When I first arrived in the United States in the summer of 1998, my mother and I lived in my uncle’s house in Berkeley, California. He had sponsored our tourist visa. After picking us up from LAX, he took us to Disneyland and Universal Studios, before we made the six hour drive to his home. I was thrilled to see that he did actually live in a house, just as I thought every American did. My concept of the United States hadn’t been destroyed yet.
His two bedroom house felt like a mansion to me. My mom and I had upgraded from a tiny studio apartment across from the beach in Rio de Janeiro. I have only two memories of it. I remember without fail every day coming home to a cockroach– and it was never less terrifying, watching my mom slam something on the wall to kill it. And I remember being kept up at night by the noises coming from the beach during the World Cup. Whether Brazil scored a goal, or the other team did, the zillions of people watching the game on a festival screen exploded into shouting, the broadcaster could be heard yelling, “GOOOOOOALLLL” over the cheering, and there were fireworks. We lived there for maybe three months.
Before that, we’d lived with my mom’s sister, her husband, and her two sons in an apartment on the 12th floor of a building in a suburb for five to six years — pretty much as far back as I can remember. We moved in with him when my mom left my abusive and alcoholic dad. My cousins became my siblings. The oldest, a year younger than me, was the instigator of all of our fights. He’d read my diary and tease me, and his younger brother imitated him. They’d provoke me and I would chase them around our apartment, running from our bedroom, down the hallway, around the dining room table, out through the living room door that led into the patio, across the patio, then back into our bedroom. The next day we would wake up with a blank slate and repeat everything. Sometimes we’d get along like best friends, cosplaying together or watching Disney movies and acting out our favorite parts as the movie played. At the end of the day we loved each other.
My mom probably slept on the living room couch. My bed frame was a drawer that pulled out from underneath my cousin’s bed. I could count my toys in one hand. I think that my mom spent half that time looking for work. A double major in math and computer science would probably have no trouble landing on her feet in the United States. But in Brazil, at that time, if you left a job for any reason, good luck to you. While we lived there, she took care of us and took us to and from school. We had a maid, which is common in Brazilian middle class households, who came to our apartment from a favela. I remember her daughter, a talented artist, she’d make the centerpieces for my birthday pool parties. She’d stop by our apartment when her public school cancelled classes because the teachers were on strike, which was often.
We attended a private school, which is the norm if your family has any money at all. My cousin’s grandmother was the principle of ours, which I was able to benefit from. My mom and I lived the middle class life at that time, and no one who looked like me occupied the same spaces. The one person I knew who I saw myself in was our maid’s daughter. My biggest fear was that I would have the same future as the one I knew she would probably have — the same one as her mother’s. During the second half of our lives in that apartment, we awaited anxiously for our tourist visa to be approved.
In that two year waiting period, we would talk about it from inside a pantry. That was the only place we had any privacy. I sat on her lap in complete darkness, and we talked in soft voices about what was taking so long, fantasized about what life would be like, and she reassured me that God was working on it. The conversation would usually come up when I vented about the fights I’d have with my cousins. My mom would try to instill in me the fighting spirit to get past frustrating or painful situations, because we had nowhere to go or money to survive on our own. But one day, she stood up for me, and everything fell apart. My uncle kicked us out of the apartment and we were temporarily homeless. I finished off the year at our school, unsure if I’d be able to continue. My aunt began to pay for our studio with her own money.
Our visa application was approved around the time that we moved into the studio. I ate a lot of bread, my mom did not eat at all sometimes. When our travel document was finally in our hand, it was quick and easy to leave everything behind. On the last day, we visited Christ the Redeemer statue. As I looked up at Jesus, I made a promise that I intend to keep. I promise him that if he let us have a good life in America, that I would do as he wished. Then with nothing but our clothes we left everything and everyone behind for a new life. It felt like when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.