Ale, as she requested to be called, is a 17-year-old indigenous immigrant from Guatemala. I met her in Oakland through the 67 Sueños (Dreams) program, which began in 2010 out of the campaign to expand coverage of the Federal Dream Act. That bill, which was introduced multiple times but failed to pass Congress, aimed to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented children who grew up in the United States. Today, 67 Sueños is a one-year youth leadership development program for migrant youth from different schools in the Bay Area, such as Met West High School, where Ale studies, or Oakland International High School.
Linda Sánchez, a 25-year-old indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca, is the program director of 67 Sueños. She says the program teaches students to “think critically about human rights issues, the relationship between the forced displacement that their families live and policies in their countries that forced them to migrate, as well as the treatment of trauma.”
The program is youth-led. “We have a very young staff, mentors between the ages of 18 and 20, who hold talks in schools to offer the program to undocumented children,” Sanchez added. “We do healing circles, we use music-therapy and community healers. If the traumas are very severe, we refer them to therapy, making sure that it is a safe and culturally competent space."
At the moment, the program works with 15 young people.
This is Ale’s story in her own words:
I came here when I was four years old. My dad came to San Diego first and found work there. He sent us money because in Guatemala there is a lot of poverty and violence and especially the rural area where we lived, in Todos Santos, Cuchumatán.
In Guatemala there is a lot of violence against children. There are the northern and southern gangs, depending on where you live. They catch you. One day, a 13-year-old cousin left school and did not get home. The people started looking for her and found her dead. She had been buried beneath the earth. They began to investigate and it turns out that they had raped her, cut her, mistreated her. They said it was the gang because their dad owed money. And the police do nothing and also are killers themselves. You have no way out.
One day, my mom and I agreed we would leave and my dad organized everything. He paid a coyote to lead the way here, we crossed the desert and he was there waiting for us. We started our trip in San Diego where we could arrange things to go to Florida and be with my aunts.
We needed money to pay for food, coyotes and more people who could help us, but there was an accident on the way. We were all traveling in a small car, migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador. We were on the road through Nebraska when the car lost control and turned over three times in the snow. My mother died in that accident.
It was very fast. I was four years old and we were very close in the car. I had gone to sleep lying across her legs covered with a blanket. My mom was closer to the window, when I woke up she was lying in the snow and my dad was crying, grabbing her, hugging her, telling her not to leave.
I was no longer standing there, I did not know what had happened, I did not feel anything, I was traumatized. After the ambulance came, the migration authorities came, the police came, some tried to escape but they could not because they were very hurt. Other migrants had also lost their lives together with my mother. They put me in an ambulance and I was conscious again and wanted to go with my dad, I was afraid becauses I did not know the people, I cried and they put an anesthetic to make me sleep.
After the funeral, we sent my mother to Guatemala to be buried there, we stayed in Nebraska for at least a year, waiting to see if we were going to be deported. They let us stay for having lost my mother and because I could not stay without my father. We came to Oakland with an aunt. It was hard because we did not know anyone. My aunts were also undocumented migrants, working hard to survive with their families.
We lived two or three years with my aunt. My father became an alcoholic after the accident and became ill. He did not find so much work and spent all the money on alcohol. After three years living here in Oakland, he started a long-distance relationship with my stepmother who was in Guatemala and sent money for her to come. She had to leave her eight-year-old daughter with her grandparents. It was hard but I adapted because I needed a mom, a partner to talk to, I needed a woman who could give me advice. After 13 years she got pregnant and had my little brother. Her daughter graduated from school in Guatemala and at 18 they brought her here. We all live together. I feel complete. The happiness of the family puts you in this situation where you feel that you must fight for them to get ahead.
During school sometimes I was discriminated against because of the skin tone I have and my accent. The language that I really speak is MAM and they called me indigenous. That made me sick because I was beginning to hate myself, I was ashamed of where I came from, my language, my color. But arriving at high school I had the opportunity to choose an internship and went to see 67 Dreams. At first I did not talk, I did not want to work with other children in the program, but I did not want to be alone anymore. I was very shut up and silent. I was too scared to open up and be mistreated again.
I was not thinking about having therapy with anyone or taking advice. The first person I spoke to was one of my mentors in 67 Sueños. One day I just had too much on my shoulders. I felt like I was drowning and I decided to talk to him and he helped me a lot.
Every year we have workshops where they bring a woman who works with plants of our culture, we make circles, we tell stories. We learn how to make teas. We use natural medicines, not pills. If we are in a moment where our head almost explodes, we breathe in a way that helps us relax. A guy came to show us different special instruments that he had made with his own hands. He did a session to relax, where we lay on the floor and closed our eyes and listened to him play the instrument. We all said different things about what the sound stimulated in us but it was very therapeutic.
Today I think those things happened in my life because they had a purpose. Now I really can say that I am strong, I am not ashamed of anything, I am very proud of where I come from, my culture, my people. I am a fighter and I am indigenous.
Now we have a president who wants to deport us, says we are bad and that we came here to do more damage but that is not true. He does not know what we have to go through when we are crossing the desert. A very dry place where we could not find any water. Some had food and some did not, but we learned to share. And here we are.
This article was produced as a project of the USC Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship.