I’m An Undocumented Single Mother, & “The American Dream” Is Not What I Thought
As told to Dara Pettinelli:
It was not my choice to come to America. I never planned to become an undocumented, single mother. I had my whole life planned out in Mexico. All my friends and family were there. I was doing well in school. We left because we had to get away from my father. He was very violent with my mother and my sisters, but mostly to me, probably because I was the oldest and the least afraid to fight back. No one would help us, even his own family was afraid of him. There was nowhere for us to run.
We had to wait a few years before my mom’s brother, who lived in Chicago, could pay $2,000 per person to get us to the States. I was 15 on the day we escaped. I had instructions to leave the house at a certain time and meet my mom where she worked. My dad thought I was just picking one of my sisters up from school. After getting both my younger sisters, a family member drove us to the bus station. The bus took us from Mexico City to the U.S. border near Arizona. My two younger sisters went with a white family to drive across the border, but my mom and I stayed with the larger group. We waited until nightfall before walking so that the border patrol helicopters wouldn’t see us. It took us eight hours to cross. I had moments of thinking I wasn’t going to make it because the walk was so long. It was so dark, I didn’t even know where I was walking. I was too scared to go to the bathroom in the open field. There was no stopping for anything. Everybody was quiet. We had to pay attention to what was happening. At the sound of a helicopter, our coyote would tell us to drop. Coyotes are the people who help others cross the border. Our group was lucky — some people don’t make it the first time, they get lost or they get caught. After crossing the border, we were reunited with my sisters.
Once we arrived in America, we flew to L.A. and from there, to Chicago where my uncle was waiting for us. This was six months before 9/11, so we were able to fly without documents.
We weren’t rich in Mexico, but I didn’t experience poverty until I came to America. My mom, myself, and two younger sisters lived in one bedroom in my uncle’s house. There were rodents and roaches, and I could hear gunshots at night. I felt like it wasn’t even worth it to come here. I started school a week after arriving. It was the second semester of my sophomore year. The school was always on lockdown because the kids were fighting all day, almost every day. We would be forced to sit in the lunchroom for up to eight hours, and the whole school day would be wasted. I didn’t learn anything.
My mom was a nurse in Mexico, but if she wanted to continue her career in the U.S., she’d have to learn English. Working was a priority for her because my uncle was charging interest on the $8,000 loan to get us here. My mom never asked me to work — it’s something I wanted to do to be with her and to make money. She got me fake documents, and on my school vacations and summer break I’d leave the house with her at 4 a.m. to work in a factory making $7 an hour. Factory work was the easiest work for us to get being undocumented. Eventually my mom got a job at a Mexican restaurant, and I was able to work there three days a week. It sucked so hard. I expected more from fellow Mexicans, but I learned quickly that I wasn’t going to get a break because I was one of them. Between Mexicans it’s just harder. You see somebody new, you don’t help them. I feel like it’s part of the culture here in the U.S.: Instead of helping or having solidarity with your neighbors, they want to see you down.
Eventually I got a temp job at chain of stationery stores working in their warehouse. It was amazing: I learned a lot, plus I was sitting down all day. I made about $9 an hour, which was above minimum wage at the time. That’s where I met my son’s father. I was 20, he was 24. Once they found out we were dating, we got fired. I found out I was pregnant literally right after. I decided to keep the baby, and we broke up.
I was four months pregnant when I took another job at a restaurant. A month into the job my belly popped out. The owners didn’t say anything. They were happy with me. I was a hard worker, and that’s the only thing they cared about. I made $4 an hour, plus tips. Per week, that was less than $300.
During that time, my son's father wouldn’t leave me alone. He didn’t know when to stop. I was scared. He was selling drugs. He was doing all these crazy things that I never even imagined he was capable of. He almost killed me twice. A month after my son was born, I’d had enough. I got a restraining order and got him put in jail for a year and a half. Then he got deported back to Mexico. I think he was trying to make his life better, and then he lost his job and just didn’t give a crap anymore. It’s just a struggle for everything, and some people are not strong enough for that struggle.
I took three weeks off after giving birth, then I worked at night so I could watch my son during the day. Because I was living at home, my sister, who was 15 at the time, would watch him for me while I was at work, and worse case, I’d bring him to work in the stroller.
You’re not going to be the engineer you were in your country. You’re not going to be hired as a nurse like you were in your country. Even if you were a lawyer, you’re going to be washing dishes in a restaurant because this country does not offer the same opportunities to everybody.
