After I arrived home from soccer practice, the phone rang. “El Camino,” my mother said as she handed it to me, referring to a nearby community college. I was taking engineering courses there, offered in conjunction with my high school, but the woman from the registrar’s office had a problem: The Social Security number I had provided to receive college credit did not match my name, and if I couldn’t provide a valid number, I’d have to pay almost $2,000 for the classes I’d taken.
Why, I asked my parents, had my Social Security number been rejected? They told me they had given me my little brother’s number. It was a simple explanation, taking no more than 10 seconds in Spanish:
“Son, we overstayed our visa when you were three. You don’t have a social security number.”
I hadn’t known until then I was undocumented. I was 16, a high school junior, with big ambitions. Was I going to have to give them all up?
* * *
My friend Oscar, too, learned he was undocumented at the beginning of high school. He liked to remind all of us in between soccer games. When I found out about my own status, I told him he was no longer alone. “You should probably do some research,” he replied.
So much of what had happened to me finally made sense. I’d never really needed a Social Security number before El Camino, and whenever I asked if I could visit family in Mexico, my parents told me I had to wait for my “papers” to sort themselves out with the government. The few times I asked if I could get a job, my father took me with him to sweep the floors on his construction sites.
None of these, obviously, were long-term solutions. We spent the summer between junior and senior year educating ourselves about what it means to be an undocumented Mexican living in America.