By Jenny Patiño —
My sister is the one who told me about the Immigrant Youth Justice League’s DREAM Act “DREAM Deferred, Life Denied” vigil taking place on Dec. 7, 2010 at Federal Plaza. It’s a long and complicated family story, but I was born in Chicago whereas she was born in Celaya, Mexico. I am a citizen of the U.S. and she is not. We are both waiting for an opportunity for her to be able to adjust her status, which would ideally arrive in the form of the DREAM Act. When there are pro-immigration reform rallies, demonstrations and marches, we are usually there side by side.
She had been planning on attending the rally and had asked me to go with her. The night before the rally, she began making excuses, however. That she heard it would be too cold to be outside, she didn’t want to stand out in the cold for that long. I got frustrated. How could the weather matter at all? It was a chance to show our support of the DREAM Act! I would get all kinds of savage and bloody for her to have a chance at the kind of life she deserves. A little cold was nothing. She said she’d see in the morning about going.
Another reason for my frustration with her is that I find her constantly making excuses for why she can’t do things. I encourage her to volunteer with various groups and she plans on it, but at the last minute her plans fall apart.
And that’s what happened in the morning. I sat down on her bed and shook her awake. “C’mon, time to get ready to go.” “Ugh, get out of here,” she said. “I didn’t fall asleep until 6.” I was furious with her. She knew we had the rally to go to at noon! I slammed the door to her room and called her lazy. I went off to the rally on my own with a camera and notebook, planning on interviewing the members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League.
When the rally began, members of the league dressed in blue graduation robes laid down on the cold cement outside of the Federal Plaza. They were symbolically honoring the DREAMers who had died before the passage of the act as well as those who had taken their own lives out of the sense of hopelessness their situation had created for them. Pictures of three of those dreamers hung behind the speakers.
The point of the rally was to bring awareness to the impact immigration status has on these promising and bright young people. As soon as the first speaker took the microphone I was reduced to a stream of tears. There was no way I could pretend to be a journalist of any kind in this situation. It was too close to my heart. The first speaker read a note from a friend of Benjamin Pintor, who had committed suicide on Thanksgiving because he “never felt he had a true home.”
All I could do was cry. I flashed back to all my sister’s excuses, how difficult it must be to for her to motivate herself on a daily basis. I remembered all those times my sister had made comments like “What’s the point? I should just throw myself in front of a bus.” At the time I tried to comfort her, tell her not to talk like that. That there’s always a point. I imagined her words as a small eruption of defeatism and that she just need someone to cheer her up. Listening to members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League bare their wounds and talk about their struggle to stay alive made me realize how much deeper and more dangerous this struggle is for them—and for my sister.
One girl told us about how she tried to commit suicide a day after her high school graduation. “That’s when a funeral started to look less expensive than four years at the school of my choice,” she told us. Had my sister ever had that same thought? Another speaker told us about the scars on her arms. How she couldn’t sleep at night.
I was an asshole for having called my sister lazy that morning. Nervous about the rally, about the upcoming vote on the DREAM Act, she probably hadn’t been able to sleep either. Within the fight for the DREAM Act, there is another battle going on within each DREAMer. They are fighting to overcome the sense of worthlessness terms like “undocumented” and “illegal” bury in their spirits. They are fighting their own inner demons to stay alive.
It takes a lot of courage to admit their struggle and I am grateful to the members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League for coming forward to pierce the sense of isolation that depression creates. I’ve struggled with major clinical depression for ten years now myself. I can’t imagine having your family unwelcome in the country of your birth does wonders for your self-esteem. But unlike me, status-less immigrants like my sister are also dealing with the frustration of feeling that strangers in Washington get to decide what DREAMers get to do with their lives. Until attending the vigil, I didn’t realize how many layers this problem has.
I say this to her and to anyone else out there reading this and facing depression: “I know that there is a voice inside your head that tells you not to fight anymore at the slightest sign of defeat. And you have felt defeated before. But that voice is a liar. Depression distorts reality in the worst way and makes you imagine that there is no reason to hope. But please hang on, for clarity’s sake. Don’t let depression keep you from seeing all of your options. Please hang on. Together, we’ll find a way.”
Still, I wish my sister could have been with me at the vigil. I made sure to take lots of pictures for her. She has her good days and she has her bad ones. I’m just thankful that she’s in my life and that if she missed the rally it was to catch up on sleep and not because she had lost that inner battle. After years of being debilitated by depression, my sister recently enrolled at Harold Washington where she is taking her general education credits. I’m proud of her for taking that first step out of the darkness.
And I am proud of my country for doing the same in passing the DREAM Act in the House of Representatives. Now it is the Senate’s turn to do the same. So many lives are stalled and depending on it.
Like the bullied gay youth in our country, DREAMers are trying to build a sense of self worth in a society that is legally and culturally hostile to them. It helps to know that they are not alone. The message depressed gay teens received through caring videos on YouTube is that “It gets better.” With status-less immigrant teens, it is our responsibility to MAKE it better. Call your senators. Put pressure on them to pass the Dream Act in the senate. If possible, donate to organizations like the IYJL. And if you or someone is facing suicidal thoughts, get help. You can contact members of the IYJL and their social workers at http://www.iyjl.org/.
Jenny Patiño is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.