Gabriela, an undocumented Cal student Photo by Heidi Schumann

Gabriela

Finding her inner drive, UC Berkeley Dreamer rises to the top

An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador excels at school, and becomes a voice for advancing the cause of Dreamers.

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Gabriela is a third-year student at UC Berkeley who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador at age 15. After arriving in the United States, she lived with her father and his girlfriend near Los Angeles while learning English and completing high school.

A dedicated student and campus leader at Cal, Gabriela is active in promoting rights and opportunities for young people who were brought to this country as minors with undocumented parents.

Each year, approximately 25,000 undocumented students graduate from California high schools. Across the country, the total number is 65,000. Gabriela spoke to us between classes at Berkeley.

I was born in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. My mother only studied until second grade. My father was able to graduate from high school. My mother’s family was really poor and lived in a rural area. My father’s family was middle class.

Gabriela at age 3

Gabriela lived as a child with relatives on her father’s side of the family — including her paternal grandparents, one aunt, two uncles and several cousins. Their house was in a middle-class neighborhood of San Salvador. She stayed in a room with her parents and her brother, who is eight years younger than Gabriela.

At the time, El Salvador was still struggling with the aftereffects of a long civil war. Gang activity and crime were an ongoing problem. Starting in the mid-1990s, immigration from El Salvador to the United States spiked to unprecedented levels as individuals and families sought to flee the violence.

The Threat of Gangs in El Salvador

I was usually not allowed to go out and hang out with other children who were of my age in the neighborhood so I’d usually play indoors with my cousins and my brother. We would play board games and watch TV, and I would read sometimes. My family really didn't trust other people. They had started to hear lots of rumors about violence in El Salvador and about gangs. And so they were afraid that something could happen to me.

I would sometimes read the newspapers. And I remember one news story that had a big impact on me. It was about decapitated bodies that were found in a park. That was the first time I realized how badly things were going in the country. There was a real problem with gangs and we were always hearing about disappearances. And the gang problem was the result of all these young men being sent back home after being deported from the United States. They acquired a certain culture in the United States and then they started their own gangs in El Salvador, which proliferated and are still proliferating now.

My grandmother was the owner of a photocopy place about 10 blocks from the house. And I remember one day there were two or three men who broke in, and we were threatened at gunpoint. I ended up running away and my grandmother gave them everything. I think I was around 12 or 13 when that happened. 

Except for a year in public school, Gabriela attended a private Catholic school for girls in San Salvador for most of her childhood. Because of the poor quality of El Salvador’s under-resourced public educational system, most families with the means to do so enroll their children in private schools.

When she was in seventh grade, Gabriela’s father left on his own for the United States. He had been working for Gabriela’s grandfather.

Paying Tuition with U.S. Dollars

This was in 2003. That was the year my father decided to come to the U.S. He was doing really bad financially at that point. That was one of the reasons the family pushed him to come to the U.S. And I don’t think my extended family was willing to keep paying for my education after he left. So I had to go to a public school for one year. This was a really difficult experience for me. In the meantime my father was going to try to find a job in the United States and do something to get money.

For eighth and ninth grade, I was able to return to private school because my father was then sending money home from the United States.

When Gabriela was 15, her father suggested to her on the phone that she should follow him to the United States.

Coming to the U.S. Without Fully Knowing the Risks

I remember the day my father called me and he started asking me if I was interested in going to the U.S. I didn't really know what to say. I was only a year away from graduating from high school.

But in the end I decided to go. So my family purchased a ticket for me and my grandmother and my brother. We used temporary tourist visas and we flew here. The idea was that I would stay here and then my grandmother and my brother would return after a couple months. I guess they wanted to see if things were going to work out for me or not. Depending on that, they were going to decide if my brother was going to come afterwards.

I don't think my father knew the implications of being undocumented. I think he really thought that I was going to be able to legalize my status here because I was smart and because he thought I was going to be able to go to college eventually.

At the time, I don't think my father knew the implications of being undocumented. I think he really thought that I was going to be able to legalize my status here because I was smart and because he thought I was going to be able to go to college eventually. And so he thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me. I was very hesitant because I didn't speak English at the time. But in the end I decided to do it anyways and take the risk. I didn't really know what I was getting into at all.

