I’m sure you don’t remember me. You sat in the third row of my high school graduation wearing a loud salmon pink tie. Your daughter Tiffany and I had spent six years together at Viewpoint School, a small bastion of privilege nestled alongside Mulholland Highway. As you watched the ceremony, you probably didn’t think it was even possible that an undocumented student would be receiving the same prestigious diploma as your daughter.
You may have even clapped for me as I walked across the stage. Or maybe you didn’t. My “illegal immigrant” parents sat two rows behind you. They clapped for your daughter. They clapped for everyone.
The first time I heard your name was in seventh-grade history class, when Tiffany was getting teased. She and I were both new kids at school that year, both burdened with similar pubescent worries. While she took flak because her dad was the boisterous “you’re fired” guy from TV, I was anxious because I was a scholarship student, brown and poor, with ugly clothes. (I never thanked Tiffany for selflessly taking the brunt of the attention.)
In eighth grade, Tiffany and I were in the same play: “The Chronicles of Narnia.” She was the White Witch and I was one of Aslan's warriors. We battled to the death on stage, but back stage, we sneaked Turkish Delight from the prop table with the rest of the cast. My parents came to all three performances. I didn’t see you there.
Years later, that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment you bore witness to when I claimed my diploma was the fruit of decades of my parents’ sacrifices. My academic record got me a full ride to Viewpoint, but it was my parents who, equipped with zero connections and shaky English, found an elite school for me in the first place.
Do you know what it is like to swallow your pride for someone you love? My parents abandoned promising careers in computer science to bring me to this country and give me a better life. My father showed up to a job interview with Jack in the Box in his best pressed suit. My mother endured racist taunts from police and her bosses in telemarketing. Neither was able to travel home when their parents died. Neither will ever be able to retire.
We have felt the looming threat of deportation for more than a decade; it appears in the smirks of police officers handing out a traffic ticket, in the suspicious gaze of an employer firing my dad for not having a valid Social Security number. My family knows fear as intimately as you know your favorite song. We eat dread with orange juice and eggs every morning. My parents’ every living moment is a gamble for my better future. Every new day comes with the threat of losing everything.
Do you understand what is it like to live that way? You have used families like mine as a political football, a conveniently helpless and distant population to blame for this nation’s problems. But, as you may be realizing now, we are not so distant.
Perhaps I am guilty of the same kind of abstraction. I always thought destructive politicians existed far away, in Washington. I certainly didn’t think Tiffany’s dad, the guy who sat two rows in front of my parents, the guy who paid for those obnoxious stone sculptures decorating the middle school parking area, would try to ruin my life.
You were just another rich celebrity who sent his kid to my school. You weren’t a factor in my life. You weren’t the lady at Costco who rammed her shopping cart into my mother with a racist slur. But you stood on my parents’ backs to launch yourself into political stardom. My parents, who clapped for your daughter.
I don’t have papers, I don’t have money, but I received the same $220,000 education as your daughter. I know that Lewis and Clark ventured into foreign territory without permission and were called pioneers. My family and I are called illegals. Maybe my education will help me change that designation to pioneer.
My education was enriched with money you donated to the school. I’m fighting for a future with weapons you never realized you armed me with. Despite your determination to crush people like me, I graduated from Viewpoint and then from college, with honors, on another full-ride scholarship. I have never paid a dime out of my pocket for my education, I’m your nativist nightmare. Know now that you helped me.
Tiffany was kind, but she can’t redeem you. It’s personal between you and me, Donald. At graduation, you sat two rows in front of my family. I will use what I was given that day to protect myself and my family. And if you’re elected, I’m going to use it to give you hell.
Diana Delgado Cornejo is an R.S.H.M. Social Justice Scholar, freelance writer and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, Class of 2016.
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