Denisse Gonzalez was 3 years old when she went with her mother on a long car ride. That fateful night affected her identity, freedom, and opportunities for the rest of her life.
On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration can’t shut down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It will allow nearly 800,000 young people, known as Dreamers, to avoid deportation and remain in the United States.
June 23, 2020
Paksy Plackis-Cheng in Berlin, Germany Zooms with Denisse Gonzalez in Los Angeles, California.
Denisse, you are a Dreamer.
Do you even remember about the trip from Mexico to California at age 3?
I know I was in a car. I just remember it being dark. It was like a long car ride.
My mom and my dad split up when I was small. I was living with my grandmother for two years or three years. My mom lived in Los Angeles. She came back to collect me.
How do you feel even telling that story?
I’ve gone through so many emotions just thinking about that, because to me it was just a regular drive. To everybody else it is, “Well, you’re not equal here” and then there are so many consequences to what happened that night. It’s crazy to think about it. I didn’t really choose.
From speaking to my mom and my grandmother now, they tell me I would speak to my mom on the phone. I think my mom was saving up enough money to bring me over. I think she paid the person who drove me up here.
What did the recent Supreme Court ruling mean to you? Are you still worried?
Yeah, Trump rescinded DACA in 2017. I feel that was more impactful for me. During that time my DACA was expiring, because it only lasts two years. You have to renew again and again. So, he rescinded it for that while before the Supreme Court decided.
During that time I went to Downtown LA. There are organizations that were offering free services to help you renew your DACA. I applied, but they told me that if it was rescinded I couldn’t renew. That was really disappointing, especially because I was still in school. That was really hard, but now I recently renewed in April.
I still would have had two years to figure out something before my DACA would expire, unless it would have been void. I wasn’t sure about the details.
Where would you even go if the ruling was against DACA and you would have to leave the country?
If the ruling was against DACA it would have made my life 10x more difficult. I wouldn’t necessarily have to leave the country but the risk of getting deported would be higher and I wouldn’t be able to legally work in the U.S.
I’ve been in a relationship — I met my boyfriend in college and we’ve been together for about three years. My boyfriend and I have plans to get married and I know that it would allow me to possibly gain U.S. residency but I don’t want my status to play any role in our future marriage.
I know there are plenty of other people that don’t even have that option.
Moving to Mexico would be crazy because I’ve lived here my entire life. I have never been to Mexico since I came here at age 3. I don’t even know what it looks like.
Do you know other Dreamers in your situation?
There’s a whole community in college. I was interning for Undocumented Student Services at UC Santa Barbara so I was working with students in the same situation. We would provide basic information to students on the resources that the school provided.
To the outside world nobody would know you are undocumented. I might have met more people and wouldn’t know, because we don’t really talk about it. Up until we actually get to know each other more, then you start telling each other about how you grew up.
Or when they invite you out of the country for a trip and you’re like, “I can’t go.” Traveling abroad or studying abroad was out of the question for me.
Is being undocumented nerve wracking on a daily basis or are you resigned to the situation?
I think it affected me more in high school. I’m also a first generation college student. I didn’t have anybody to tell me, this is how you apply to colleges, etc. Thankfully, my school helped me out a lot with that process. But the whole thing was nerve wracking and just overwhelming, I guess. Especially because you don’t know your options as undocumented: Do I even qualify for financial aid? What options are there for me because I don’t qualify for federal aid?
Now you graduated, what is next?
I came back home. My family is low income. I’ve always shared a room with my siblings. But coming back from college and then having to readjust to that was hard.
My stepsister said her company was looking for somebody to join their HR department. I tried it out, but it’s not for me. I really want to do something that has to do more with what I studied and where I feel comfortable.
How has COVID affected you?
At first it was very scary. All my plans were ruined, because I was working and then laid off. That makes sense because a business has to be resourceful during times like these.
But now everything’s opening back up, I’m trying to look for jobs so I can start working again. Eventually, I want to go to grad school, but I have to look at my financial aid options. This whole COVID pandemic reset everything.
You’re in LA where they started week four of racial justice protesting. How has that affected you?
It is the community that I grew up in that is out protesting: low income, minority. It’s definitely stressful just seeing that in the news — seeing friends on social media going out and protesting.
I didn’t go personally because of the virus and being cautious of that. But also because of my status — it could be more dangerous and risky for me in case the police stops me. If that goes on my record it will affect me and my citizenship eventually.
I thought about all those things. It was really stressful. I felt like I wasn’t doing enough; I wanted to do more.
Apart from being able to voice your opinion, what would your life have been like if you were not undocumented?
I would have studied abroad; I would have traveled a few times by now.
I don’t know, just so much. I don’t think my college application process would have been so stressful. Even how I see myself. It affects your identity, how you think of yourself. I’m different even though you’re really not.
I admire people who are very outspoken about their identity as undocumented. But I don’t like conflict; I’m not a confrontational person.
I guess I fear being judged for it. So I never really come out and say my status unless I really have to or it is the topic of discussion or if it helps somebody else.
It’s getting better now. I learned to accept it. As you get older, you accept a lot of things about yourself and you just come more into your own skin.
Do you think that there has been a change in how people think about this whole situation? Do you see people have more empathy about being undocumented and what that must mean?
Definitely in California — among friends and family and my community. I feel that there are a lot of people who back us up, even celebrities and politicians. But then, even if people support you, they might see you differently.
I’m on Twitter and see where people stand on issues. The comments against us are very disheartening.
I’m just not going to worry about it too much, but then I was definitely happy when I heard the news that we get to stay. I also read and heard that the reason why it didn’t get approved was because Trump didn’t go about it the right way. And he might try it again, so there’s always that fear. That there will be a time he will be successful.
I’m going to take it day by day and I’m going to have to do what I have to do tomorrow.
On NPR an undocumented girl said, “I guess I don’t have to get married now!”
Yeah, that’s pretty much how a lot of us are feeling!
You should have the freedom to marry on your terms, right, not because of political consequences. Your boyfriend must be disappointed, he’s like, darn it.
Yeah, I thought I had her!
Denisse Gonzalez graduated from UCSB with a B.A. in History and History of Art and Architecture with an emphasis in Museum Studies, and was part of the impactmania internship program in 2019-2020.