by Elizabeth Arteaga
photo courtesy of Elizabeth Arteaga
Ed. Note: Studies show there are about 4.5 million U.S. born children with at least one parent who is undocumented. In 2014, President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which provides relief from deportation for parents who meet eligibility requirements. But critics say DAPA offers little relief to the thousands of families already separated. For Elizabeth Arteagas, her father’s deportation and her mother’s return back to Mexico meant her uncle and sisters have had to step in to fill the role of parents.
Many children enjoy playing “house.” Someone will play the parents and someone else will pretend to be the children. For me this isn’t make believe, it’s my reality. After a deportation and an unfortunate accident, my two adult sisters, Ana and Vanessa, and my uncle Jose fill the role of parents for my little sister, Jessica, and me.
My little sister and I aren’t foster kids and we weren’t abandoned. We used to live with my parents as a family here in Merced: my older sisters Ana and Vanessa, my younger sister Jessica and me. Everything was fine until seventh grade, when my dad was deported back to Mexico. It was just my mom at home with us for a few years until tragedy struck. We got a call one day and found out that our dad had an accident back in Mexico.
He was working as a miner in Zacatecas and suffered from an accident that crushed his foot. When my mother got the news, she took my little sister and me with her to Mexico right away, even though she didn’t have the proper documentation to re-enter the United States. I remember she was so upset by the news that I had to pack everyone else’s bags.
We arrived in San Antonio Del Cipres, Zacatecas, at a little ranch I had never been to before. My extended family greeted me with hugs and kisses, but for all their hospitality, they were still essentially strangers to me. I felt scared as I looked around. Everything was so different.
After a while my mom slowly started to rebuild a life with my dad. At first it was weird having my dad back around, but we got along after a bit. School was a different story. It was hard for me to adapt. Even though I spoke Spanish fluently, the classes were very different.
I missed Merced. All the teachers expected me to be able to follow along but there were words I didn’t recognize and some classes were much further along than the ones I left back in Merced. None of the teachers took time to help me, even when it was obvious I was falling behind. After my first report card came back with low grades, my mom knew she had to do something. She sat me down and told me I could go back to Merced.
I was 14 when I made the decision to leave my parents. It was one of the hardest things we have had to do as a family. But I knew I wanted to be someone one day, so I found myself at the airport saying goodbye. After all the tears, a three-hour plane ride and an eight-hour drive, I finally arrived back ‘home.’ My mom had arranged for her brother Jose, my uncle, to become my guardian. He and my two older sisters combined became the parental unit of my new family. Two years later, my little sister Jessica also joined us.
When people find out that I don’t live with my parents they ask all kinds of questions: “Why are your parents in Mexico?” and “Why do you live with your uncle?”
Some of them think it’s fun and cool that I don’t live with my mom and dad, but it’s really not: it’s hard. Some of my friends think I can do whatever I want, that I can be out every single weekend and my uncle won’t care. That’s not the case. I still have to ask for permission, I still have to be home at a certain time. But instead of asking my dad or mom, I ask him. He also provides for us financially. Despite the struggle, I’ve never heard my uncle complain about his role. I know he’s had to adjust his own life for us. I can’t remember the last time he went out by himself to hang out with friends.
My older sisters are like another set of parents. Ana, my oldest sister, had to transfer from UC Santa Cruz to UC Merced to help my uncle take care of us. Vanessa is the one who drives us to school, to doctor’s appointments, and does all the other day-to-day stuff.
These roles have altered our relationship to the point where I don’t talk to them as my sisters. Instead I speak to them as my second and third mothers. I hear my friends talk to their older sisters about how they like to party or even talk to them with an attitude. I could never do that without getting into serious trouble!
Although they act like my mothers, they’re also my best friends. My sisters protect me, even when I disagree with them. I’m always arguing that I am 17, and am no longer a child, but at the end of the day, I know they want what is best for me. I know this because I catch myself treating our youngest sister, Jessica, the same way. I always think I know what is best for her. Since she came back from Mexico, I try to be there for her so she won’t feel alone. I sit and I listen to her every day problems, and I try to give her the best advice I can.
I miss my parents. I talk to my mom every day. I text her in the morning when I get ready for school, or when something happens in my life and I just want her to know, and I always text her goodnight. I don’t want my parents to think we are forgetting about them and don’t need them anymore. I try to keep my parents involved in my life even though they are far away.