“Get out of the country, you illegals!” I yelled at the top of my lungs from the backseat of the car my friend was driving. “We don’t want you here!”
You may never guess that a member of Jose Antonio Vargas’s Define American organization, which aims to create a more welcoming culture for immigrants, once yelled insults at Latino day laborers as a teenager. Furthermore, you may also never guess I am Latino myself, and that my father was once an undocumented immigrant.
But it’s true. I once screamed those words. Not because I was angry at the day laborers. Certainly not because I had come to hate immigrants. I did it because I thought it was something normal to do… everyone was doing it.
I’ve kept that memory a secret since I was 14 years old. Twelve years later, as part of Define American’s “Coming Out” campaign, that asks both undocumented immigrants and their allies to share their stories and experiences, I’m choosing to share this difficult story. This was the beginning of my journey to becoming an ally.
As my friends and I sped away from that Brentwood, New York corner a dozen years ago, I remember immediately slinking into my seat. I knew what I had just done was wrong. After all, my parents were proud of me for being a good student and a good person; they’d be furious if they found out I’d been so cruel. They were immigrants themselves, having come from Ecuador and Guatemala respectively, for better opportunities.
In life, there are moments that redefine your purpose. For me, that moment came when I was a college student. On Long Island, I had a job delivering mail in Huntington, New York. It was only my third day on the job when I came across an anti-immigrant rally. On one side of the street stood a dozen Latino day laborers, confused and frightened. One the other side stood “Americans” — chanting, waving flags and screaming at the men. I remember clearly, one of the anti-immigrant protesters smiled and signaled at me, asking me to honk in support.
I felt disgusted, for two reasons. One, I couldn’t believe some Long Islanders could be so angry at immigrants; immigrants no different than my parents. And two, I was ashamed that I once yelled exactly the same things the protesters were yelling at the day laborers. I shook my head at the mob. There was no way I would honk.
A year later in 2008, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant was murdered in Patchogue, Long Island. Seven high school students from Patchogue-Medford assaulted and eventually murdered Lucero. The young men, five white, one black, and one Latino, were “beaner hopping,” a “sport” in which people would target those who looked Latino at night.
At this point, I knew I needed to become involved. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines any longer.
Throughout the rest of my time in college and graduate school, I learned the complexities of today’s immigration debate: the worldwide root cause of migration, the evolution of immigration laws, and most importantly, taking action and lending a voice to amplify those who are not being heard.
When I finished graduate school, I began working at Long Island Wins, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding common-sense solutions for all Long Islanders: immigrant and U.S-born alike. One of my proudest accomplishments in those three years was working with Mayor Paul Pontieri, and the Village Of Patchogue government to create a more intentionally welcoming atmosphere for immigrants in the region. Today, the Village Of Patchogue works proactively to protect immigrant rights and promote inclusivity, regardless of immigration status.
It’s time to take these ideas and efforts nationally.
Beginning this fall, I’ll be launching Define American’s new College Chapters program. I’ll be working with educators, student leaders, and community members nationwide to turn our conversation about immigrants, identity and citizenship in a changing America into action.
On Define American’s website, you can find our brand new story sharing platform where we invite you to record and share your own story or experience. Undocumented immigrants and allies are in every community, and are more numerous than the average American thinks. Our ask is simple — share your story with us, we need your voice. Perhaps you yourself were not always an ally. That’s okay. We’ve built a digital community to increase support for allies like yourself, and for you to show solidarity for undocumented immigrants.
What I’ve chosen to reveal here is one of the hardest things I ever had to share, given my line of work. But I hope that my experience will hopefully inspire more allies to share their stories.
I was once a part of the problem in how we talk about immigrants and immigration in this country, even if it was when I was a teenager. But a crucial part of what “Define(s) American” to me is the ability to evolve and become a better version of yourself. It’s never too late — sometimes all you need is a second chance.