My relationship to citizenship is framed by the fact that I am an undocumented immigrant. I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and lived there with my parents and twin sister until we moved to the United States in 2000 when I was eight years old. Aside from Guadalajara, I also lived in Puerto Vallarta, a beach town that attracted many American tourists. Those two cities are stark contrasts to Modesto in California’s Central Valley, which has been my sole residence since I came to this country.
Having to go through the processes of learning a new language and adapting to a different culture shaped my identity because despite the efforts and strides I have made to assimilate seamlessly, those experiences remind me that I am an outsider. People are often surprised that I’m Hispanic, let alone an undocumented Mexican. I have even gone as far as telling others that I was born here. However, no matter how much I try to pass as American, what sets me apart is that I don’t have the papers to prove I belong here. To compensate for the lack of papers, I worked hard to fit in and to excel here so that I could prove I deserved citizenship. I could read at college level by the time I reached sixth grade, I Americanized the pronunciation of my name so I wouldn’t seem foreign, I tried my best to get good grades, and as I got older I got involved in volunteering in suicide prevention to have a positive impact in my community. I did all this to convince myself that I fit in here and to validate my presence because I came to realize that the chances of obtaining official citizenship were slim. I also felt the need to embody the ideal citizen even though I don’t know what that title truly entails. I notice that those who are U.S. citizens don’t obsess about citizenship as much as people who don’t have that status. They seem to take it as a given because they have no reason to worry over it. They have freedoms that I don’t have despite the fact that my life is so similar to theirs. They can travel freely, they don’t have to pay for work permits to be allowed to work, they are not vilified, and they don’t live in fear that they will be deported or torn away from their families. They don’t strive to be model citizens because their citizenship is not threatened, and yet they possess citizenship while it remains unattainable to people like me who work arduously to prove that they deserve it.
To me, being a citizen means recognizing a country as your country even if it doesn’t recognize you as one of its own. It’s possible to occupy a place within the nation’s society even if you are not a citizen. You hold the same values, you speak the same language, you observe the same traditions, you live in similar manners, and you feel proud to belong. Most importantly, you’re invested in the country’s prosperity so you contribute and sacrifice for its advancement. In this manner, you still exercise citizenship without papers. However, in my experience, that’s not enough to actually make you a citizen, and that one factor serves as a constant reminder that no matter how much I belong in practice and lifestyle, I will never truly count as a citizen until I hold that paper in my hands.