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The Story of an Undocumented Immigrant in New York

Happy to share with you another narrative essay. Like I mentioned in my first narrative, I have a podcast in Portuguese called Let’s Talk New York, to talk about the pains and joys of living abroad and sharing stories from Brazilians around the world. I interviewed this guy a year ago for one of my episodes and it was very emotional.  I used everything he told me to write this essay. I hope you guys like it!

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– Hey dude, wake up, you can’t sleep here.

First I saw the lights and it took me a while to understand what was happening. Then I realized that the voices were coming from two cops. Their flashlights made me notice that it was already dark. I had sat down on some random bench in Central Park some time before because I’d had no other place to go at that time. I probably fell asleep after being so tired of thinking about what I should do. I don’t know how much time I spent on that bench… 30 minutes? 2 hours? 5 minutes? I had no idea. But the moment that I woke up with those lights on my face, being called by cops in the middle of Central Park with no other place to go, I finally asked myself:

– Is this really worth it?

I cried a little – but at the same time, I told myself that I was the one that had chosen this path. It’s probably one of the most struggling moments that I’ve experienced in New York City. I’ve almost gone homeless, I’ve starved, I’ve been accused of being a thief; not the most glamorous life in the city that never sleeps.

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I grew up in a very small town in Brazil. When I was a teenager and I really started dreaming about my future, I was also discovering myself as a homosexual. None of my friends were. If today the LGBTQ community still faces challenges reguarding respect, discrimination, and rights, imagine how the situation was over a decade ago in a small town… Not an easy game. I wanted to be free. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to move to a big city: New York City.

My love for New York City began as a platonic love. I was not one of those privileged kids that had the chance to fly to the U.S. when they were little and explore Disney and NYC. I don’t have those memories. My memories about the Big Apple were created in my imagination, starting when I first watched New York Minute, a movie with the Olsen twins. That was the first time I saw New York City and I was amazed by all that rush from a big city. 

– Wow. I wanna go to the US one day. 

That movie was the one that made me fall in love with NYC at first, and then my friends would always recommend other movies and series to me. Of course, I’ve watched Friends – and that’s how I learned English. I even reached a point where I didn’t have to use subtitles to understand what they were saying. I was so obsessed with NYC that I used to walk around the city – through Google Maps.

My dream finally came true in 2014, when I had the opportunity to visit the city for the first time. I remember the day I got my passport. I remember the process to get my Visa. And I have to be honest here: I had the intention to stay. Things were not easy in Brazil. Although my family had helped me with the expenses of my trip – which was not a fancy one, let’s be clear that I stayed at a hostel – they chose not to help me with my education. I had gotten a 50% scholarship – but they didn’t think Advertising was a good career to pursue.

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I stayed in New York City for a month and every single day of that trip was like living in a dream. But, as my intention was not going back to Brazil, I tried to find a job. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I returned to Brazil, found a new job there.  I spent an entire year working and saving money to move to the Big Apple for good. I bought my flight ticket and paid in installments, and I also brought $2,000 when I moved to New York in 2016. 

During my first trip to the city, I met a girl from California and when I told her I was coming back, she offered to rent her bedroom to me because she was moving back to her state. The price? $1,500 and the building was next to the Empire State Building. Nothing bad for someone that had just moved to the city, right? Except for the fact that I couldn’t afford that. Welcome to NYC. 

Luckily, my friend told me I could find another person to share the room with. Yes, that’s New York: a place where you don’t share an apartment, you share a room. And that’s what I did. There was this girl from my hometown in Brazil that was living in Newark and she wanted to move to the city, so we split the room and the expenses. The rent was $750 for each of us, plus other things like Metrocard, phone bill, etc.

The movies that I’d watched as a teenager always showed that NYC was the place to make dreams come true. Of course, I’m not that naive. I knew that things were not supposed to be easy or perfect. But, at the same time, you have no idea how hard it can be until you get here and you start to struggle. 

My first job was as a dog walker and I would usually earn $280-$300 per week. Most of my money was going towards rent. At that time, my friend was working in a bar and I would wait for her to get back around 1-2 am with some leftovers. That’s what I was eating. Sometimes, I would steal food in the refrigerator from my other roommates. I didn’t have money to spend on real food, so I would go for more than a day without eating. It was August, and summer in the city really helped me to forget my hunger. Jack’s 99 became my favorite store and I would buy some groceries there, since the prices were more affordable. 

