First Generation: Torn Between Two Cultures

Sep 17, 2014

Mara, a senior at Bridgewater State University, is leery of using her full name and photo because some of her family is in the country illegally. She provided this self portrait.
Credit Courtesy photo

Mara, of Falmouth, first came to Cape Cod with her parents when she was ten. These first generation immigrants who arrive when they’re young often are the ones who struggle most, as they have feet in two worlds. But two years ago, things got a little easier for some of them. A new presidential directive called DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – allows children who were in the U.S. before their 16th birthday to get work authorization and to defer deportation. Some opponents say the program amounts to temporary legalization, and they want it repealed. But about 700,000 young immigrants have taken advantage of DACA so far -- including Mara.

On any weekday afternoon, Mara is tucked away in a study room at the Falmouth Public library. She asks me not share her last name because she feels she’d be at risk, as if someone would come find her and take away what she has. She’s not a U.S. citizen. But she is a senior at Bridgewater State University. Stacked on the desk next to her is a pile of homework – including a very thick book of Shakespeare. She’s an English major.

In many ways, Mara is an ordinary 20-something college student. She has a hint of a Massachusetts accent. She’s thin and tall. Her back curls are usually down and spill over her shoulders. She’s the kind of person who remembers exactly how many B’s she got in school because the rest were A’s. She’s and artist and a thinker, as she puts it. And even though she doesn’t sound it, Mara is Brazilian. She came to the U.S. with her mom when she was ten. But she grew up here so, she’s American too. She just doesn’t have the papers to prove it. And that was always her secret – that she was here illegally. So, she just went to school and studied hard. And it was hard.

“Sometimes I compare it to being mute,” she said. “You can hear and you know what someone is saying but you can’t say anything in return. Not because you don’t want to. Because you want to!”

She’s in the library to work on her homework, but stacked on top of all the books and papers is the first item of business – a list of math tutors and phone numbers. She’s calling through the list, trying to find one for her little brother, Yohannes. She’s always been the one to help him with his homework. Her mom doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t doesn’t really speak Portuguese. “It’s very frustrating for my mom,” she said. “It’s kind of a basic thing that you would be able to communicate with your child.” So, Mara is the go-between.

Mara and her mom first came to the U.S. on a temporary visa back in 2000. But a few years later, it expired and they stayed. And suddenly Mara, who felt American, was no longer allowed to be here. Many young immigrants find themselves in this position – they were brought here, they created a life here, but they don’t have papers that allow them to be here. So, Mara grapples with the question: where does she belong? She calls herself a “hybrid.”

“It’s like being two different people almost simultaneously,” she says. Portuguese at home, English out in the world. And then there was the underlying stress that her parents could be sent back to Brazil at any moment. They’re here without papers, too.

When she and her family first arrived, she adjusted to life here more quickly than they did. She took on a lot of the household responsibilities. She’d write the checks. She’d find the apartments to rent. She’d interpret for her parents’ doctors’ appointments. All the while, struggling with the demands of her two disparate cultures – the Brazilian and the American.

When she got to high school, doors began to close on her. “All throughout my years in school all my teachers always encouraged me to do well, and I did. That’s what teachers are supposed to do,” she admits.  “And I thought obviously you can conquer the world. And I thought and grew up thinking that I could too.” But things turned out differently than she expected. She couldn’t study her way to citizenship. She couldn’t get a drivers license at 16 like her peers. She couldn’t go on a school trip to Spain. What she really wanted was to go to college, but most financial aid, scholarships and in-state tuition require proof of legal residency. And she didn’t have that.

When she graduated from Falmouth High School in 2008, when she couldn’t stand it any longer, she wrote a letter to tell her friends what she’d kept secret for so long and why. She discovered a statewide movement of people like her called the Student Immigrant Movement. It’s a youth-lead organization that fights for equal access to education for all immigrants. She campaigned for immigration reform. She told her story at the State House. She helped start a Cape Cod chapter of the movement, too. And she waited tables so she could afford night classes at Cape Cod Community College, hoping one day, some kind of immigration reform would pass and she could get her bachelors degree.

And then, in 2012 President Obama passed DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It gave young unauthorized immigrants, who were in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, a chance at temporary immigration status and a promise to defer deportation. Mara applied right away. At 22, she received permission to work, a valid social security card and a driver’s license. Now she’s studying English at Bridgewater and paying her way. She’s making her way in America, her home, but she still feels tied to her Brazilian home in Falmouth, and to her brother who was born here, who won’t have the troubles she’s had.

Mara has to renew her DACA status every two years – paying $465 each time. But the program doesn’t help with her parents immigration status, only hers. She still doesn’t feel entirely safe, even though she grew up here. Because in the back of her head is a little voice reminding her that while one president created DACA, which allows her to stay here, another President could come along and take it away.

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