The American Dream Starts in a Trailer Park

Gabriela, her grandmother and her brother moved in with her father and his girlfriend in their small trailer near Los Angeles. Gabriela’s father was working in a factory at the time; his girlfriend had a job in a thrift store. Gabriela’s grandmother and brother returned to El Salvador after a couple of months.

The way people in El Salvador picture life in the United States, well it is very different when you’re here. I thought my father was going to be living in this nice house and he was going to have all these resources and it was going to be a great experience for me. But the first day that I came here I realized things were going to be very different for me. My father was living in a trailer with his girlfriend, and I remember there were roaches on the floor running around. It was not the cleanest place and we didn't have enough money for food.

The RV where Gabriela and her father lived
The home Gabriela shared with her father and his girlfriend

Thinking back, I don’t even know how we all lived there because there were five of us including my father’s girlfriend. It was really hectic at times because there was not enough space for all of us.

After Gabriela arrived, her father helped her get the vaccinations and the other records she needed to enroll in the town’s public high school. She started 10th grade in November of that year and rapidly established herself as a uniquely dedicated and hard-working student.

Most of my classes were bilingual and it was really hard. I remember checking out two copies of every book from the library, one in Spanish and one in English for every class I was taking. I would get home and I would look at both books and try to compare words and translate. For English, I started reading at a very basic level, like Dr. Seuss books. I had the dictionary next to me and was looking up words all the time. Sometimes I would get really frustrated and I would just cry. But eventually I was able to improve.

Between Two Worlds

I guess you could say I had two different experiences in high school here. When I had just arrived from El Salvador and I was only speaking Spanish, I only talked to the people who spoke Spanish. These were other young immigrant students. But I didn't really identify with them. Some of them were involved with gangs, and a lot of the girls were getting pregnant.

That’s not something that I wanted for me. And so I started to get away from them. And in 11th grade I started to transition into Honors and AP level classes. And so then I started hanging out with those people more, even though I didn't really feel like I was part of their group.

Balancing Everybody's Expectations

I originally signed up four or five AP classes. But when I picked up my schedule at the start of 11th grade all of my classes were regular classes. I was really frustrated and so I talked to the assistant principal. He said, “Well, we don't think somebody can make such a dramatic transition in such a short period of time. We really think you should reconsider and take regular classes instead because AP classes are going to be more rigorous and we don't think your English is at that good — you know, you're not at that level yet.”

I was really disappointed. But I told him I had already done the reading for the AP classes over the summer to make sure I was ready. I told him, “I didn’t do that for nothing, so I’m not taking regular classes.” And so he ended up giving me the AP classes and I ended up doing just fine.

One of the reasons I did so well is because I was so serious about studying. AP History was probably the most challenging class for me. I would read the English copy of the books with a dictionary next to me. And I would try to read the same chapter over and over and over, up to three times. And it was a lot of reading but I did better than most students in the class in the end. I got a 5 on the AP test, which is a perfect score.

Shifting Relationships at Home

As she continued her studies, Gabriela’s dedication to her schoolwork became a source of tension between her and her father.

At first my father would try to motivate me and say that I should try to do everything that he couldn’t do. He was very supportive at first. I also was motivated by the idea that my mother didn’t have the opportunity to go to school. She started working in the fields when she was young. So I didn’t want to go through that experience and I wanted to help my parents out in the future.

But eventually, I felt like my father changed a lot here and he became much more depressed and disappointed about life. He didn’t really care about me going to school. At certain points he told me, “I don't know why you’re studying. I don’t know why you’re putting so much time into this.”

I remember crying that day because of this idea that people didn’t really believe I was going to be able to go to college. And so I guess out of anger or just to try to prove them all wrong, I started to dedicate more time to school.

He actually tried to encourage me to drop out of high school. But I didn't listen to him. I really disagreed with him, and I guess that’s where my motivation came from in the end. I also remember going to visit some family friends here in the U.S. They told me it was a bad decision I made to come to the U.S.

I remember crying that day because of this idea that people didn’t really believe I was going to be able to go to college. And so I guess out of anger or just to try to prove them all wrong, I started to dedicate more time to school.

Sometimes my father would be abusive to me, physically and emotionally and verbally too. I didn't really want to live with that, so I would just stay at school in the afternoon and I’d study there. I’d do my homework at school and finish at around 7:00 or 8:00 PM.