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After two months living in that apartment, my roommate was kicked out because she was not following the rules. I could stay – but that implicated paying the full amount of $1,500 and I couldn’t afford that. It was not an option. So, I stayed in the studio of a dog walker colleague. He was going to spend a month in Brazil and he rented his place to me. 

When my time at his studio was over, I had no place to go. My visa was almost expired and I was thinking about buying a ticket to go back to Brazil – and not overstaying my time in the USA. So, I needed to save my money. That was the occasion when I was homeless for about a week.  I was paying for a gym and taking free ESL classes at Columbia University. I was working as a dog walker during the day, heading to the gym to take a shower, then going to the ESL classes. After that, I would go to a McDonald’s to study and I would stay there until they closed. Sometimes, I would go to a storage unit – a friend of mine that was in Brazil gave me her keys – to spend some hours there. I never slept there because I was too afraid to be locked in. You never know… 

It was on one of these days that I almost slept on a bench in Central Park. After being kicked out by the cops, I was walking around Columbus Circle area, and saw a lot of rats and homeless people and wondered:

– What am I doing with my life? 

But I was too proud to call my family and ask for help. More than that, I didn’t want to give up on my dream. I was crying and thinking about my friends and the moments I’d spent in Brazil, when my phone vibrated. It was a notification from Tinder. I had a date. Yep. I was so desperate to have a place to crash that I was even trying to find a date. Turned out that the guy just wanted a massage, and luckily I could sleep on his couch that night.

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The next day, my friend Fernanda called me. She was the one that gave me the keys to her storage unit and she was spending some time in Brazil. She had been calling me for a while, asking how I was and where I was living. Every time she asked me, I would lie and say that I was living in Queens. That day, I couldn’t hide the fact that I was homeless. 

– OMG, why didn’t you tell me? You are my friend. I’m here for you. Stay tight, I will call you back soon, I’m gonna find you a place to stay.

This friend was an angel and put another angel in my life. Later that day, I was crashing on her friend’s couch for the weekend. Her name was Anna. Anna opened the door of her house without even knowing me; she asked me about my life and made me some drinks. Today, we are BFF’s and she was one of the best things that happened to me while living abroad. It was because of people like Fernanda and Anna that I didn’t give up on my dream. It was because of their help that I could stay and get over this complicated moment on my journey in New York City.

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Besides finding me a place to stay, Fernanda also got me a job in the construction field. I did the hard work: breaking walls, painting, carrying heavy stuff around. As I was looking for a new place to live, I also reconnected with my ex-roommate, and it was intense. I found out that she went homeless for a while as well. We cried together. It was tough to realize that she went through a situation like that; I knew how she was feeling because, you know, I went through the same thing. At the end, she agreed on renting the space in the living room so I would have a place to live. 

That was a short period of peace in my life. I was finally able to save some money, I had a place to sleep – although it was on an air mattress – and as my visa was expiring, I decided to go back to Brazil. Before that, I consulted with a tarot card reader. She told me that I had some things to fix in Brazil, but that I would definitely be back in NYC. And she mentioned that a woman would help me. 

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I got back to my hometown in Brazil and to that routine that I already knew. I started to work for a logistics company, as a manager. My shift was tough: Monday to Saturday, from 6am to 7pm. You may be thinking that my salary was great for so many working hours, right? But it was not. I was always thinking about the money that I used to make as a dog walker, like 20 bucks for 30 minutes. To make the same amount of money in Brazil, I needed to work about 6 hours. 

The boredom was another problem. Everything in my town was closed at 7pm. I had no social life – not only because of the lack of options, but also because my budget was too tight. After 45 days, I was boarding back to NYC. Fun fact: I didn’t even have the money to buy my ticket. A dear friend was nice enough to trust me and buy the ticket for me.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking: Why would he be back to NYC after so many struggles?

Well, at that time, I can say that my life was more well-structured in NYC than in Brazil. First of all, I never told my boss that I was leaving for good. I told him I needed to visit my grandma. And luckily, he really liked me and he kept messaging me saying that he still had a job for me. So, after that short period of time in Brazil, I realized that my new chapter in NYC would be different. Now I had a good job and I also had a place to live. Things would finally improve. I knew it. 

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On January 17th, 2017, I was finally back in the city of my dreams. Things were working out, my performance at the construction company was improving, and I was growing. I’d lived in my friend’s living room for some months, and then I moved to another living room in Queens. Yeah, I told you: renting living rooms is a thing in New York City. Apparently, people don’t waste any opportunity to earn money. Rent is expensive, and why have a living room when you can rent it to some stranger? Lol.

