I first met America, my new home, on August 3, 1993 — exactly 18 years ago today.
Like all mothers, mama wanted to give me a better life. So she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in California, where she believed a wealth of opportunities and gallons of chocolate ice cream awaited her son. Faster than I could realize what was transpiring — will mama follow soon? just how far is America? — I left the Philippines and found myself in Mountain View, California, smack in the middle of Silicon Valley and home to the twin American ideals of innovation and entrepreneurship. It was (and is) a land fueled by immigrants old and new.
It was new all around: new family, new language, new culture. One of my earliest memories was standing in the middle of a big grocery store, with wide aisles and bright lights, staring, in pure awe, at a wall of canned dog food. I’d never seen canned dog food.
From the moment I arrived, it seemed I was meeting a new part of America every day. Flag football. Tacos, burgers and casseroles. Kids from different and mixed racial backgrounds. From as far back as I could remember — back when I was a curiosity among my classmates at Crittenden Middle School for wearing cowboy boots (I'd never owned cowboys boots, which my grandpa bought for me at a garage sale) — all I'd ever wanted to do was to make sense of the people around me. I wanted to understand what they said, why they said what they said, and how we're all different but really all the same — and sometimes different and the same all at once.
For me, it was not as much about assimilating; it was more about the process of self-discovery. In a country that promises so much freedom and individuality, it seemed those around me were constantly discovering new things about the world and themselves — constantly fighting to discover and live their fullest potential. I reveled in it.
And, that, in a way, is the essence of America. No matter where you come from, whether or not you're documented and have the right papers, you see yourself, your truer, better self, in this journey of self-discovery. "America is in the heart," reads the title of the seminal book by the Filipino writer and activist Carlos Bulosan. Indeed, it is – and America is very much in mine.
A few weeks ago, I "came out" as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine and have since received thousands of emails from other Americans "coming out" with their own stories. We will continue to highlight their stories in the coming weeks and months on DefineAmerican.com. There is, as well, something quintessentially American about "coming out." On a daily basis, sometimes within our own water coolers, perhaps on our Facebook walls, we're "coming out" to each other. The challenge, then, is for us to actually listen and see our lives in each other.
This weekend, I'll be in San Diego for BlogHer, the largest gathering of women bloggers in the country. I am to speak of being an undocumented immigrant, of being an American at heart but having no physical papers to prove it, of my years trying to succeed and survive in spite of the barriers facing undocumented immigrants like myself.
This being BlogHer, I will be surrounded by many mothers who, like my mama, only wanted the best for their children. Mama, as ever, will be on my mind. Because of the legal walls that have separated us, I have not traveled outside the U.S. since 1993, for fear of not being able to come back. She has not been able to get a visa in the Philippines to visit me here. Today also marks the 18 years that I have not seen my mother.
Then and now, I am grateful to her for wanting nothing more than to give her son a better life.
I've been trying to think of the best way to commemorate this day, this kind of "18th America Day" for me. To honor it, I'd like to ask you to join me in doing something very simple: Will you take a moment and tell your mother thank you?
Take a brief minute or two this afternoon and tell your mother how thankful you are for what she has given you — for the life she's provided you here in America and the sacrifices she's undoubtedly made for you. Give her a call. Post a short note on her Facebook wall. Send a text. Just let her know.
If you want to tell us what you told your mom in the comments here, on the Define American Facebook wall or send us a tweet, we'd love that too, but that's much less important than you telling your mom how grateful you are.
Thank you all for your continued, amazing support — today and every day.