UndocuAmerica: ‘Returning Home’

A story of one young woman’s battle against invisible borders in her journey toward who she is and loves.

Kiara Chavez in the arms of her maternal grandmother in Mexico.

The longest plane ride of my life was for a trip to Mexico when I was 19 — about four years ago.

I don’t remember packing. I don’t remember the drive to the airport. I don’t remember much about all the forms I had to fill out, or how much my family had to pay to apply for Advance Parole — the program that used to allow DACA recipients to leave the country for study abroad, employment or, as in my case, a humanitarian reason. My grandma was having surgery and she needed someone who could care for her as she recovered.

I don’t even remember much about the conversations with my worried parents about the dangers of me traveling. You see, although Advance Parole granted me permission from the U.S. government to lawfully leave the country, it didn’t actually guarantee I would be let back in. Spoiler alert — I made it back.

What I remember most is being on the plane because I’ll never forget how my heart beat faster the closer we got to taking off. The plane was going to Puerto Vallarta. I’m actually from Colima, but they don’t have a direct flight from Denver and this is one of the closest airports. So you can imagine, I was surrounded by American tourists ready for vacation. Meanwhile, I sat there just about vibrating from nervousness or excitement, I’m not sure which. Either way, I just wanted to vomit, but luckily for the tourists on that flight, the knot growing in my throat kept holding it down.

Other people on the plane were chatting, making last-minute calls, getting out their reading material, and I was having a complete nervous breakdown — my hands sweating, my breathing fast, my whole body shaking.

When I finally heard the pilot say we were heading out and the plane began to move, my mind started racing. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my life had consisted of the past 15 years since I crossed the border at age 4 and left my first home.

All the nights as a child crying in my parent’s arms asking, “Why can’t I go back and see my family? Why Mama? Why?”

All the calls to my grandmas, and the long kisses I would send them over the phone — hoping they would somehow reach them all the way from Denver to Colima.

All the pictures of the beaches, my grandparents, and the aunts and uncles who I once knew so well, now getting older photograph by photograph, having an entirely different life without me.

As a child, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t go to Mexico and still I trusted that it was something I simply couldn’t do. But now, somehow, at age 19, I was returning — and my heart was just about to burst.

I remember when the plane finally sped across the runway and lifted off into the air, I began crying with abandon as if I was totally alone — just me launching into flight, somehow through both space and time. In my head, I kept hearing my grandmas’ voices, the way they used to soothe me over the phone when I was little, “Mija, please don’t cry. God-willing, we will hold one another soon. Please don’t cry anymore.” Those phone calls were so painful because I could hear them, but I couldn’t hold them. Touch them. Smell their hair.

My older sister could go to Mexico. She is an American citizen who was born in the US when my father was working in California. Every few years during our childhood, she would get on a plane to Mexico and return with sweets from my aunt’s candy store and a collection of photos of her smiling next to my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the cousins who I had never met. But I simply could not return. That was the rule because I was born in Mexico.

My sister could enroll in the best private schools in Denver and attend on scholarship. I was smart too and tested in as well, but I couldn’t go because, as an undocumented person, I wasn’t eligible for financial aid, and there was no way my parents could afford the tuition.

My high school classmates could fly to Europe and study the art I loved and strived to imitate with my own brush. But I couldn’t join them to see the frescos and the ancient columns myself because another DACA student had tried and they didn’t let her back into the country. Instead, she and her whole family were deported.

I had spent my whole life reconciling myself to the solidity of barriers between me and my dreams, and the invisible borders between me and what I loved. But now, suddenly, I was flying over 500 miles an hour straight through the biggest and most painful barrier of them all: between me and my family.

I just kept thinking, “Is this real life? It can’t be. Can I actually believe this is true — when so many of my dreams have been thwarted at the last minute? Is it really true that I’ll be landing in Mexico and seeing my family? It can’t be.”

But now, for the first time on that plane, I could see it was actually coming true and I was sobbing again like my four-year-old self, picturing my grandmas, thinking, “I am making it to their arms and they are still alive. We are alive.”

Midway through the flight, still shaking, I began to become aware again that there were others still on the plane. I managed to wipe my tears and smile, finally excited. I laughed at myself thinking, “Wow, they must think I’m crazy or really scared of flying.”

But how could they ever understand the magnitude of this moment in my life? I’m fulfilling the American immigrant’s dream. My dream. I’m seeing my family after 15 years. And I wanted to yell it across the aisles and tell the whole plane what a triumphant day they were a part of — “It’s real. It’s real! I am returning to see my family — meet my family. The lineage of people whose love and existence have filled my veins with blood and my belly with culture. I’m going to step my feet on the dirt I was molded from and breathe the humid air my lungs were meant to breathe. I am fulfilling the prophecy my mom commenced when she threw my umbilical cord on top of the house that my father and my grandfather built because she believed it would one day bring me back home. I, Kiara Jocelyn Chavez Garcia, am returning home. I am returning to myself.”

On that long ride back to Colima, for those hours of anticipation, my dreams were finally in my own hands. I could touch them. Feel them. Smell them. The years of pain and rejection hardly mattered as the millions of kisses I had sent that way were finally coming in for a landing.

Kiara Chávez is a Motus Theater UndocuAmerica Monologist. She became Motus Theater’s Community Development & Marketing Coordinator after graduating from CU Boulder’s Business School with a degree in Marketing. While at CU, she helped found Latin Arts Society, whose mission is to celebrate Latin heritage through art, in order to lessen the impact of culture shock often experienced by students of color entering CU’s environment. Her experience as an immigrant with DACA has fueled her passion for social justice.

Gloria Steinem and Kiara Chávez recording Episode 2 of the Shoebox Stories Podcast

You can listen to Kiara read her own story on the Motus Monologues Podcast, here.

Or, hear legendary activist Gloria Steinem read Kiara’s story, with musical response by Jennifer Berezan, on the Shoebox Stories Podcast, here.

This autobiographical story was written by Kiara Chávez in collaboration with Kirsten Wilson as part of Motus Theater’s UndocuAmerica Series: Stories From Our Undocumented Neighbors.

Creating original content to facilitate dialogue on the critical issues of our time >> www.motustheater.org

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