to cry,” says Antonio Gonzalez, Ivan’s father, in a translation by his son. “But I had to cover his mouth to make sure he wouldn’t cry, or we’d all get caught. He was only 5.”
As the family continued their trek toward the border, there was more than just the physical path that needed to be illuminated for the Gonzalez family. All that was certain about their future was that it was uncertain.
The Gonzalezes successfully crossed the border, and Ivan’s aunt and uncle, Rigoberto and Rosario Gonzalez, picked them up and took the family in for three years in Los Angeles. Knowing they had this place to come to made the decision to cross the border easier for the family.
Before he moved the family, Antonio worked in the United States as a welder and brought money back home. While this was necessary to put food on the table, it kept Antonio away from what was most important to him — his family.
During one of the few trips that Antonio was able to make across the border to visit his family, a 3-year-old Ivan was unable to recognize his father as Antonio leaned in for a hug, so Ivan pushed Antonio away.
“It was so sad for me to see my own children — for my own blood to not want me. For Ivan to not know me, it was hard,” Antonio remembers through tears. “It made me realize I wanted our whole family to be together in a single place — together. That’s why I wanted to move here. I saw a better life for all of us. I just wanted to be with my family all the time.”
This drove Antonio and his wife, Patricia, to decide to move their family to the United States. But it was Patricia’s pregnancy that determined when, because the couple wanted to cross the border in time for their daughter Jackie to be born an American citizen. So Ivan; his parents; his older sister, Lorena; and his older brother, Manuel, prepared to cross the border.
After the crossing, Antonio continued his work as a welder but was paid less than his peers, largely because of his undocumented status. Despite this, the Gonzalezes accumulated enough money that they were able to move out of Rigoberto and Rosario’s home and into an apartment of their own in Los Angeles. After four years in Los Angeles, they left for a home in Bakersfield, California.
Living in California put the family in a climate where the immigration debate was especially prevalent. But there were benefits to living there as well, as it provided a ready-made community of fellow immigrants. This also gave Ivan and his family a look at how risky living there was, and how terrifying the worst-case scenario could be.
“I’ve met other immigrants who came to this country, but for some reason or another, they haven’t been able to get their papers fixed, and one of them gets deported — either the wife or the husband,” says Patricia, in a translation by her son. “The family ends up separated, and the kids have to grow up missing a parent.”
When Ivan first started attending school in the United States, he was in a wholly different environment from the one from which he had come. And his classmates made sure he knew they were aware that he was different. Each mispronounced word brought mockery and the renewed taunts that Ivan should go back to where he came from. It was enough hatred and derision to make anyone — let alone a child — feel ostracized.
Perhaps the most biting words Ivan heard were not those of his fellow students, but of his elementary school teacher.
“She told me I probably wasn’t even going to make it,” Ivan says. “She said, ‘It’s gonna be tough here. You’re not gonna fit in here.’ ”
Adam Setser, Ivan’s health teacher as well as track and cross country coach, remembers him being especially quiet in class — something Setser partially attributes to Ivan’s fear of pronouncing something imperfectly and getting ridiculed for it. It began to seem impossible for Ivan to thrive or enjoy life in the United States. As the bullying continued well into high school, and more and more vitriol was spouted about immigration, it would have been easy for Ivan to become discouraged.
Instead of being consumed by the public debate surrounding him, Ivan focused on school and running. He took advantage of opportunities such as his school’s English language development program, or ELD, from fifth to eighth grade — which was a source of more bullying.
“You didn’t want to tell people that you were there,” Ivan says. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, what class do you have third period?’ and I had ELD. So I was like, ‘Oh, English — it’s a second English class.’ And some people would say, ‘No you don’t. You have ELD.’ And then the jokes and stuff like that started.”
Ivan also turned to athletics in high school, where he began to show star-athlete potential.
“I know he always dreamed of being an Olympian or a professional at his sport,” Setser says. “As he became more successful in track, it kind of made him realize that his dream may actually be able to come true here.”
Ivan’s track career eventually led to a California state championship in the 800-meter race, with a time of 1:50.71 — close to the NCAA qualifying time that year, in just his second season on the high school team. His successes brought him to UC Berkeley as a cross country and track athlete, making him the first in his family to attend a university.
Ivan, who had a solid first year at UC Berkeley, has had a few injuries that have marred his sophomore season, which can prove difficult in a sport that hinges so much on being in perfect competition shape and having a mileage base. In his redshirt freshman year on the cross country team, Ivan needed to get oral surgery, which kept him from running for three weeks. This put him out of shape for the rest of the season and shifted his focus to getting in shape in time for the track season. But Ivan had to redshirt the 2015 track season because of shin splints.
“When I found out I was coming to the world’s third-ranked university, I was like, ‘Dang, you know, I’m running for them,’ ” Ivan says. “It’s a miracle, you know, being here. That’s what I like to call it.”
This new chapter in Ivan’s life coincides with new good fortunes for his family. Ivan’s brother, Manuel, fell in love with and married an American citizen, which has opened the door to what could be legalization for the whole family. Patricia already has a green card, and Antonio and Ivan will be next. Antonio’s career as a welder is becoming more lucrative, and the family finds itself in better shape than they would have been in if they hadn’t come to the United States.
In many ways, the whole family believes it has achieved the American Dream.
“I’m very happy that we came here, because all of the kids and all of us have made lives here and reached goals that we probably wouldn’t have been able to reach in Mexico,” Patricia says. “There were opportunities here that I’m very thankful for.”
This is not to say that the often-harsh rhetoric surrounding immigration does not still affect Ivan’s family. To them, it is hurtful and disturbing that people are questioning whether they belong in their new home, and that they have been made to look like villains who are here to steal American jobs.
“We were all made to be free. That’s what God made us for — to be free, to make our own decisions,” Patricia says. “There are opportunities for everybody. Everyone has the opportunity to become what they want. I don’t know why people are worried about immigrants coming to this country. We’re all here for the same reasons — to work, to give our families a good life. We don’t come here to rob or to steal. We come here for the same reason that they’re here.”
Ivan has taken this opportunity and done more with it than he could have imagined. Now he hopes to get rights and recognition for the DREAM-er community — the people who meet the requirements of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act — and to make it known that they are people and deserve to be treated as such, just like everyone else.
“We’re just here to live those opportunities, just to live the American Dream, I guess — to make our kids have better lives than we had,” Ivan says. “I’m not ashamed to say I’m a DREAM-er.”
The little boy who came to this country with his head down can now look up.
Contact Hooman Yazdanian at [email protected].