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As an Ecuadorian Immigrant, My Home Has Always Been Aquí y Allá

“Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,” 23-year-old me sang loud enough so that the person next to me could hear that I knew all the words to the song. Moments later, when “America, The Beautiful” started playing, I looked over at my mom. She was standing in line with others who were also getting their citizenship at this ceremony in Orlando, Florida. She was waving her little American flag and mumbling words she thought matched the lyrics. It was a bittersweet moment for me. My mom looked so happy, and I was so proud of her, but I could not get over the fact that I knew all of these songs from start to finish, yet I was the only undocumented person in the room. 
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When I was four years old, my family emigrated from Ecuador to the United States. In the decades that came, we embraced this country, living in Miami, Texas, and Orlando. We loved life here and wanted to learn everything about our new home. I remember my brother and I spending hours together making up words and pretending we were speaking English. “Bueno, ¿como se dice zapato en Inglés?” my dad would ask. “Zapatier,” we would respond, jokingly. At that age, I felt joy in this in-between place many Latines know, this merging of cultures, histories, and languages that we call home. Una Ecuatoriana en Florida, I was proudly de aquí y de allá — but that feeling didn’t last long. 
Upon starting an all-English class in second grade, I learned that my accent, my brown skin, and my birthplace barred me from really being from here. My classmates used to make fun of how I pronounced words in English. “It’s not a little big; it's a little bit,” one child corrected me aloud in front of the whole class. I was mortified.

"Una Ecuatoriana en Florida, I was proudly de aquí y de allá — but that feeling didn’t last long." 

Estefania Saavedra
But despite the sneers, I was a seven-year-old talking machine. On a scorching summer day, I remember joining my mom at the laundromat. As she started to wash clothes, I prepared to read my Dr. Seuss’s book when a lady sat next to me and asked me my name. Naturally, I took this as an invitation to tell her my whole life story. I told her what grade I was in and where my family came from. And then I nonchalantly dropped this bomb: “Y es que no tenemos los papeles.” I was unaware of the shame and danger in the words I had just spoken, but I soon learned. My mom turned to me instantly. With her eyes burning through my soul, she told me to tell the woman goodbye as we scurried away. “Nunca más digas que no tenemos papeles,” she demanded. 
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I now know my mom told me this to protect me, but at the time, I just felt sad and confused. This was the moment I discovered that being “sin papeles” meant I was undocumented, and that meant I was not a citizen in a country I had grown to know and love. I was not de aquí in the way my classmates and neighbors were.  
Throughout my life, I would be reminded of this reality over and over — each time as hurtful as that moment in the laundromat. While we never spoke about our immigration status inside our home, I felt it everywhere: signing up for extracurricular activities at school, getting my driver’s license, and while accessing health care. Even during those fleeting moments of youthful joy, when I felt the same as my friends around me, something prompted me to remember my status, my difference, my unbelonging. 

"While we never spoke about our immigration status inside our home, I felt it everywhere: signing up for extracurricular activities at school, getting my driver’s license, and while accessing health care."

ESTEFANIA SAAVEDRA
For instance, when I was 21, basking in the up-tempo energy of a nightclub, a mounted TV fell from the wall and hit me, cutting my head. When the paramedics arrived, one of them asked for my social security number. I didn’t know what to say. My friends were all there, and I felt like I couldn’t tell them my biggest secret — and I definitely couldn’t tell the paramedics who I thought would take me away to a jail house rather than a hospital. At that moment, I was more scared of being deported than having a concussion. So I lied and said I couldn’t remember my social security number. 
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Moments like this reiterate what’s on my birth certificate: no soy de aqui. I am from somewhere else, a faraway land in South America called Ecuador. But that place never really felt like home, either. After school, where I’d spend the day speaking Spanish-accented English, I’d go home to speak English-accented Spanish with my parents. My mom would ask me a question in her native tongue, and I would answer it in mine: Spanglish. “Ah, ya se te está olvidando el Español. ¡Ya eres gringuita!” she would tell me. I was so confused. 
For years, I didn't feel Ecuadorian enough. When my cousins would come from Ecuador to visit, it almost felt like I had forgotten Spanish altogether. They spoke so quickly and used Ecuadorian slang and idioms, and I could barely catch up. Every time they would head back home, they’d say, “next time, you have to come visit us.” Those words that should have made me feel wanted, like I belonged, only reminded me of my difference. As someone who was undocumented, I couldn't travel. Leaving the United States, even just for a wholesome family trip, meant I couldn’t return to the States. 

"I felt stuck between two worlds, and invisible in both — until the moment that I finally felt seen."

ESTEFANIA SAAVEDRA
I felt stuck between two worlds, and invisible in both — until the moment that I finally felt seen. I was 26 years old, and I had read an article about Jose Antonio Vargas, an award-winning journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist who created “Define America.” It was the first time I saw someone undocumented who was doing all the things he loved and was thriving. I said to myself, “if he can do it, then why can't I?” I was inspired and wanted to learn about more undocumented and formerly undocumented people who were no longer living in the shadows, the so-called Dreamers who were redefining what it meant to be American. 
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Around this time, President Barack Obama announced an executive directive called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Through this policy, I, like many others, was able to work and gain some protection against deportation. It was, and remains, imperfect, but it temporarily gave me the security to talk openly about my status, to be accepted by my friends wholly, and to feel like maybe this land could be my land, too. 
Things really began to change in 2014. I was 28 years old and in love with a man who sealed his partnership with me and my future in this country with a kiss on our wedding day. Since then, I have been living as a permanent resident, which has allowed me to follow my own dreams as a comedian and content creator. With more than 2 million followers, I am now in the public eye in a way that would’ve been impossible just years ago.

"My place has always been here, in me, where these two regions, two cultures, and two languages meet and co-exist."

ESTEFANIA SAAVEDRA
Even more, on my platform, I’m able to embrace and represent my cultures loudly. For my followers who share stories similar to mine, it makes us feel seen and heard. When someone sends me an Ecuadorian flag emoji and says, “Hola paisana,” I feel an immediate connection. It reminds me that I was never alone in this struggle. 
In 2023, it’ll be my turn to sing “America, The Beautiful” as I become a U.S. citizen — and when I do, it’ll further solidify something I knew when I was kid and was forced to doubt along the way: si soy de aquí y de allá.
As a formerly undocumented immigrant growing up in the United States, there have been so many moments throughout my life that made me believe that I was neither from here nor there, that there was no place for me to exist fully and safely. Now I know my place has always been here, in me, where these two regions, two cultures, and two languages meet and co-exist. 
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