Maria Gomez, center, takes part in graduation ceremonies at UCLA in June… (Christina House / For the…)
Maria Gomez stood with the Class of 2011, waiting to climb the stage. The sun was bright on the UCLA campus, her fellow graduates buoyant.
To reach this elite company, she'd worked baby-sitting and housecleaning jobs, scraping up tuition from quarter to quarter. She'd lived on Cup Noodles and granola bars from the food bank when money ran out. She'd spent nights sleeping on the floor of the campus printing room.
At 26, she was getting her master's in architecture from one of the nation's top schools. But the triumph felt hollow, her sense of achievement tangled up with bitterness and fear.
From childhood on, she'd straddled paradoxical Americas.
This was the place where your family's foothold might be dislodged by a single careless word. It was where you had to lie when friends asked why you didn't have a driver's license: "An eye condition." It was where, when your dignified and stoic father thought he saw an immigration-enforcement van, fear made his voice unrecognizable as he screamed: Don't move!
But there was another America her parents had made her believe in, where the children of immigrants could become professionals, chief executives, pioneers.
The country that made you hide like a criminal and the country that promised to let you stand tall atop your talent — she'd grown up with both, somehow believed in both. But now, about to be pitched into a job market where she could not legally work, she felt dread in her stomach.
Could both places be real?
"We're going to Disneyland."
It's 1993. Maria is 8, the exuberant, green-eyed girl beaming from the middle of family photos. Her family is bankrupt, the cattle on their ranch outside Guadalajara dead or dying. She should be excited about the promised vacation. But something's wrong. She's supposed to keep the trip a secret.
Mom is in the backyard, sobbing as she feeds the past to a bonfire. Boxes of papers, documents, love letters. Everything that doesn't fit in the two suitcases the family will bring.
Soon, after they have slipped across the border and found refuge with relatives in Los Angeles, her parents explain: We won't be returning.
She is told the rules of the new country. Never talk about where you're from. Be careful who you trust. Obey every law.
Her younger sister, Ana, is enrolled in the wrong grade in their elementary school. Her parents are too nervous to tell school officials. Somebody might ask questions.
If Maria knows invisibility is the first rule of survival, she also understands that being a stand-out student is the only escape from the grinding existence her dad, who dreamed of being a veterinarian, is forced to lead. He waits tables at two restaurants near LAX, swallows his pride when a drunk diner grabs his shirt and screams in his face, doubles up on socks because his feet hurt so much.
Between his morning and evening shifts, he picks his oldest daughter up from school in the family Monte Carlo and explains why he loves America. You can make any life you want. You don't have to put up with a husband who hurts you, mija, and you don't have to pay bribes. What counts here are talent and perseverance and the rule of law.
Yet they must live like outlaws, with their application for legal residency stuck in a years-long backlog. Dad assures her that someday the legal papers they ask for in nighttime prayers will come through. "When that day comes," he says, "you have to be ready."
Solitude is safe, drawing her refuge. She sits at the kitchen table drafting imaginary houses and filling their rooms with furniture, vases, portraits, a vision of the American Dream rendered in exacting detail. She adds make-believe indexes of scale, to make it look like a real architect's work. She pores over photos of Europe's great Gothic cathedrals, fascinated by the elegance of flying buttresses and the weight of the balanced stone.
Maria has the sobriety of the reliable oldest child who knows how much rides on her example. Her parents have two more kids, both American-born, who get used to their big sister chiding them not to squander a single opportunity. They're a family of seven in a two-bedroom house in Inglewood.
When she tries to escape English as a Second Language classes in the sixth grade and a teacher wonders aloud if she can even read, considering she hasn't yet mastered English, she feels the need to prove something for all Latinos everywhere.
At Westchester High, she hides in plain sight. Her image pervades her senior yearbook. There she is, the pretty cheerleader with the carefree smile, waving pompoms at Comets games. The jeans-wearing president of the Garden Club, shoveling out a hole. The solemn straight-A student, posing in her academic honors jacket. Only her boyfriend and a couple of friends know her secret.
The guidance counselor doesn't understand.
What do you mean, you have no Social Security number? Did you forget it?