It’s 2011. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program doesn’t exist yet, so I have no access to a driver’s license or the right to own a vehicle.
I’m carpooling from North Hollywood to Santa Fe Springs for my first day of work at a manufacturing company. The driver and I sit in the white ‘89 Toyota Camry — parked on Interstate 5 during the 6 a.m. rush — singing along to the radio and complaining about the traffic during commercials.
But I’m not worried — I’m not scheduled to meet with my new employer until 7:45 a.m. This isn’t my dream job, but it’ll allow me to pay my bills and help me save money for school and books. As an undocumented student, I can’t afford to be picky. A job is a job.
Jobs for undocumented people are hard to come by. Back then, I couldn’t get a job close to home. When I finally found one, I would immediately take it and figured out how to get there later. But sometimes, I had to sacrifice a semester of junior college because I couldn’t find transportation that would allow me to get from work and to school on time.
I was lucky with this manufacturing job because I knew someone who drove toward Santa Fe Springs during the week. Otherwise, the commute would’ve been nearly impossible — taking public transportation could easily mean three bus transfers and a nearly three-hour commute each way.
That day in 2011, as we hit 40 mph, the car begins to wheeze, huff and puff. We look at each other nervously. There’s no shoulder, and the next exit is a quarter mile away.
After numerous honks from angry freeway drivers and in the face of a dying car, we make it out of the freeway and turn into a residential street. There, the car proceeds to die forever.
The driver lost her car that morning, and I lost my mode of transportation to my first day of work.
I pull out my phone to call my boss and explain the situation. But I must not have sounded sincere enough, because I get fired as soon as I finish explaining.
Before DACA’s initiation on June 15, 2012, commuting to work was a constant struggle. I had to have a job not only to pay bills or food, but also to be able to afford junior college courses and books.
Although getting a higher education was a priority for me, sometimes the means that allowed me to achieve this were unattainable.
One of the privileges I valued the most when I joined DACA was being qualified to obtain a valid California driver’s license — this 3-by-2-inch piece of plastic allowed me to purchase my first car and transfer out of junior college to UC Berkeley.
After I bought my own car, I accepted a job offer for a position I actually enjoyed — not just one I had to accept out of necessity. Monday through Friday, I easily commuted the 42.7 miles to get to work. From work, I drove 47.5 miles to night school and finally 4 miles home.
On average, I spent nearly three hours a day on the road.
But I didn’t mind the long commute. While people typically complained about spending a lot of time on the freeway, I felt — even while sitting in heavy traffic — like I was free in my own car.
Having a reliable car of my own meant that I could work 40 hours a week (at a job that I liked), make it to school on time and drive back home safely. I no longer had to depend on others to give me a ride, nor did I have to take the bus at 10 o’clock at night to get home after class.
Overall, it took me five years to complete my transfer requirements at my junior college. My transfer was mainly delayed because, without a car, I was constantly forced into taking semesters off. Having to carpool to work and back home meant that my academic future was dependent on someone else’s schedule.
If DACA wasn’t implemented in 2012, I would probably still be struggling to balance my commute with finishing my academic requirements.
Purchasing my first car paved the road for my eventual transfer to UC Berkeley. And I’m glad the drive has led me here.