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Family matters

Living undocumented in Trump's America

Cristian Solano-Córdova tells his family’s immigration story at the ACLU’s centennial commemoration in Denver.

Rick Villarreal

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story comes from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia Conference in Boulder, Colorado, where four undocumented presenters with Motus Theater’s UndocuAmerica podcast series shared their experiences with journalists from alternative newspapers across the country, including The Tulsa Voice. The following transcript has been edited for print.

* * *

When I was my baby sister’s age, just 11 years old, I didn’t have any worries. It’s funny because my sister is a U.S. citizen, so things should be easier for her. But they’re not. Not right now. Because the people she loves the most in this whole entire world—our mom, my other sister, and me—we’re all undocumented. And when we’re threatened, she’s threatened. 

I remember election night 2016. My mom and I were in complete shock, trying to figure out what had just happened to the country, trying to strategize about certain possibilities. I remember frantically Googling, What happens to a U.S. citizen child if an undocumented parent is deported?

My dad died young, so I needed to assure myself that if anything happened to my mom, my other sister and I could take care of [my younger sister] if all of us were deported. 

My mom and I totally lost track of time in our election night panic. So when I came downstairs hours later, I was surprised to see my baby sister sitting alone in a corner, crying. Red-faced with puffy eyes. With my dad gone, I always had to be a father figure since my mom was always working—helping with homework, reading bedtime stories, playing games, trying to answer those unanswerable types of kid questions. 

I tried to comfort my baby sister, but she was scared. And I wasn’t used to having to comfort somebody when in reality I needed so much comforting myself. I just remember tilting her chin, listening through her streams of tears, looking into those deep brown eyes, and trying my best to give her easy answers to difficult questions. Just repeating, Don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s going to be okay, I promise.

I continued:

Why would you be deported? Do you know what that word means? You shouldn’t have to. Listen to me—you are an American citizen, and you will never be deported. And you’re right, I’m not a citizen, but I have DACA, they can’t deport me. I know Mom doesn’t, but she’s going to be okay. She’s lived here for decades.

Whatever happens, we’ll be together, I promise. I’ll be there to put Band-Aids on your scraped knees, to help with your school projects. Yes, we’re going to finish reading Harry Potter together, and I’ll be there when you’re ready to apply for college and when you fall in love for the first time. … I’m going to walk you down the aisle one day, and it doesn’t matter where, as long as we’re together. And of course the puppy’s coming with us if we go. He’s part of this family too, I’ll have you know.

That’s the dimple-y smile I like to see. It’s going to be OK. 

At least that’s what I told her. I did my best to offer her what I wanted to hear, what I wanted to believe—both for her and for our entire family. Because how do you talk to a child about being taken away from their parents or siblings without terrorizing them? Without stripping them of their innocence? 

I remember frantically Googling, What happens to a U.S. citizen child if an undocumented parent is deported?

With each day of this administration, the increased deportations of people like my mom, the attempts to end the DACA program, the willingness to end rules for how long children can be detained, and even threats to strip children of their citizenship—these mounting threats against our family—it feels increasingly cruel to offer my baby sister what amounts to a fairy tale, when in reality she may need great strength to overcome great threats. 

So today, I offer you another story, and this story won’t kiss it and make it all better—but I hope it will help us stay strong, regardless of any challenges that we might face.

I was three years old and my other sister was just one when we crossed the border with our mom. We walked with a group of people, maybe 10 or 15, across the desert for hours. We were out in the middle of nowhere following some dim silver light in the distance. We finally got to the road, and to avoid being seen, we crossed through a drainage tunnel. My mom had me walk in front of her while she crawled behind me, my sister in a shawl.

I remember I was wearing those little kid light-up shoes that everyone was going crazy over that year. My mom had saved up a lot of money to buy them, because we were going to be seeing my dad after he was here on his own for over a year. She wanted us to look our best. Those shoes were actually super helpful in that drainage tunnel to light the way for my mom and all the other people crawling on their hands and knees. But of course, in the desert, in the dead of night, they were a dead giveaway.

When we were finally able to see the light and get a breath of fresh air, the coyotes asked that we take off our shoes. There was a border patrol car outside the gas station where the drainage tunnel let out. The officers were inside, we assumed, so we waited a little while for them to get back in their car and drive away. 

Nobody was coming out, but the coyotes were impatient and told everyone to move. In the chaos, everybody scrambled, crawling around in tall grass on their hands and knees. But the ground was covered with cactus thorns, and I didn’t have any shoes. 

While everyone crawled, my mom stood up, carrying both me and my sister in her arms, and she just started walking. 

At first, I thought she was giving up—we’d surely be seen, since everybody else was crawling on their hands and knees. But she stood up tall, and walked with a defiant pep in her step, as if she belonged right there where she stood.

* * *

That night is when I first realized that my mom hadn’t given up. That she had faith. Walking quietly was her best strategy to protect us. She was resolved that somehow, somewhere, we would be OK, and that we would find a home where our family could thrive. I’ve never forgotten the look on my mom’s face, as she walked into the darkness of an unknown country. That is when I first realized that the meaning of courage is not to pretend to be immune from fear, but rather to calmly and steadily take action in spite of it.

Our current president may characterize my three-year-old self as a diseased criminal murderer gang member in the making. He may try to scare people who don’t know any undocumented immigrants into thinking that a mother carrying her children to safety is nothing less than an invasion. 

But my sister and I, we grew up to be beloved members of our communities. We both went to college. I became the student body president of my university. I’m not part of some invading army fighting against America. I’m here fighting for the American ideals I know we can live up to. 

They may want to take away my baby sister’s right to citizenship, but I remain hopeful that she or some other young girl might be our future president—and might actually lead us to a future of liberty and justice for all. But that reality is going to take a lot of hard work, and not just on my part or the part of the immigrant community. It will take every single one of us. 

As Anne Frank once wrote in her famous diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” 

* * *

Cristian Solano-Córdova is the communications manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) and a Motus Theater UndocuMonologist. You can hear his story read by Latin American journalist Jorge Ramos, along with a song recorded by musical great Yo-Yo Ma just for Cristian’s story on the upcoming podcast, ShoeBox Stories which premieres on Oct. 2. For more information, visit motustheater.com.