Angel was 12 when his mother hired a coyote to bring the family across the Mexico-U.S. border in 1999. They settled in Florida and planned to stay only briefly—to work, save, and then go back to Mexico for a better life. Today, Angel juggles several part-time jobs while attending law school in San Francisco. He has been active in the gay and lesbian rights movement since coming out in high school.
My name is Angel. People here say it in English with the ‘g’, but my name is really pronounced “Ahn-hell.” I was born and raised in Mexico in the town of Hidalgo — it’s only about two hours from Mexico City, but it remains traditional, conservative and isolated. Very Catholic. I’m the only son in my family; I have three older sisters. My parents were trying to have a boy. Everybody in Mexico wants a boy.
A lot of crazy stuff happened that led my mom to move to the United States. When I was around 11 years old, my parents finally settled on a divorce. My dad won the house and my mom left the country. She went to the United States for the first time in 1998 with my oldest sister, and left me and my other sisters with my father. She planned to come back when she made enough money to make a better life for us in Mexico. She went to the U.S. illegally — she didn’t even bother to apply for a visitor’s visa. To do that, you need to prove you have a job, a house to come back to and money to spend while you’re in the U.S. After the divorce, she didn’t meet any of those requirements. There was no way she could enter legally.
With a vibrant farm economy and a need for low-wage workers to harvest citrus and vegetable crops, Florida was a magnet for undocumented immigrants throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Florida was home to about 300,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in 1997-98. In 1997, 52 percent of U.S. farmworkers lacked a government work authorization, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Sixty-one percent of all farmworkers, and half of those with three to five family members, had “below-poverty” incomes at the time.
My mother started out in Bradenton, Florida. She worked in the fields picking tomatoes and green peppers. Ten months later she came to take us back with her. Crossing was dangerous. My mom’s greatest fear was that we’d be lost in the desert. We had a long bus ride from our home to a border town and a two-day walk over lots of hills. I remember when someone said, “Do you see that blinking light? That light is America.” It was comforting, a big radio tower that looked so close, but it started to seem like we would never get to it. We were swimming across rivers, running through the desert for many days, sleeping in garbage dumps. There were scorpions and rattlesnakes. Once we were in America, we had to ride on the floor of a hot van for four more days like sardines. It was a very hard experience.
When we got to Florida we were all planning to work in the fields. My sister was 15, but when the bosses saw me they said I needed to look older. Mom told me I could keep the house clean and watch TV while they worked, but a few weeks later she found out that I could go to school. She said, “Don’t get too excited, it’s only for two years.” I didn’t want to be a parasite, so I got a job mowing lawns on the weekends and I went to seventh grade during the week. I started learning English and my mom was like, “Maybe you won’t have to pick in the fields, maybe you can be a manager in the fields.” We thought I could be the one picking up people, driving a truck. For us, that was a big thing. That seemed like a better life.
As I learned more, I tried to teach my sister and my mom, but even today they don’t really speak English. They were too tired. They’d say, “Angel, please let us sleep.” In school, I was learning about politics and history. I came home one day and said, “Hey, guess what? At one time they were all pilgrims themselves!” But most of our conversations were about day-to-day life. “How did you do today?” “Have you locked the door?” “Have you eaten?”
When I finished middle school, I told my mother that I wanted to go to high school and work too. I said, “You’ll get money and I’ll get school.” That was the deal. I went to high school in the day and at night I separated stems from the green peppers. School, work, sleep — that was the extent of my freshman and sophomore years.
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the federal government began to tighten immigration restrictions; many immigrants—documented and undocumented alike—faced heightened scrutiny, and undocumented workers and their employers faced a higher risk of legal prosecution and (for workers) deportation.
After September 11th, we heard rumors that the authorities were checking for papers more carefully. Many immigrants started losing their jobs, and the company we worked for got rid of all the women and children. So we decided to go live in San Francisco because we had in-laws who lived here.
In San Francisco, Angel finally felt comfortable accepting his sexual orientation, thanks in part to his involvement in his school’s Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA). Today, more than 53 percent of U.S. public high schools host a GSA club, including 850 schools in California. Emboldened by his discovery that he was not alone, Angel started to speak out about gay and lesbian rights and became active in the community.
In San Francisco, one of my high school teachers noticed that I wasn’t getting along with my classmates and he sent me to the school therapist. My classmates knew I was gay and they wanted me to admit it. “Just say you’re gay. You like guys, what’s the big deal?” But I still had a hope to change. I met this girl and thought, “Please God, let me be attracted to her.” I tried hard, we kissed, but I’m not attracted to women.
Ever since I was born, I had a sense that I was different than other boys. I was sensitive, I didn’t like playing rough games, and I’d rather play with girls. In my religion class, they told us that all gay people got AIDS, so when I started to understand more about myself I thought, “I’m gay and I have AIDS. I’ll die and go to hell.” When my dad started hearing rumors of me being teased — being called Angela, Angelika — he wanted to make me into a man. Once he took me to my uncle’s house to fight my cousin. I didn’t want to fight but my dad insisted on it to prove my manhood. He said, “You’re going to beat up your cousin. I’m not asking you, it’s an order.” Mostly I just tried to protect myself. My cousin obviously won.