And then there was one point when I realized that my academic record was not the only factor that was going to get me into college, and I felt I had to go and do other stuff like sports and community service. I got involved in track and tennis. And I was also volunteering at the city library and at the school library.

So I started doing those other things and it was even more difficult. I didn’t have enough time to finish everything up at school, so I had to finish my homework at home. And I couldn’t really focus inside the trailer.

And then by 9:00 p.m., my father and his girlfriend would turn off the lights, whether I was studying or not. They had to wake up early in the morning to go to work. And so sometimes I had to take my books outside and just study there under this little tiny lamp. I could barely read because it was so dark outside. Sometimes it was freezing cold. And I would get sick sometimes from studying there until 3:00 a.m. 

Getting into College Without My Family's Support

Gabriela was intent on going to college. But as an undocumented student, she wasn’t eligible for financial aid. The majority of all student aid, including federal student aid, requires the recipient to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Undocumented students also are ineligible to participate in the federal work-study program or apply for federal student loans, although they can apply for private scholarships from various sources.

At first some of my teachers and counselors at school were telling me I should start at a community college. But when I started to do research on my own about the different options I had, I decided I wanted to apply to the UC schools and some of the private schools. At the time, some of my family members really discouraged me from trying to attend college. They would say, “How are you going to pay for school?” They said they were not going to help. So, it was like I was on my own. People told me maybe my best choice was to go to community college or technical or vocational school.

But I didn't really listen to them and I applied to all the UC schools and some private schools too. And then I got into all of them. At first, my family couldn’t believe it. And they still told me, "I don't know how you’re planning to go there because nobody’s going to help you financially.”  My father told me he was only making $10,000 a year, which was barely enough to pay for the bills. So there was no way he could help.

I talked to my teachers and they told me to apply for some of the scholarships offered through my high school. And I was able to get most of them, even though they only covered tuition for my first year and they were not renewable. And I kept applying for other scholarships as well. But even without knowing whether I would get any scholarships I just took the risk and sent my “Intent To Register” form to Berkeley.

I didn't even tell my father at the time because I knew that he wasn’t going to be okay with the idea of me going to college, especially to a place that was eight hours away from home.

After I learned that I had gotten the scholarships and I would be able to pay for most of my tuition for my first year at Berkeley, I realized I didn't have enough money for housing or for food. I had nothing. And so one of my best friends who had also gotten into Berkeley said I could live with her sister in Davis. She said they would give me a discount in rent and I’d only have to pay $250 per month. And so I decided to take the risk and go for it, but at the time I didn't know that Davis was two hours away from Berkeley.

The Hardest Freshman Year

I started at Berkeley as a freshman in the fall of 2008. It was a really difficult transition, because the classes were pretty hard and I didn’t have a lot of time to study because I had to work. At that time, I was making $10 an hour working around 20 hours a week or more. I still am.

I also had to commute for so many hours every day. There’s a shuttle that runs from Davis to Berkeley and back. I had to catch it at around 7:00 in the morning. That meant waking up around 5:00 AM every day. This is after going to sleep around 10:00 PM because that’s when the bus would come back and I would get back to Davis. And I did that for my whole freshman year.

At one point I was so frustrated with the way things were going that I started seeing a psychological counselor and I started taking anti-depressants. That was the only way for me to be OK at that point.

Like I said, my father wasn’t really helping me out at all and every time I talked to him and I told him about my frustrations, he would say to me, “Come back to El Salvador.” He would say, “What are you doing there anyway?” And he would offer to come pick me up and take me home. Never once did he encourage me to stay. Never once did he say anything like, “You're doing OK,” or “Things are going to get better."

Eventually I couldn't take the commute anymore and I met some people and they offered for me to stay in Oakland with them. This was in West Oakland, and it was not really very accessible either. The buses wouldn’t run very often. And the area was not very safe. While I was living there, I was chased by a man twice when I was coming back from school.

Technically Homeless

After a while, I decided I didn’t want to live in Oakland anymore and I guess I was technically homeless. I started staying at school and sleeping in one of the university buildings with another undocumented student. It was a building where all the offices are for the student groups. We were sleeping in an office room and it was really uncomfortable. One of us would be on the couch and the other on the floor, and whenever the cleaning person came by we had to pretend we weren’t living there. We were using showers at other places where our friends were living.