This living room was supposed to be temporary – I had actually got a real room, but until it was available, I stayed in this living room. The owner was a Brazilian lady. I didn’t want to have my options restricted to Brazilans only, but unfortunately when you don’t have a SSN it is hard to find Americans that are willing to share an apartment with you. 

I had no privacy in that living room (my “door” was a curtain) and, on top of that, my experience was not the best one. I was even accused of stealing money and it was so humiliating. I would never do something like that. The only thing I had stolen in my life was that food from my roommates when I was really starving. Unfortunately, all the bad experiences I’ve had in NYC have involved Brazilians. There have been a lot of Americans that have trusted me without even knowing me. I will never understand why we hear so many bad stories involving immigrants trying to take advantage of fellow immigrants.

Although I’d had these problems, 2017 was a good year for me. I took some acting classes during the summer and I even started a relationship. It was my first love. But sadly, it ended and 2018 didn’t start well. Besides my broken heart, my job was really hard too. Working in construction takes a lot of your energy, but I’m not afraid of hard tasks. The problem was with my colleagues. The environment was toxic. Also, my grandmother was getting really sick and my visa had expired. 

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Before I quit my job as a construction worker, I left my resume for a position at the office at the same company, since I had experience working in administration. Unfortunately, one month later I still hadn’t heard back from them. Things were complicated. I was applying for other jobs, but all the positions required a work permit. I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and I was asking myself if I should go back to Brazil. But, at the same time, I was not ready for that. I didn’t want that. And when things seemed to be most complicated, I decided to go back to my old company and ask for my construction worker job back. Yeah, I know, I hated that job. But at least I would have a job. 

When I got there, one of the office workers – a woman – talked to me. She told me I was a great professional, no doubt about it.  But the construction sites were not the right place for me; I should work at the office. 

– I will talk to my boss about it and I will let you know.

I left the office and as I had nothing to do at that time and I needed to think; I went for a walk around Times Square. I know, probably not the best place to relax, but as crazy as it is I encountered my boss. Yep. We talked briefly and he gave me the news:

– You can start on Monday. You can start with a “trial” experience until the end of the year, and, if it works, you will continue to work with us.

That was October, and everything worked well. Today, I’m still at the same office with the same construction company. For me, this has been a big achievement and, of course, I still hope that I can go even further. Also, I now live in my apartment – you read that right, I don’t have roommates anymore. I have the resources to take care of my life – and I have a real mattress for the first time in years.

As you’ve probably realized, I never went back to Brazil after my second move. So, I overstayed and I’m undocumented. It is crazy, because before it happened, I was really anxious about it. You hear so many stories about ICE, deportations, and even threats from fellow immigrants. At the same time, I already knew that I wanted to stay. Not that I wanted to be here illegally, but since my wish was to stay here and not to go back, I had no other choice. And after it happened, I knew that I had to be careful about my behavior and also the people I was hanging out with. 

I really believe everything happens for a reason and I know that I will be able to get my documents some day. Honestly, the only law that I “broke” was overstaying. I’m a good person. I’m not here to damage anything, or to harm anyone. I’m here to seek a better life for myself. I love my country and I really hope things can get better there, so that one day I can go back. But I’ve always felt that I belonged here – even when I was there. 

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Today, when I look back, I can clearly see how much I’ve been through to be here. And I don’t mean only the recent struggles in my adult life, because my entire journey has never been easy. When I was 3 months old, my dad abandoned my mom and me. I never learned the whole story, but the fact is that my mom started to work as a maid for a family. When I was 8 years old, my mom died after giving birth to one of my siblings – at that time, she’d already had twins and another two kids. It was really hard and this family she had been working for kind of adopted me, and my siblings were put up for adoption. 

When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by people in my family and it was very difficult to deal with that. I only learned about sexual education through taking the class at school because I had no one else to talk to. Although I still consider the family that raised me as a real family, they’d never had this kind of conversation with me. At the same time, when I was a teenager, I realized I was gay. Being a teenager is very hard by itself, even when you have a family that loves you, supports you, and helps you. Now imagine being an orphaned teenager that goes through so many traumas. I had a lot of sad and lonely moments and, to be honest, the things that used to bring me joy were the movies and TV series that I’d watch – the stories that introduced me to NYC, the stories that made me dream about moving to NYC. Today I’ve realized how these moments were actually therapeutic for me. I would open the window in my bedroom and I would spend a lot of time thinking about how that view might look if I were in NYC. Now, when I open my windows, I know the answer. And, today, this is my home. I’ve left the past behind and NYC is my future.

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