Breath in love. Exhale fear. These words have carried me lately through moments of deep despair and anxiety. Growing up undocumented, I experienced constant fear of deportation, family separation and lack of educational opportunities due to my lack of immigration status. One year after graduating college with honors, I came face-to-face with family separation through the immigration detention of my dad. Having to be on 15-minute calls, not being able to hug him or see him during birthdays, Christmas and family gatherings really broke my heart.
At a young age, I kept seeing door after door being shut in front of my eyes. I started questioning my own worth, feeling that no matter what I would do, it was never good enough. Later on I would realize that my deep desire to excel at everything was because I wanted to prove to the world I was enough, that the sacrifices of my parents were worth it, that people who look like me were able to accomplish great things. Yet, that meant less sleep and sacrificing my own mental health in order to debunk the many myths of immigrants. My anxiety skyrocketed as I became a DACA recipient, being forced to plan my life in year increments. As a DACA recipient not many things are certain in my life. The only things that have remained constant have been my sweaty hands. Fighting to live in constant survival mode. Being suffocated by anxiety in my most formative years.
Despite my inner challenges with self-worth, I started advocating for education access and the DREAM Act at a very young age. Through advocacy, I found my voice, yet I also started bearing witness to so many injustices. I experienced burn-out and heartache. Many ups and downs. A consistent rollercoaster ride of fear and hope. During these times, I used dance and poetry to channel my fears and anxiety. Dance and poetry really got me through my teenage years and early twenties. Yet, constantly experiencing compounded trauma due to the lack of my immigration status I got to a point that I felt that no matter how many choreographed dances I made, how many poems I wrote or how many breathing exercises I would take, it was no longer enough.
I found myself constantly crying in my car. I found myself working 12 hours to avoid thinking about the future. I found myself carrying a cross that was heavier than my back could hold and so much sadness. After crying for seven days straight after a 12-hour shift of work, I had to be honest with myself. As a first-generation student and DACA recipient, asking for help has never been easy, yet my heart was crying for help.
I remembered it was Friday night after a long walk with a dear friend that I decided to text my brother and ask him about the contact information of the therapist he had mentioned in one of our conversations. He did not judge me, he asked if I was okay and sent me her contact information. Many thoughts overflowed my brain, “is the therapist going to be a good fit? what if she starts asking me things I am not ready to share? Am I going to have to share my deepest fears? What if opening up my traumas will bring to the surface my most painful moments?” The next day I texted her and set up an appointment. It has been almost four years since I broke the stigma and have been able to invest in mental health through doing bi-weekly therapy sessions.
I feel so lucky that I get to integrate my personal healing journey into the work that I do as the founder & CEO at ALIENTO. ALIENTO directly translates into breath and when you give “aliento” to someone is like giving words of encouragement. One of my major motivators in founding ALIENTO was to support young people and families who have experienced the anxiety and stress of lacking an immigration status and create a welcoming and safe space where they can process their emotions through art, invest in their own healing journey and leadership.
Since 2016, we have supported thousands of undocumented youth, DACA and mixed immigration status families to transform trauma into hope and action. It is my dream that we will continue to heal in community and one day be defined by our inner light, not our deepest traumas or immigration status. I dream of the day when we as a society will center healing and joy and be reminded that we are worthy of love and give ourselves the permission to fall, get up and achieve our wildest dreams.