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‘So, are you an alien?’ What it was like to grow up as an undocumented immigrant

As a teenager, I internalized the bias that surrounded me in my American town.
In Daniela Pierre-Bravo's new book, out this month, she shares more about her personal experience as an immigrant.
In Daniela Pierre-Bravo's new book, out this month, she shares more about her personal experience as an immigrant.Courtesy Anthony Scutro

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Daniela Pierre-Bravo is a bestselling author, speaker and MSNBC reporter for “Morning Joe.” In her new book, “The Other: How to Own Your Power at Work as a Woman of Color,” she shares her personal story about being an undocumented immigrant from Chile and how she rose through the ranks in her career. This is an excerpt of the book, which came out Aug. 23.

Growing up, I did not belong. Not on paper, not in the system and not in my environment.

The word “undocumented” is more than a status; it’s a feeling. It’s a constant state of being, and it was always there with me. Am I enough? Am I worthy? I was not alone in this feeling, but in my case, there was supporting evidence that made it harder not to take those thoughts as factual. I lacked the very paperwork that validated my belonging in this country. I was in total limbo without a path forward. Whatever inadequacies I felt were compounded by my lack of status. So I built up a shell to protect me from the prejudice I encountered in my small town, and I learned to bury my voice — to accommodate, explain and appease. It was a coping mechanism that I absorbed early on, which quickly spilled over into areas of my life where I felt like I had to work hard to prove myself.

One of these experiences that stayed with me was when I met my then-boyfriend’s parents as a teen. No matter who you are, meeting a partner’s parents for the first time can be nerve-racking. I wanted to do my best to make a good first impression for many reasons. He had a big, close-knit family like mine, but his upbringing was vastly different from my own. He had grown up in the same town all his life and had conservative, well-educated parents who had gone to top-ranked schools. They were well off and well known in town, the sort of parents who were at every one of their kids’ games and recitals, and could comfortably clock out of their nine-to-five jobs to enjoy family meals. This was a stark contrast to my immigrant parents, who worked two or three shifts and came home, on a good day, by eight at night with a bucket of Lee’s chicken, which each kid would eat on their own schedule because our parents were too exhausted to impose rules about family mealtimes.

I was scheduled to meet my boyfriend’s family for dinner at one of the best restaurants in town. Blood rushed to my cheeks as my family dropped me off in our station wagon. I was late. My dad had fallen behind schedule, struggling to start the car engine on his way home from his factory job across town.

“Here is fine!” I blurted before we neared the restaurant’s front door, my mind swirling with the thought that this was the first impression I’d have to lead with.

“Good luck!” yelled my 12-year-old brother from the back seat through a devilish grin and a big cackle. Even at his age, he knew I was walking into a minefield. I rolled my eyes and hoped the loud creak of the old car door closing couldn’t be heard inside.

As I stepped into the Italian restaurant, I quickly spotted my boyfriend and his whole family on the left, already sitting at the table, and watched as all of their eyes turned my way. I walked toward them knowing I would be vetted, almost expecting that they already had some sort of preconceived judgment about my immigrant roots, but I figured if I played my cards right, they’d overlook the cultural and socioeconomic gaps between us.

I (expected) that they already had some sort of preconceived judgment about my immigrant roots, but I figured if I played my cards right, they’d overlook the cultural and socioeconomic gaps between us.

After apologizing profusely for being late, I took my seat and exchanged small talk over appetizers. With the main course, lasagna, came the usual softballs: “How is school going?” “What was it like growing up in Chile?” And I was batting like a champ, or so I thought. Until his mother threw the ultimate curveball.

“So, are you an alien? I mean ... do you have a green card?” Her eyes were locked on me as she fumbled through this question. And for an instant, I stopped breathing. The inquisition hit me like a pile of rocks. My thoughts reeled. What do I say? How can I answer this and still be in her good graces? Will they accept me if I tell them the truth?

“Well — I ... ”

I felt totally blindsided.

