I thought that I had nothing to lose when I left Brazil, but I did have dear intangible things which America stole from me. I had hope and dignity. If you ever went to Brazil, you would see nothing but smiles in people’s faces, and feel joy emanating from the caring way they interact with each other and carry themselves. Brazilians are very happy with very little. They are both proud and humble, at the same time; their pride comes from love of their culture, but they are grounded in their shared struggle. My happiness was not always attached to the fantasy of living in the United States. Before that, it was attached to the naive optimism I felt about myself and the world.
By first grade, I knew the value of an education. I hoped that I would secure a future in Brazil by being the best student I could be. I was in the middle of second grade when I left, and by that time I wrote complete sentences in cursive, and did multiplication. My dignity came from excelling in school and deeply identifying with my culture. I watched novelas, prayed to God every night, listened to Brazilian singers like Daniela Mercury, and loved our unique holidays and rituals. My happiness came from being culturally grounded, making up games to play with my cousins, and not wanting anything I couldn’t have.
America stole my sense of hope when it made clear to me that it would rather keep exploiting undocumented people, rather than offering a legal path. Even as the IRS collected our tax dollars, they gave us Tax ID Numbers instead of Social Security Numbers. Even as they took our taxes, they denied we contributed and denied us social service benefits. Even as the government made it illegal for us to work in positions undesirable to American citizens, no attempts were made to hold accountable the people hiring us to do those jobs, and then vilified us, saying we were taking jobs from Americans. Even as they put us through application hell— passing us from one department of USCIS to another, asking us to send the same documents again and provide the same information, requiring hundreds of dollars in application fees, then making us wait another eight months to a year, or longer, each time — they provided no explanation for rejecting applications.
The first time my mom filed my application for citizenship was after she married my step-dad, a week or two before I turned eighteen years old. He couldn’t adopt me. I had to wait about a year, until she had her Green Card. She filed an application for me as a ‘dependent of a Permanent Resident’. I waited a year and a half, and was almost twenty-one, when the final response was rejection without a reason. At the time, twenty-one was the cut-off age to be considered a dependent, so we could not appeal. A few years later, I was about twenty-six when my mom became a citizen and applied for me again, this time as a ‘Child of a Citizen’. I waited again, this time protected by DACA, at least. The final response was that my application had been approved and my interview was scheduled to be in —wait for it — Rio De Janeiro. This was not an error, it was not ignorance. Multiple people had looked through many documents establishing my ties to the United States, and they had decided to treat my application as they would for a child living abroad. By going, I’d be taking the risk of being denied re-entry into the United States. This was during the 2016 election; family and friends agreed, I’d be throwing my life and potential away.
America stole my dignity by forcing me to cut ties with my culture for so long. Had things been different, had there been a path to legal status, I could have visited family and friends I left behind much sooner, spending summers or work vacations reconnecting with my roots. I had no idea what music and which artists were popular, I was talking to family members using outdated slang, and a diminished capacity to speak Portuguese. I became a stranger to my relatives because I couldn’t relate to them. I started to forget what Brazil looked like and how it felt to be Brazilian.