Earning the American dream
For Sandy resident Brenda Serna, the Fourth of July is spent in typical American fashion. Her family gets together, has a potluck and barbecue, some fun in the sun and, of course, fireworks.
But what sets Serna apart from many of her neighbors in Sandy is she is what's known as a Dreamer. She was born in Mexico and her family fled to the United States when she was only 3 years old.
"I like the lifestyle here," Serna said. "The community I live in, I get along with people. It's a small community but everybody's so close and helps each other. Here it's so calm and peaceful and seems like a great place to raise kids."
While she has vague memories of her few years in Mexico, the United States is really the only home she's ever known. It wasn't until she was older that she understood that her mother had come here to escape domestic abuse and seek a better life for her five children.
"My dad was abusive with my mom and her family all lived here as legal citizens, so we came here," Serna explained.
Serna's grandparents moved to the United States and became citizens in California through work visas before Serna was born. By the time they had left Mexico, Serna's mother was already married so she stayed behind until eventually fleeing to California.
Some of Serna's earliest memories in the states are from living with her grandparents in California. She also remembers her grandmother would only speak Spanish to her and her siblings because she wanted them to know the language.
"I grew up around all of my cousins, who are very Americanized," Serna said. "We don't have very many traditions (from Mexico). We were very whitewashed. Every Fourth of July we'd get together at the pool at my grandparents' house. We celebrate all of the American holidays."
Serna, her siblings and mother moved to Welches when Serna was in eighth grade and then to Sandy while she was attending Sandy High School.
It really wasn't until Serna was 16 and seeking employment that she realized how different her experience as an adult would be because of her status.
"I didn't really understand until I was 16 and trying to get a job," she explained. "I didn't realize I wasn't like other kids I was growing up with who could just get a job. I was shocked and sad. I never saw myself as being different. But, it's just a whole other situation you have to deal with. You can't just go out and apply for a job as easily as people born here can."
Being a DACA recipient has also added hurdles for Serna in terms of obtaining a college education. Because she is not a citizen, she cannot apply for the same financial aid as those born in the states and it is harder to obtain scholarships.
"(Being a DACA recipient I was not) able to go right into college," she said. "I couldn't get a job back then, so I also couldn't save, and taking out loans would be too expensive."
Serna has dreams of going to school for nursing. Though she herself is not eligible for any healthcare or government assistance, Serna still strives to help others in their time of need.
Currently, she works at Avamere in Sandy as a healthcare coordinator. Prior to that, she worked at Cherry Park Plaza retirement community in Gresham for four years in a similar position.
"I like helping people, taking care of people and being there for families when patients are at that end-of-life stage," Serna explained. "It's so fragile. I like being there for people when they're so vulnerable. And the families are so grateful. It feels very rewarding."
Now 28, Serna has a family of her own with domestic partner Auden Martinez. Her daughter, Leilani, is 8 years old and her son, Abner, is 6. As children born in the United States, they have different rights than their mother, even though they don't yet fully understand that.
"They understand that we're Hispanic," Serna said. "In their minds, they're white though, because they have lighter skin. They don't speak Spanish and they have no interest in speaking Spanish. They're so involved in the American culture."
While her children may be too young to comprehend it, Serna is very aware of their difference in status and what could mean for her little family.
"My children are legal citizens here, so I do think about what that situation would look like if I was forced to leave," Serna said. "I don't have any interest in going back unless I'm forced to. It's scary. It's a whole other world. I speak the language and I'm fluent, but I don't know what my life would be like."
Serna's greatest hope, besides being able to stay and be educated in the states, is for American-born citizens to become more informed on what it actually means to be a DACA recipient.
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era program which aims to protect eligible people who were brought to the United States as children from deportation.
"What I hear people say is we are here to take advantage and take from the government," Serna said. "I'd like people to get informed about the basis of it and the requirements. We're not allowed to take anything. We don't receive assistance or healthcare. We do contribute."
Serna added that it is not easy to remain in the states as a DACA recipient.
"Every two years we have to be finger-printed and undergo a background check, which we pay for," she explained. "We can't have any police interaction. We have to be great citizens while we're on DACA."
Serna even added that she agrees with much of what people have said of immigrants — that they should have to earn what they get in the states.
"They're right," she said. "I don't feel it would be right to take anything. I work; I pay taxes; I contribute, but I don't take anything. My children don't receive any assistance either. If there was anything in the future to qualify for, I'd use that to contribute more. I feel it's a right we have to earn, not one we deserve."
This Fourth of July, while made somewhat different by the COVID-19 crisis, Serna anticipates she'll still spend quality time at home with her children and partner, celebrating the country she's come to love and call home.
"We usually have a barbecue and we all dress in red, white and blue and light fireworks — the whole shebang," Serna said. "In my head, I grew up here, so I celebrate as if this is my country. And, it is, really. I don't know of any other."
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