“Oh my God, Mom! No, she’s an illegal alien!” offered one of my boyfriend’s brothers sarcastically, as if coming to my rescue.

“What a question!” followed his father, as everyone joined in and laughed it all off, delighting themselves in the bluntness of the question that so obviously did not need to be answered.

As I smiled along with them, playing into their assumption that I was not undocumented, a strange out-of-body sensation came over me, as if I were two separate people digesting my environment. The confident version of me pretended that this outright biased comment had little to no effect on the expertly disguised other version of me, who was screaming at me in my mind to run away before I got caught.

When I came back from what felt like a mental blackout, I found the confident person in me take over. Keep calm. I explained my immigration status by lying to appease them, telling them that my paperwork was in process or something. I fought every inch of my gut and soul from disclosing the truth. As I scrambled to find a way to ease their doubts about my legal status, I was unintentionally feeding into their bias and also internalizing it. It was one of the first times I remember feeling deep shame. Even so, I self-soothed, conditioning my body and words to deflect this uncomfortable feeling of inadequacy, and carried on.

In my mind, my boyfriend’s mother’s message was clear: You don’t belong. It felt like she had already made up her mind before even taking the chance to get to know me. I’m sure you can relate on some level, especially if, like me, you grew up in a community where you stuck out like a sore thumb. I began to believe that I needed to adapt by appeasing whatever doubts, worries or hesitancies might come up about me and my background. After all, these were good, community-and family-oriented, churchgoing people. It must not be them, I told myself. It’s me. I needed to work harder to assimilate and earn their trust.

This uncomfortable dinner situation was the first time I felt the threat of what being “the other” meant to a group in which family, friends and acquaintances, for the most part, all looked the same. Those hegemonic communities have grown used to the consistency that comes from the lack of diversity within their close circles. I can imagine people’s skin crawled in my town at the thought that I might be “illegal,” but I needed more years to process and fully understand how their bias likely came from simple lack of exposure to someone different from them.

Of course people are unfamiliar with things they haven’t encountered before, but to wholeheartedly judge, dismiss or reject, well, that’s bias in a nutshell, if not outright bigotry. It’s the fear of the unknown. It may have helped ease my stress if I had understood this back then, but all I knew was that I was the odd one out, someone they couldn’t quite put their finger on, and deep down inside, that dissonance probably scared them. This made me harbor shame about my very identity. I didn’t have anyone like me in my corner to encourage me or teach me how to handle that emotion. My family was likely dealing with their own repressed emotions, and were also much too worried about getting food on our table to think about feelings.

That relationship was short-lived (shocker, I know). But this memory remained in my subconscious for years, rearing its ugly head on other occasions where I faced my socioeconomic limits when trying to make it into rooms where I felt like I didn’t belong. You are illegal! it yelled at me, making me feel like a total fraud.

What I didn’t know back then was that I was not “illegal”; I was undocumented. I also didn’t know that calling me or anyone in my circumstance an “alien” carried an enormous psychological weight. Currently, there is legislation introduced in Congress that would remove the word “alien” from U.S. immigration laws and replace it with “noncitizen.” Immigration activists, legal scholars and others have taken issue with the term “alien,” saying it downplays the importance of the role immigrants have had historically in the United States, from the European immigrants who colonized it to the enslaved Africans who were forced to immigrate against their will. However you want to look at it, the term holds one unchallengeable message for those on the receiving end: that we are foreign, outsiders, other. We feel the force of its psychological weight. That one measly word dangled over us has the power to make us question ourselves, our identities and our place in the world. This epithet translates into a rejection that tells us that our inherent being is not good enough, is not worthy, does not and will never belong. We exist “illegally” in places where we contribute, build communities, volunteer in religious spaces and pay taxes for welfare and health care that we ourselves cannot use. “Illegals” like us shouldn’t exist ... yet we do.

Excerpted from “The Other: How to Own Your Power at Work as a Woman of Color” by Daniela Pierre-Bravo. Copyright © 2022 by Daniela Pierre-Bravo. Reprinted with permission of Legacy Lit. All rights reserved.