In the summer of 2002, my mother received a call from her sister in Venezuela. Her father had just had a stroke and his days were counted. For the first time in six years, a reality she had been trying to escape sunk in: should she risk it all and go to Venezuela to spend time with her father during his final days, or should she stay in Connecticut and try to mask her grief? She was, after all, captive in the United States. She was an undocumented immigrant. She knew that the second she left this country, there would be a chance that she would not be able to return. Like many undocumented immigrants, she was faced with a decision many of us, US citizens, hope to never have to encounter: visit her father during his last days and leave her only daughter behind.
I was born in New York and raised in Connecticut. I never knew that an undocumented immigrant was until that summer. Since childhood, I always wanted to be a singer. I entered countless talent shows and in 2002, one of my biggest dreams became reality — I was admitted into NYC’s prestigious La Guardia High School for Performing Arts. Thousands audition, only a few get accepted.
My mother decided to risk it all and leave the country. I went with her during summer vacation and spent time with my family. We went to the beach, we had family gatherings, we visited my grandfather and said our final goodbyes. I will never forget that morning in June 2002 in Caracas — two weeks before my mother and I were due to return to the United States. She stepped in my room with a forced smile in her face. “Valentina, I guess we’re going to have to stay in Caracas for a little while…” she said. I could tell she was fighting back tears. Her U.S visa had just been denied. In fact, they stamped her passport so she could not re-apply for a U.S visa for another 2 years.
I remember my stomach dropping as I heard her explain what had happened at the U.S embassy. This came at the time when I had just been accepted into my dream school. She asked if I wanted to stay in Venezuela or go back to the U.S and live with an aunt, that way I could pursue my dream of attending La Guardia. I decided to leave. Heartbroken, I didn’t understand how a U.S citizen that was a minor could be separated from her mother.
That was a turning point in my life. My quinceanera passed, my freshman year of High School passed, a year passed and I was still separated from my mother. I decided to engage in social activism. At the tender age of 15, I knew this was an injustice. Families should never be separated because of a broken immigration system.
In high school, group of students and I began organizing peaceful rallies. Our mission was to raise awareness of separated families and the plight DREAMERs faced. Our rallies began with 10 people, then 10 turned to 40, then 40 turned to 100, then 100 turned to over a thousand. My mother and I were eventually reunited, but my fight for immigration reform would not end there. I decided to move back to Greenwich during my Junior year of high school, because I no longer wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be a voice. At Greenwich High School, I continued to work with other students to organize rallies, lobby the state legislature and give DREAMERs a voice. My efforts were recognized in 2006 when the Connecticut State Legislature named me Youth of the Year for my pro-immigration work.
I came to Washington because my mission is far from over. We still have not seen comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act is still only a dream. Hispanic youth need to be involved in the political process — we are the future of this country. I never aspired for anything else except to have my story heard. My story is similar to that of over 12 million immigrant families affected by a broken system. There is power in numbers, and with Hispanics composing over 50 million of this nation’s population, our issues will soon begin to take center stage. Comprehensive immigration reform is first in line.
Valentina Pereda is a native New Yorker who grew up in Greenwich, CT. She has been worked in national Democratic politics since 2010, most recently forming part of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Outreach team. In high school, Valentina began advocating for pro-immigration issues, through grassroots organizing efforts in New York and Connecticut. She is a graduate of the George Washington University.