Feeling invisible

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Although we were the last two sitting at Starbucks, the space suddenly felt claustrophobic. As she sat across from me with questioning eyes, my heart began to race and my palms grew sweaty. I had revealed too much about myself.

Before I transferred to UC Berkeley, I met Rachel. We got to know each other when we were in our early 20s at a party — we talked about school, music and fashion. I definitely saw myself starting a friendship with this girl.

In the following months we became inseparable, attending all kinds of events together. But our friendship was not just about partying and socializing — we were really building a close relationship.

Rachel confided in me about her personal troubles and insecurities. In return, I would listen and offer my support and advice. Naturally, I too would share personal information about my life. But I measured the details of my stories without hinting at or raising suspicion about being a DACA recipient.

Before the initiation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, on June 15, 2012, I had lived 21 years undocumented. Growing up under these conditions made me a reserved person. Very few of my friends knew my legal status, mainly because of my fear of being judged and excluded.

In my early teens, it was much simpler to keep the secret — no one in my group of friends was really concerned with legalization. But as I got older, staying quiet became more difficult.

My college friends wondered why I never even considered joining the group on summer vacation trips to Cancún. I was engaging in superficial friendships, always limiting myself and never letting people know my true identity.

In order to keep my identity safe, I found myself lying to friends.

All my excuses were well-rehearsed — they were the key to my social survival. Among them were the infamous “I’m too broke” and “I can’t take time off work.” Really, all I wanted to say was that I couldn’t, even though I desired nothing more than to go on vacation like everybody else.

When I was younger, I was unable to travel because of my lack of legal documentation. Prior to DACA, I didn’t even have a state identification card. After the program came into existence, I was granted a California ID and driver’s license, but I still couldn’t travel outside of the United States for recreational purposes.

My legal situation had changed, but my social limitations persisted.

Like my previous friends, Rachel started to talk about the possibility of taking a trip together. Out of habit, I used my excuse of being financially strained. To my surprise, she formulated a savings plan and insisted on waiting for me to have enough money to take the trip with her.

I knew in that moment there was no sufficient excuse to change her mind. I would have to disclose my biggest secret and truth.

In the upcoming days, the supposed trip abroad was all Rachel would talk about. The more she would fantasize about it, the guiltier I felt. I had no choice but to shut down her dream of taking a trip together.

That night in Starbucks, it was impossible for me to focus as I sat across from Rachel, knowing that I had to tell her about my legal status. I didn’t know how to bring it up. Even though the jitters were intensifying, I decided to rip the Band-Aid.

“So about that trip … I can’t go because, legally, I’m not able to travel abroad.”

At first, she sat there listening tentatively, and I grew more confident. I began to think of how silly I had been to not trust my friend of a year — or any other friends, for that matter. But when I finished my story, she said, “So you weren’t born here?”

I was blindsided by Rachel’s question. I had exposed myself to her, and all that she was concerned with was my birthplace. This statement terminated our friendship. I knew immediately that I had said the wrong thing.

Needless to say, Rachel and I didn’t get together much after that. Suddenly, she was too busy or too tired.

Thinking about her reaction that night caused me physical pain. I felt increasingly insecure about who I was. And I found it impossible to trust any future friends for fear of being judged again.

More than ever, I felt that my legal status defined me and measured my worth.

It wasn’t until years later, when I came to UC Berkeley, that I began to heal. I decided that a new environment called for a new attitude. If the situation presented itself, I would assert my legal status to any new friends I would meet.

So far, this has not cost me any friendships. People seem to be more willing to understand and sympathize with my situation. Or maybe Rachel was just a bump in the road.

I now take pride in being a DACA recipient, having come this far regardless of my legal status. This is no longer a source of shame. And now I recognize that I shouldn’t have to make myself invisible to make friends.

Gladys Torres Avalos writes the Monday column on being a DACA recipient. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @gtorres_avalos.

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