The Original DREAMer: My Mom

Sunday, May 12, 2013

By Hemly Ordonez

My mother began her life in the U.S. as an undocumented domestic worker cleaning the homes of Anglo families in North Hollywood. My mom, my tias, and my Abuelita Nina (may she rest in peace) are the mamas in my life that seamlessly weaved a tapestry for me of what it meant to be both Guatemalan and a citizen of the United States; they taught me the values that have come to define my life; and they demonstrated how to build a strong immigrant family. My mama is the original dreamer in my life, the glue that holds us together. I never would have been able to be where I am today, as a college graduate and a state policy strategist, without her.

In 1974, my mother, Maria Ester, was a college student seeing the beginnings of a civil war in Guatemala when she found out that she would soon be a young mother. She decided to emigrate to the U.S. in the only way she could afford to—as an undocumented immigrant. She found herself in downtown Los Angeles, with her husband, and eventually my tias and tio as well, trying to forge a life together. Together they all raised my older brother as an American citizen born in this country, and ten years later they would come together to raise me too.

The birth of my brother in 1975 ensured that my mother would qualify to access a pathway to citizenship in the U.S. While the immigration process was not perfect then, the timing of their entry between 1975 and 1980 allowed my father, my tio, and my tias to qualify for citizenship or apply for amnesty by 1986. In addition, my mother was able to sponsor my Abuelita Nina to take care of me. This pathway to legalization is what dramatically shifted the lives of my family. My family managed to stay together, became citizens, and moved to access different employment opportunities outside of downtown Los Angeles. This meant that my mother, who began her career as a domestic worker, came out of the shadows and with a Spanish/ English dictionary in her hand took the California civil service exam. Documentation and citizenship opened up this opportunity and my mother became an employee for the state of California at the Employment Development Department, where she has worked for the past 20 years. Life as I knew it would not be possible without my mom’s, my tia’s, and my abuelita’s access to immigration laws that supported family unity.

As the shifting immigration climate after 2001 began to tear families apart, I understood just how bad it was when the devastation eventually caught up to my family. I was a rising junior in college at Georgetown University and had come home to California for the summer. My mother gathered my family and we caravanned to visit relatives an hour outside of Los Angeles. I learned that my tia had died crossing the Arizona desert in the arms of her children. My tia and cousins had attempted to immigrate without documentation to escape extortion in Guatemala and the United States was not the same place that my mother had immigrated to 31 years earlier. We attended the funeral and tried to figure out what we could do to continue to support my cousins. It was clear in that moment that uniting my family was central to how we were going to work through this tragedy together.

My mother was the original dreamer in my life and so was the mother of my cousins, my tia, who died trying to give her children something better. The prevalent anti-immigrant climate in Arizona and the current debate on comprehensive immigration reform are personal. In order to build strong immigrant families and secure the future of my family we must have comprehensive immigration reform that sees our humanity. This means that we must have a clear and accessible roadmap to citizenship, respect for family unity that is LGBT-inclusive and ensures that immigration enforcement is sensitive to family needs, and that there is access to health care. I will continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes all the mamas in my life and honors the experience of my mom, Maria Ester Ordonez.

Curated by Hemly Ordonez the State Strategies Manager at Advocates for Youth

This blog post is part of the Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way celebration. You can read more posts in the series on the Strong Families blogStrong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.

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