Britney Baldelomar, a fourth-year UC Santa Cruz student, is the only one in her family born in America, “with American opportunities.” Her parents and older siblings came from Bolivia before she was born. She spent decades living in fear her family would be caught, separated. She always wondered why her siblings didn’t go to college or have the same chances she did. Last year, she finally turned 21 and petitioned for their citizenship.
I remember always feeling different from my family members.
Even when I was little, my mom always wanted me to “grow up” — meaning turn 21 — so I could petition for their citizenship.
I am the only one in my family born in America. The only one with “American” opportunities.
Born in 2000, I came roughly 10 years after my family arrived from Bolivia.
My brother was already 15 and my sister was 11 when I was born. My brother got to choose my first name — Britney (after Britney Spears) — and my sister got to choose my middle name — Rachel (after Rachel Green from “Friends”).
Growing up, I never understood why my siblings did not go to college.
It pained me, as I looked up to my brother and sister for being such hard-working and intelligent people. They worked as soon as they could and started helping my parents pay bills; my brother even got me my first phone. My sister still pays my phone bill to this day.
My brother got me into reading and always encouraged and nursed my creativity. We would watch Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve together, and he would always pick me up from elementary school blasting My Chemical Romance songs. My brother always spoke to me like I was an adult, while also being affectionate like an older brother is, despite our age difference.
My sister was the first to leave the house and be independent, the first to get married, the first to escape, as she might say.
She has always been sure of herself. My sister, who had to take care of me and the house when she was 11 because my parents were working.
When I was in elementary school, my brother and sister would go to my parent-teacher conferences and assemblies.
My parents had four jobs between them.
Mom worked a 9-5 as a receptionist in East Los Angeles, then she and my father would sell clothes every Saturday at a local swap meet. Dad worked at a pizza place my whole life. Later, he was a chef at a seafood restaurant in Seal Beach. My mom was always hustling and haggling, even at Ross or Target, she would tell the cashier in her Bolivian accent, “Hmm … but this looks a little broken. Can I get a discount?”
My mom has always been good about money. Whenever I wanted a new toy, clothes or books, she would always say, “Next time,” and I knew that was basically a no.
As I got older, the family focused on my schooling, the college dream. I never really questioned why my siblings didn’t dream. Didn’t go. I know they could not.
Of course, there are opportunities and scholarships, which is what people always tell me when I talk about my siblings. Whenever people tell me about all the “opportunities,” I think of the metaphor involving elephants at the circus, and how they’re chained to the floor since infancy. Because of that, when they are older and strong enough to break the chains, they won’t. They are convinced they simply aren’t strong enough.
I was in 11th grade Advanced Placement Literature when we read a piece written around 2005 (which is around the time my brother would have gone to college), about a young undocumented “Dreamer” who was not allowed to submit financial aid, since he was not a citizen. He had to give up his dream of higher education to work, until eventually he managed to go to school and get his degree with a lot of struggle. Which is exactly what my brother and sister did.
My brother wanted to study English literature, but he was not eligible for financial aid. My sister eventually went on to study child development, but has not finished (yet). They’re both parents now, amazing ones at that.
They both work for the school district I attended in my childhood — my sister is a food service worker for the cafeteria and my brother is a front-desk assistant at an elementary school. Their nurturing nature suits their careers. They have ended up OK.
But I still wonder about all the possibilities and accomplishments they could have achieved, if my parents had come to America five years sooner than they did.
During my first year at UC Santa Cruz in 2021, I was a closing manager at the Porter Dining Hall, and my mom called me several times during my shift. I couldn’t take the call, and I didn’t call her back until I finished. When I did, I could immediately hear the happiness in her voice. She was telling me that “it” finally went through — the petition I signed a few months ago to grant my parents’ citizenship was accepted.
I walked back to my dorm room with tears of relief in my eyes. It felt like I had been waiting my whole life for that moment.
I had been. I didn’t have to be scared anymore. Our family could no longer be separated by the government.
When my sister got her papers in 2016, she had to go back to Bolivia and then cross back here the “correct way.” She spent a month there, and it was like hell for her, and for all of us. She was in a place where she felt completely alone. I remember looking at the clock and thinking, how is she doing? What is she doing? When will she be back?
Many undocumented immigrants have fewer opportunities than my siblings did, but all of us live with a collective fear. The fear of being deported, separated from family, sent to your country of birth, which doesn’t feel like home.
My story is not an uncommon one.
The first to go to college, I’ve had many incredible opportunities. My favorite book of all time is “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck, and the more I think about it, the more I remember the term “timshel,” and the general idea that children should not be punished for the actions or mistakes of their parents. I do not think my parents coming here was a mistake, but an action they made for themselves and the future of their family. For me.
My whole life I was afraid of talking about citizenship and papers, I was scared I would be judged or even worse, that my family would be reported. It was something that could not be said out loud, not in public, not even to my closest friends.
Now, I want everyone to know — and I want to help people.
I am different from my family members. But maybe not so much different. I am willing to take risks and fail.
I am also willing to do whatever it takes to take care of my family, and build a better life for us here.
Britney Baldelomar is a fourth-year creative writing major and legal studies minor at UC Santa Cruz. In fall 2021, she took an opinion writing course with Community Voices Editor and UCSC professor Jody K. Biehl. She produced this personal essay during the course. She hopes to become a writer and an immigration lawyer in order to help families like hers stay together.