My high school psychologist was very encouraging and helpful. She said, “Here in San Francisco, you can be yourself.” I finally opened up to her and told her I was gay. She recommended that I go to a meeting of a queer youth group. That’s where I met lots of young gay people. They taught me about the rainbow flag and pride and being yourself. I saw a classmate who had on a rainbow bracelet; he was comfortable having it on at school. We became friends and opened our own Gay/Straight Alliance at our high school. I became very active and I was appointed to be a Youth Commissioner for the City of San Francisco. I had business cards and went to meetings twice a week. That’s when my mother started to suspect I was gay.
One time I wanted to go to the gay parade. I told my mom there was a party going on but she knew I was lying and asked if I was gay. She was angry and so I moved out.
I stayed three nights in Dolores Park. I was crying when I ran into a friend. She told me she lived in this place called Guerrero House, a transitional house for anyone looking for a place to stay, especially gay people. They gave me emergency sheltering and I stayed there for 15 months. I had to share a room with three people. There was a lot of drama — misconduct and yelling, schizophrenics and bipolar people — but I was stable, emotionally and psychologically.
Angel enrolled in San Francisco City College and later transferred to UC Berkeley, where he studied psychology. As an undocumented student, he was able to enroll in college but he 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.
Mom had told me I couldn’t go to college because I was undocumented, but I told her anybody could go to San Francisco City College and that it wasn’t expensive. I enrolled there and got a very competitive GPA. I was working at Walgreens and lived at the shelter. I didn’t have to pay rent, so I saved money for the rest of college.
A friend was applying to Berkeley. I said, “You’re aiming way too high, girl.” She said, “What do you have to lose?” So I applied to UC Santa Cruz and Berkeley, and I got into both and chose Berkeley. I wasn’t sure what to study, but I’d met this woman who was majoring in psychology. She explained that childhood was the most vulnerable time for a person’s development and that it affects your whole life. That caught my attention. I decided that’s what I wanted to study.
I should have gotten my immigration status worked out before I turned 18. It’s worse when you’re an adult; you’re in this country illegally and it’s hard to prove that your parents brought you here. But I met a gay friend who’d been granted asylum. I hadn’t known about that option.
Angel learned that a person who is unable to return to his or her “home” country because of persecution on account of factors such as race, political opinion or sexual orientation may be granted asylum in the U.S. He applied for, and was granted, asylum.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Mexico, but LGBT people have been prosecuted through the use of legal codes that regulate obscene or lurid behavior (atentados à la moral y las buenas costumbres). Over the past two decades, there have been reports of hate crimes against LGBT people, including the murders of openly gay men in Mexico City and of transvestites in the southern state of Chiapas. A 2007 Human Rights Commission study reported that three homosexuals are murdered per month in Mexico.
My case was strong because I had worked on the Youth Commission and been open about my sexuality in the United States. That made me vulnerable. My high school records showed that I helped start the Gay/Straight Alliance — that was evidence that I was not only gay but committed to being out of the closet. The more feminine a man is, the more he is perceived to be gay. I can’t hide my sexuality, I never could. This all proved that I would be endangered in Mexico.
I hadn’t known that I was making an asylum case. I was just living my life, right? But I was granted asylum and now I’m a Permanent Resident. That has opened doors for me, so many opportunities.
It was my sister who helped my mom understand. My mother cleans houses for a living, including for some LGBT people, who are always kind to her. My sister said, “Your employer, he’s a good person, right?” My mom said they could live their lives as they wanted, but when it came to her family it was different. My sister persisted and one day my mom asked to see me. She said, “You mean so much to me.” I told her that I thought she’d rather have her son stealing or doing drugs or being in gangs than being what I was. I said, “I’m gay, mom.” She said, “So?” We hugged and she admitted that she’d always known I was different, but couldn’t accept it. I bought her a book in Spanish; it was something like My Son is Gay. Now my mom is cool. She has met my boyfriends and she even hangs out with them. That’s how drastic her change was.
Angel is now halfway through completing his law degree. He wants to specialize in immigration law and give back to his community.
I got my bachelor’s degree in psychology and then I decided to become a lawyer. I applied to many law schools and I got into all of them. Not many immigrants make it that far, but my first few days in law school were traumatizing. I was back in the same place — intimidated. Law school was going to be hard for anybody, so how hard was it going to be for me when I’m only half-speaking English? I knew I had to compete with native-speakers and thought I’d never win a case in court. I started doubting my abilities. I internalized that doubt and all of my UC Berkeley education flew away. I remember the first law professor who asked me my name. I pronounced it in Spanish: “Ahn-hell.” The law professor said, “Did you say Pedro?” That’s when I decided, “Okay my name is Angel” with a “g” sound. I made it all the way through American schools without having to change my name, but then in law school I had to give in.
I’ve decided to practice immigration law. I know the challenges and complexities and I’ve seen the impact of undocumented status — there’s so much fear. A good lawyer has to have compassion. Although I was on probation in my first year of law school, I made it onto the dean’s list last semester. I’ve started to understand how it works. You can’t let the systems intimidate you, otherwise you’ll internalize the fear and your failures will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A little at a time, I’m learning. Maybe I can help others learn, too.