Regardless of whatever job I had, I have always lived near the poverty line. It didn’t really matter what I did or what I had done. I’m not convinced that becoming a citizen will change things for me. My mother is undocumented and she owns two houses. Of course benefits like a 401K would be nice in the long term. I know people my age who are citizens, and they struggle way more than me. I feel like the system here in the U.S. is, if you’re poor, they’re trying to keep you poor. I have also seen people with legal documents who don’t take advantage of it. My mom has always taught me how to plan. There’s people that just work to work, there’s no plan. And also there’s a lot of people that come here to work and send money to their families. You come here, and you work all day every day, and you’re not seeing the results because you’re not really working for you, you’re working for somebody else. It is a hard life.
It’s sad when you don’t realize that it’s not the American Dream until you come to America, and there’s no way to go back. It takes so long to get here, and then you get here and realize that the only way you’re going to make money is by working 10 to 12 hours a day. You’re not going to be the engineer you were in your country. You’re not going to be hired as a nurse like you were in your country. Even if you were a lawyer, you’re going to be washing dishes in a restaurant because this country does not offer the same opportunities to everybody.
The most I take home in pay each week, including tips, is $500. I don’t get paid sick time or paid vacation. I just started making above minimum wage last year, but even when my wages have gone up, I never feel like I’m relieved.
I have my vision for what I want to do in a couple of years. I want to have my Master’s. I want to move out of my mom’s house. We don’t live in a safe neighborhood. There’s a lot of gangs; they’re always killing people. I have a 9 year old who can be easily targeted because he’s a boy and because he’s Mexican. I’m sacrificing safety in order for us to move up a little bit. I’m able to afford things for my son because I don’t have to pay a lot of rent.
Right now, I go to school 14 hours a week, and I work at a restaurant 40 hours a week. I manage two days and serve on the other two. Even though I moved up to manager, I sometimes make more money serving just because I get tips. The most I take home in pay each week, including tips, is $500. I don’t get paid sick time or paid vacation. I just started making above minimum wage last year, but even when my wages have gone up, I never feel like I’m relieved. As my son grows, his needs are just bigger and more expensive.
I don’t get financial help from the government, so I have to pay for everything out of pocket. I just have to squeeze my needs. I’m young: I want to go buy shoes, I want to buy clothes, I want to go out, I want to go travel, but I cannot do that because I am responsible for this little human being, and his needs are always first. He goes to a selective enrollment school 30 minutes from where we live and is involved in sports. Sometimes I feel selfish for working and going to school, for trying to take on everything. We’re always running around. We leave the house every day at 7 a.m. and come back at 7:30 p.m. and do homework, go to sleep — the same thing every day. And he’s a child. I worry about giving him enough of the quality time he needs.
When somebody finds out that I’m a single mom they become protective of their partners like I’m going to take them away. There is a stigma that we single moms are just looking for somebody to support us or someone, a man, to come and help us, and that’s not true. One of the servers in the restaurant where I work is always like, “Where’s your son right now?” And I’m like, “Oh, he’s with the babysitter.” She’ll say, “Well, shouldn’t you be with him? What are you doing here?” And I’m like, “Well, just remember if I wasn’t here, he would be dead because he needs food.” There’s this tradeoff that I have to make in order for us both to be alive. Now that I’m a manager she doesn’t even talk to me anymore.
I hope my son’s life is better than mine. I’m trying to do the best that I can with what I have. I just want to create a good person.
I’m sure I’m taking jobs away [from citizens], but I don’t care. Don’t think that [bosses] look at me and say, “Oh this little Mexican needs a job. Let’s give her more money?” Come on. It’s not like that. I have worked many places where they know I’m a good worker, but they’re not gonna give me more money. They’re not gonna give me another position. The restaurant industry is one of the worst ones to work in. It’s a private sector, and there’s so many undocumented people that it gives the opportunity for stealing tips and wages, abusing people, harassing women. I learned from when I was little to not let people abuse me. I will say something.
At my current job, I feel that my work is appreciated. I feel like every time that I’ve worked hard, there’s been a compensation. My manager was raised by a single woman, and he understands the struggle that I have with my son sometimes. He always puts me on the schedule I want. There’s an understanding that I have other needs.
I hope my son’s life is better than mine. I’m trying to do the best that I can with what I have. I just want to create a good person. Sometimes you can raise the best person in the world, and he’s a sh*tty person when he grows up. Sometimes you can raise a kid in the worst environment, and they grow up to be nice people. It’s a gamble. I can only try to do the best I can for him, and he’s going to come to an age when he’s going to realize that there’s been effort put into his life. There’s someone who cares about him, and I hope that matters once he grows up.
I have to work for my goals because nobody else is going to work for them for me. Nobody’s going to help me, even if I get a boyfriend, or I get married, at the end of the day if I don’t want to do it, nobody’s going to force me to do it.