That lasted about a month, and after that I was able to find a place very close to school. It was really expensive, even though it was the cheapest thing I could find. It was really small too, just a room with no kitchen and I had to share the bathroom with other people. And even though it was small I decided to share it with someone else. We did this under the table because there was only supposed to be one person there. But there was no other way for us to afford housing during that semester. We were paying $250 each per month. Everything I was earning at the time was going towards housing and I didn't really have enough money for food.

A Ray of Hope for Undocumented Students at Cal

I had a “registration block” on my student account at the time because I hadn’t paid my tuition, so I had a debt with the university. That meant I couldn’t register for classes anymore. I was taking classes but I wasn’t going to be able to register for the following semester and I couldn’t see my grades.

Eventually, I found out about a scholarship that is only offered to undocumented students at Berkeley. I interviewed for it and I was one of the finalists. And I was finally able to get it. They gave me a $10,000 scholarship. And with that I was able to pay for my tuition for the following year. I still had that debt from before. I still have it now. But I was able to register for classes because I had money to pay for the following year.

Gabriela attends a mock graduation for DREAM Act students in San Francisco

Gabriela has become a leader on the Berkeley campus in advancing the cause of undocumented students. As co-chair of a student group called RISE (Rising Immigrant Scholars Through Education), she has been active in advocating for the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as minors by the parents. The DREAM Act fell victim to a U.S. Senate filibuster in December 2010. Gabriela also has spoken out in favor of the California DREAM Act, which would make undocumented students in the state eligible for financial aid and publicly supported college scholarships. Governor Jerry Brown signed the California DREAM Act in 2011.

Educating and Serving the Community

People don’t understand that we have a broken immigration system and that it’s not easy to get papers here. And that’s why it’s so important for undocumented students to speak up and to try to have our voices heard. Otherwise we are going to be left out. We don’t qualify for any sort of financial aid. And there’s no way of officially working or having a decent job in this country.

I think it’s important to educate people about this issue so they know about the experiences of undocumented students. If people only knew about all of the problems with the current system, then they probably would have different ideas and different views. They probably would be supportive of the DREAM Act or immigration reform if they knew what was really going on.

Gabriela is studying ethnic studies and creative writing at Berkeley. She also is doing research on the DREAM Act and on the civil war in El Salvador. She said she hopes to get a law degree and a Ph.D. and become a professor. However, her future depends on what lawmakers at the state and national levels do, if anything, to provide undocumented students with a pathway to citizenship and educational opportunities.

Meanwhile, she worries about her father and mother and her relatives in El Salvador.

Struggling Alone

I still keep in touch with my relatives but I don’t think they fully understand what it’s like to be in my shoes. They think I have a lot of privilege, which in a sense I do. But they don’t fully understand what it means to be an undocumented college student. I actually have aunts who really don’t think I’m going to college. They think I made it up. They think it’s a lie. I don’t know why except that they think it’s such an impossible thing.

I think my father’s doing really bad emotionally right now. Since I immigrated, I have seen him working hard and trying to prosper but things have not improved. He is frustrated because he can’t help me or my brother. He works so hard, though. I remember he used to work at a packing company. Sometimes when he got home his hands were swollen and red. He worked so many hours for a meager salary but he had to feed his family. His undocumented status has really affected him in terms of his ability to make money and find a life for himself here in the United States. I haven’t talked to him since January, but I think it’s better to stay away from him at this time, especially as I’m trying to survive here at school.

My mother is a domestic worker. She crossed the border on her own in 2009. And sometimes I talk to her and she tells me about her life. I'll ask how much she earns and it’s really not a lot. It really hurts me how immigrants like her are being exploited. They're cheap labor. That’s all they are to people.

My brother, he’s still in El Salvador. He’s in school and my grandmother’s still there too. I think about them a lot and I wonder when I will see them next.

Determined to Make Good

Small things keep accumulating and threatening to drive me into the ground. However, in spite of the financial and other difficulties, I still have a great motivation to succeed. I am determined to be one of the people walking up the stage to receive a diploma. I am determined to earn what nobody can take away from me: an education. Not being let down by the ever-increasing odds against students like me is probably the greatest obstacle I have overcome.

Read other First-Person Stories from the series.

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