Jesus Pineda-Ramirez

Mexico

Immigrant Rights and Health Activist

I was born in Oaxaca, which there’s not much going on down there, but from a very young age it felt like home. It was very green, a lot of dirt roads and a lot of houses with barely a roof over their head. But for me, it was a very special place. I remember just running around and from a young age just being aware of my surroundings, being aware of my environment and really appreciating the trees, appreciating just how very little we had, but to me it just meant a lot.

 

After a while, my family, we decided to immigrate to the United States because we were really struggling economically and the way that America was portrayed, at that time, it seemed what was the answer to our problems. And so my dad came to the U.S. and after a year, he set up for myself, my mom who was pregnant at that time, and my sister to all immigrate to the United States. I remember crying because I didn’t know where I was going. My mom immigrated from Spain to Mexico City and meet my dad who is an indigenous Triqui Mexican from Oaxaca, so we were seen as outsiders. I was too dark for my Spanish side of my family and to white for my indigenous Mexican family. We didn’t belong anywhere, and we were seen as outsiders.

 

I was ten years old. Before I knew it, there was a day where we were crossing through the desert. I remember the heat. I remember seeing rattlesnakes. I remember just being in a lot of pain. I just remember being stuffed in a car and it was a very, very hot day in the fall and I was just stuffed in a car and before I knew it, we went through Tijuana and ended up in Chula Vista, San Diego for almost a year. My dad and I did a lot of fieldwork and was doing gardening work and my mom was cleaning houses in La Jolla.

 

Some of my early memories were me helping my dad in the fields in really bad working conditions to going to La Jolla and seeing these giant houses and helping my mom clean houses. I instantly started to notice that America wasn’t what we were promised. Often times, we were told that we’re not going to pay you because you’re an illegal and we could call immigration on you and there’s nothing that you can do. Just seeing the differences in people’s living styles, I was sharing a room with multiple people and yet you cross the Coronado Bridge and you have some of the wealthiest houses in California. Very early on America wasn’t what was promised, but yet my family valued working hard and education and so that was my job. While my parents worked, my job was to go to school and do well in school.

 

There were a lot of cultural differences, a lot of difficulty in school. A lot of my teachers thought that I was stupid because I didn’t speak English and a lot of the kids would make fun of me because of the shoes I was wearing to just me not being able to pronounce things well. It was really discouraging, but I was very determined to do well in school and work hard to learn English.

 

My family really valued education so my parents tried their best to get me into really good schools and so eventually, I found my footing and found what I was good at. And as someone who’s a visual hands-on learner, I went to this good charter school in San Diego where I was able to work with my hands and practice speaking skills in a school that prepared me for the real world — versus being told that you’re smart by memorizing this book and then filling up a test. The school prepared you for the real world, and I did really well in that environment.

 

I realized I was undocumented very early on trying to apply for a driver license and being told I couldn’t because I didn’t have citizenship to try to apply for a job and not having a valid work permit. It was a huge thing when I was applying for college. I was applying to these really good schools and getting acceptance letters, but I was told that because of my status there’s an extra international student fee. I didn’t qualify for FASFA or any scholarships that were federally funded. So, my dreams of being able to go to college were instantly crushed.

 

It was really difficult but eventually, everything worked out. I was offered a full ride scholarship to UC Berkeley and qualified for this thing called AB 540 that exempted me from the international student fee. And through some private scholarships, I was able to get everything covered. By the end of that summer I knew that I was going to UC Berkeley. What was interesting is that I actually didn’t know anything about UC Berkeley. I had never visited that campus. In high school, a lot of my friends who were wealthier would take road trips to visit these universities, but I had never gone outside of San Diego so I didn’t know anything about Berkeley. I was just told that I should apply because it’s a good school.

I remember just packing the very little that I had and taking a Greyhound bus. It was the first time I was in the Bay Area and completely by myself. At this time, dad was deported and mom moved back to Mexico because she was having some health issues. I was completely alone. I had some extended family, but I was never really close to them so I was literally on my own. I started school in 2014.

I had an amazing experience at UC Berkley. I think at the beginning, a lot of us struggle with how you’re defined. Being in Silicon Valley and in the cutthroat environment of UC Berkeley, at first you could feel like a tiny ant. But when I became a person of faith through struggling with the loss of my mom, I felt more called to focus on who I wanted to become instead of what the world was telling me to be. And so, I found my footing and really ignored all those outside voices. I thrived in that environment because I was more confident in myself. I was confident that this degree and going to UC Berkeley didn’t define me, but it was more of who I am as a person in my heart. Contributing to my community and really loving people was how I wanted to be known, instead of for having a fancy degree.

In immigrant communities you are often pushed to become a lawyer or doctor because you’ll be able to take your family from the stage of being poor. That created a bit of an issue when I told my family that I was studying environmental science because they didn’t really understand what environmental science was. They thought that it was a hippie thing. They thought that my career would be being an herbalist and selling herbs in a market, but I told them that that’s not what environmental science was. My goal was to go to medical school. Everyone else was studying biology, but I felt like there is much more that we could learn from our surroundings. I told them I wanted to distinguish myself when I apply for medical school. So, I was able to find my passion and I really enjoyed it.

Faith allowed me to see the world in a different way. It allowed me to be more in-tune with my spirit. My faith had got me through school and how I found a community of people to support me. Finding my faith, I felt like I was able to seek something higher and beyond myself. It helped me to really understand who I was becoming. So, my faith was a huge role in being able to get through those last few years. The biggest thing was having hope because as someone that came from nothing, sometimes hope is the only thing that you could hold onto for a better day

My mom died in October of my first year of college in. That was really heartbreaking. I had a few phone calls before my mom passed away where she told me not to leave to see her. She told me, “We sacrificed a lot for you to be here. If you come here, you’re just going to be stuck.”

