Immigrant stories: ‘People can see who you are, not just who the news says you are’
Carolina Fonseca has always been a dreamer.
It’s not a term she came up with on her own, but it’s one that has been very relevant to her life. Fonseca’s parents brought her over from Mexico when she was a young girl and she lived many years as an undocumented immigrant and then as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient before getting permanent residency.
“I will never forget the strength that they had to come here,” she said of her parents. “If times get tough for me or I feel like I can’t do something, I think about that strength that they had.”
Fonseca was one of four people at a storytelling event Thursday hosted by the NC Justice Center’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program. The event was titled “This Journey: Stories of Immigrants, Refugees & Advocates.” The NC Justice Center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.
She talked about the guilt she still feels over getting residency status in the U.S. over others and said it’s important for her to keep telling her story to help others.
“People can see who you are and not just who the news says you are,” she said of speaking out.
Her struggle helped push her to the path she’s on (she’s writing a children’s book) and she is proud of her history.
“We always have to remember where we came from because our culture is beautiful — don’t ever let anyone take that way from you,” she said.
Eighty-year-old Terry Grunwald spoke after Fonseca with a different perspective about immigration. Her father escaped Nazi Germany during World War II and sought refuge in the U.S.
He was forced by a judge to go back, but by political chance ended up being able to stay.
Grunwald said she has been telling her father’s story for 80 years and there are still very real echoes of the past in other immigrants’ stories.
“These are people trying to live decent lives, and they deserve to live it in safety,” she said. “Hopefully 80 years from now, we won’t have these stories.”
Angela Salamanca, who owns Raleigh businesses Centro Mexican Restaurant and Gallo Pelon, spoke about her experience building a life in the Triangle as an undocumented immigrant from Colombia.
She landed in North Carolina after being denied admission to a university in Bogotá, Colombia, and the plan was never to stay. But Salamanca quickly learned that she loved life in America.
“I was able to be whatever I wanted to be,” she said.
Salamanca said 1995 was a different time for immigrants and she was able to get a social security card and driver’s license — basic documents, she said, that were able to open a lot of door for her.
She eventually got residency status in the U.S. and is now working to get her mother here after being away from her for so long.
“I’m proud to be an immigrant in this country, and I’m proud that I landed in Raleigh,” she said.
Lela Ali was the last speaker. She identifies as an Afro Arab Immigrant Muslim but said she struggled a lot with her identity and with being an immigrant growing up.
As a child, she said, she didn’t quite grasp what undocumented really meant.
“It meant relunctantly and painfully not being able to admit who I was,” she said.
Ali couldn’t get a driver’s license when she was 16; she had to pay more to attend college, couldn’t apply for financial aid and didn’t qualify for many scholarships.
“At that moment, the American dream was shattered for me,” she said.
But she pushed on and eventually got a scholarship, “the golden ticket,” it was described to her. It was her only and single way into college but it also left her with a sense of guilt and the reality of privilege that other immigrants didn’t have.
“So many other young immigrants just like me couldn’t get the golden ticket,” Ali said.
She’s gone on to build a life for herself and become comfortable with her identity. She was empowered, she said, by knowing her history and culture, and she encouraged others to as well.
Ali said her mother once read her an Arab proverb that stuck with her.
“Those that are without knowledge of their histories are like trees without roots,” she quoted.
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