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She's undocumented, but she's also undaunted

Even though Ana Venegas, 23, entered the United States illegally as an infant, she's always considered herself an American. Obama's announcement last week, though welcome, merely affirmed what she has felt all along.

June 22, 2012|Hector Tobar
  • Ana Venegas, 23, is photographed at her home in South Gate. Venegas was brought illegally into the United States when she was 10 months old. She says her undocumented status has fueled her ambition, and ultimately, has made her a better person.
Ana Venegas, 23, is photographed at her home in South Gate. Venegas was brought… (Christina House / For the…)

Los Angeles Times

People like Ana Venegas are said to be living "in the shadows."

It's the most annoying of all the metaphors in the immigration debate. And woefully inaccurate.

Venegas, 23, entered this country illegally as a 10-month-old baby carried across the Mexico-U.S. border by her teenage mother. She's never been able to legalize her status. That makes her "undocumented," if you're someone sympathetic to her plight. And an "illegal" if you're not.

But whatever you want to call her, the one thing you can't say about Ana is that she's been hiding. For 22 years she's lived in the bright sunshine of South Gate, in a neighborhood that looks like a bonsai-tree version of the American dream.

The homes are small and orderly. The tallest shadows are those cast by the line of power-transmission towers that run nearby.

Ana grew up under those towers, always aware that there was something that separated her from most of the other children in the neighborhood, and even from most of her relatives. She first remembers being aware of it on the playground, on hot days when she and the other kids bared their arms.

"I knew I was from Mexico because of this little mark I have," Venegas told me, referring to a vaccination scar on her shoulder. "Everyone that was born in Mexico had that mark."

In the years that followed, what it meant to have the "mark" of a Mexican birth grew. Her life had complications most of her friends didn't share: not being able to drive, or get a paying job, or financial aid for college, even if she was an A student. Despite all that, she graduated from Cal State L.A., just a few weeks ago.

"Getting educated made me a better person," she told me. "It could have been easier, but it was worth it."

When President Obama announced last week that the government would begin granting work permits to certain, young undocumented immigrants, it was all a bit anticlimactic for Ana. She'd been working so hard to overcome the obstacles in her path, and for so long, that she began to realize that her illegal status had actually made her a better person.

"I don't know if I would have gotten the grades that I did, or achieved what I did if I hadn't been undocumented," she said. "For me, school doesn't measure your intelligence. It measures your endurance. I have a lot of endurance."

Ana and people like her persevered. In high schools, in university classrooms, in law schools, and on battlefields under the U.S. flag, they reached for public success. Instead of lingering in the metaphorical shadows, they climbed up on the stage of American achievement. In doing so, they forced all of us to face up to the contradiction of their existence.

"They pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said last week. "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."

That was, for me, the most remarkable thing about the Obama administration's announcement last week: to hear a president of the United States celebrate the Americanness of a group of people who've been vilified as aliens and "criminals" by so many Americans.

Ana always considered herself an American, even though she's been reminded of her otherness for as long as she can remember.

Growing up in South Gate, some Latino kids would taunt her with a certain ugly slur for illegal immigrant. Many knew the story of how she'd crossed over: with the papers of a baby boy cousin who was about the same age.

Even that cousin would tease her, she said. "He'd tell me, 'If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be here.'"

Like many an American before her, Venegas took her outsider status and transformed it into the burning flame that powered her ambition. She became an assiduous follower of every rule placed before her, religious in her observance of all the routines in her young life.

"I never had to tell her to do her homework, and I never had to wake her up to go to school because she'd always wake up on her own," Ana's mother, Ana Luisa Gonzalez, told me in Spanish.

When I asked Gonzalez, a 42-year-old garment worker, to pin down the secret behind her daughter's success, she answered with a phrase you hear a lot in the homes of Spanish-speaking L.A.: "Se portaba bien." She behaved.

Ana told me much the same thing: "I just followed the rules. I showed up. I didn't question authority." Among other things, she had perfect attendance during four years in high school.

During her senior year at South Gate High, many of her friends got into top-notch universities: Harvard, UCLA, USC. Venegas was accepted into UC Riverside, but couldn't afford to go without financial aid.

"My parents offered to sell the house and move to Riverside, but I didn't want them to do that," she said.

She went to East Los Angeles College instead, and then transferred to Cal State L.A., enduring several hours on the bus each day. Tuition increased every year, and she couldn't work to help her parents to pay for it. More than once she considered giving up.

"If you believe in God, you also believe there's evil in the world," Venegas said. "And sometimes I thought, 'Devil, you're not going to bring me down.'"

On Saturday, she graduated from Cal State with a 3.9 grade-point average. Ana's mother recently received U.S. residency, and Ana herself recently became engaged to a U.S. citizen. She figured she'd eventually get her legal residency anyway. But hearing the president's words were a kind of affirmation that all her hard work meant something.

"It's like the missing piece of the puzzle," she told me. "Now it's all making sense to me."

A shadow has been lifted — not from the life of Ana Venegas, but from American discourse. Like thousands of others, Ana is here, she's American, and she always has been. Now, perhaps, an honest conversation about immigration can begin.

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