I applied for this thing called Advanced Parole that would allow me to leave the country because of an emergency and come back. I paid a lot of money for that and I was denied; none of that money was returned to me. It was really heartbreaking because I couldn’t even be at my own mother’s funeral, just because of policies and my immigration status.

That also created a lot of tension with my family because my sister and my dad saw me as being selfish for not being able to go. I tried to explain to them that I did everything I could. I paid the fees, I did the applications, and I just couldn’t be down there. I was so close to dropping everything to be down there, but I remembered just listening to my mom saying “Don’t come down here.” That was probably the single most difficult decision that I’ve ever made to this day, not being able to be in my own mother’s last moments of her life.

The American dream formula failed me. You’re taught that if you go to school, do the right thing, pay your taxes, don’t break the law, the American dream will be promised. And I did that, but in the moment it was realization that it had failed me and it was more of a reminder of what it means to be an immigrant during that time. Till this day, the tension between my sister and my father are still there. They still think that I’m a selfish person, but I did everything that I could to try to be down there and it just didn’t work out.

Since coming here I’ve dealt with racism, but ever since the current administration came into office I’ve noticed that people have felt bolder and more willing to try to be in your face about it. And so, since Trump became president, I’ve dealt with more racism than ever before. I believe that there is a correlation between there. I’ve had people throw rocks at me, I’ve had people break my car window and write racist things in my car. I’ve had people send me death threats.

I really struggled this year because I was fighting my church and my community to talk about these things because I felt invisible along with 30 other people in our congregation. I was working at a Christian camp and people said awful stuff to me. There’s been a huge cultural difference that has been hard for me this year because I used to be a part of this church. I reached out to my pastors and I told them that being an immigrant and a Christian very much intersect with my identity. I asked them to talk about how this is affecting people in our community. And I remember my pastor telling me at that time, “Those issues do not pertain to our church because we’re mainly a white congregation. We are a church that focuses on theology, music, art, coffee, and the board. I feel like we’re not going to talk about those things.”

I dealt with a lot when I was dating a girl whose parents would make racist comments. They’d say I only got into specific schools because they needed more diversity. I remember one night during dinner time, the stepfather of this girl was lashing out at me because of this law called Affirmative Action. He wanted to be a cop and he said he was the best cop for the job. But there was a Latino who wanted the same job who got it instead because Affirmative Action. So, he was really upset at me for that even though I had nothing to do with that. He was hostile and never trusted me. I discovered that he actually hid a tracking device underneath my car.

I had to break up with her because there were huge cultural differences. I remember one time she didn’t understand why I was having a panic attack when there was a cop behind me as I was driving. I had to explain to her what I have had to deal with being harassed by cops in the past. So, things didn’t end very well.

This year was definitely a year of trying to belong somewhere and to figure out more of my identity. It was dealing with feeling neglected and invisible to a lot of people. I made a lot of people uncomfortable by talking about these things. You just feel so alone, you feel so hopeless sometimes. It’s exhausting trying to explain things to people, especially the previous congregation that I was a part of.

The gospel talks about the widow and the immigrant, and it just seemed like the church was more interested in being cool and trying to hit a younger generation versus really talking about these things. But luckily, I found a really good community where their focus is in social justice and finding intersections with the gospel. And it’s been good because my identity as a Christian and an immigrant go hand in hand. But a lot of churches and congregations want to separate those and want you to assimilate to their way of being.

I want to do an MD and master’s in public health. My goal is to open different clinics that carter to low income communities, specifically clinics that are all woman run. All woman nurses and all woman doctors to both empower women in the STEM field, and also create a community where single mothers can bring their kids and be seen during the same day. My mom was both my mother figure and my father figure. I remember her taking me to the doctor multiple times and seeing her deal with her fair share of health issues. She struggled because I could get seen, but she wasn’t seen and I just don’t want any other kid to experience that.

I want women to feel taken care of. I want single mothers, specifically, to feel like there’s a community for them. And so, I want to open clinics that feel like a home. As someone who is very intuitive, space is really important. So, I want to create these open spaces with a lot of natural lighting and plants. Something that just doesn’t feel like a hospital or a clinic. I want people to feel like they’re being taken care of. And so, that’s my goal: go through med school, get a master’s in public health, and be able to serve my community.

Meanwhile, my DACA expires very soon. Every day I just stare at it and wonder what if it doesn’t get renewed, or what if Congress or a judge makes another decision or Trump? Then in a snap of finger my whole future will change. It’s been a year of feeling like I’m in limbo, a year of feeling like I’m a bargaining chip, a year of unknown and a year of just riding the wave and just not really knowing where you’re heading and uncertainty.

This country is built on immigrants and I am very much an American, just without papers. I’ve gone through the American dream formula and I call this nation home. I don’t know anything else. And I want to contribute; I love this country. Often, there’s this bad stigma that immigrants are lazy or that we’re just taking government benefits. That’s not true. We’re hardworking, we’re doctors and nurses and students. We’re among you, hiding in the shadows. But this year a lot of us are coming out and we’re more so just letting you in — letting you in into our stories, letting you in into the spaces where we’re vulnerable in hopes that you can listen and understand that we’re just as American as you are.

I encourage you to listen to these stories and understand that there’s a lot more than just what any news outlet is trying to tell you. That we are people and we come with our stories. And if you’re willing to listen, I think that you will hopefully understand one day that there’s much more that defines us. All the people coming here are trying to escape violence or better their lives. That is why my parents decided to come here. They wanted a better future for me and my siblings.