Freedom Ride: Rafael
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Rafael is participating in the Immigrant Workers' Freedom Ride. He's riding on a bus from Chicago to Washington D.C. and New York City to advocate for immigrants' rights. Like many young people in the United States, he is undocumented. And like many young people, he is not allowed to attend college because of his illegal status. His only alternatives are to go back to Mexico, a country he doesn't know, or work menial jobs for minimum wage or less. His dream, to become a teacher, may never come true. Here is his story.
WireTap: What has life been like for you in the United States?
Rafael: When I was a very small child, I was very aware that this was not my land and that was not where I belonged. But I know no other place than this. I had a normal childhood. I lived a life just like any other person from this country. The only thing that makes me different is the government doesn't allow me to do what I want to do. Things that people take for granted, like driving, or having an ID, or traveling, are things I can't enjoy or take part in.
WT: Are you in the process of getting your citizenship?
R: I've been on the waiting list for years and years, and I know I'll be there for many years to come. They just have me on hold. I don't have an ID. I don't exist to anyone. I can't drive. I can't travel. I can't vote. Even though this is the greatest country in the world, I'm not a free person. I'm being held as a prisoner. A lot of kids in my situation are toddlers when we are brought here. We don't have a choice and are not aware of what is happening to us. We just go where our parents take us. I don't think it's fair that we're punished for the errors of our parents.
WT: Are you constantly hiding your status?
R: I did for awhile. There was a time in my life when no one knew my status. But I don't consider myself illegal. To me, illegal is a drug or an unlawful activity.
WT: When did you learn that, no matter how successful you were in high school, you wouldn't be able to attend college?
R: I learned freshman year. I had negativity in school and in my house. It made me want to give up. I just barely finished high school. I kept on telling myself, what's the point of going to school if I can't do what I want. I got negativity from teachers who would tell me that NAFTA was going to be something great for Mexico and that I would be good for that back in my country. I was encouraged to go back. I kind of gave up in those years because I already knew what my future was going to be like. The future that I wanted for me was not going to happen. I can't finish my dreams. Teachers give me hope -- stick in there, you'll be better than your parents. Then you realize that you can't, they won't allow you.
WT: If you had it your way, what would you be doing?
R: I think everyone has a calling in life. I think I would be an educator. Teaching is a very noble thing to do. It's a passion of mine.
WT: What do you say to people who tell you to go back to Mexico and become a teacher?
R: In Mexico, I have no family. I would be going back to nothing. It should be acknowledged that we have a right to be here.
WT: Instead of following your dream, what are you doing right now? How do you support yourself financially?
R: I do whatever I can to survive in a legal way. I clean people's houses and apartments. From time to time, I work at employment agencies or factories, where no one else wants to work, where they pay minimum wage and the working conditions are unfavorable. If I want to make an honest living, that's the only thing for me to do here.
WT: How do you feel knowing that your only alternative is jobs that most Americans don't want?
R: I feel frustrated. I'm a hard working person, but it's not a job I want to do. If I'm going to perform a job, I want to get paid what I should be paid for it, not minimum wage. I have had several employers who hired me based on the person they saw in the interview. But they release me. They can't break the law. They say, "I hate to do this, but I have to let you go." There are many opportunities that I have had to let go, and that's really depressing. These are jobs in customer service, data entry and retail. Now, when I'm looking for employment, I don't even consider the jobs I know I'm qualified to do. It brings my morale down.
WT: How do you stay hopeful?
R: It's very tough. I just take it day by day. There's a lot of depression. What you are used to doing in high school, you can't do anymore. You have to turn to labor. I'm not saying that I don't like to work, I just want to work where I want to work.
WT: Are you proud of yourself?
R: Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. I get frustrated. I think to myself, why can't you work in a factory like everybody else. There's millions of people here illegally and they're working and they're supporting their families. I think to myself, aren't you enough of a man, if the next person can work hard labor for 12 hours and make very little money, why can't you?
WT: When you get to Washington D.C. on the Freedom Ride, what message do you want to bring?
R: I want to bring the message that this country should take a look at the thousands and thousands of people who want to make a difference, just like me, who care about this country, who care about their community, who know what they want. They should give us a chance. We're not terrorists. We're here just like their ancestors were here, to make a better life for themselves.
WT: What do you want other young people to take away from this story?
R: I would want youth to really look at the future. They are the ones that are Americans. To look at their lives and see how much they have, and appreciate it more, not to take anything for granted, and achieve their dreams. And just that they would give us an opportunity and acknowledge that I exist.
Megan Tady is riding the bus from Chicago to Washington DC.