Olivia Ponce (left) and Olivia Vazquez (right) in Washington, DC at the immigration reform rally on April 10, 2013. (Photo/Vanessa Alvarez)

A mother and daughter come out of the shadows to fight for immigration reform

Thousands of undocumented immigrants traveled — some for thousands of miles and some for even days — just so they could feel their voices heard. And all in search of a dream. Chanting with their communities and churches, all that was heard on the streets leading up to the U.S. capitol was, “Si se puede!” or “Yes we can!”

Among those raising their voices to fulfill their dream was Olivia Ponce, 37, and her daughter Olivia Vazquez, 18, who traveled to Washington D.C. from Philadelphia today.

“I came to Philadelphia, because I was a single mother, and I wanted a better life for my kids,” says Ponce about her undocumented arrival to the U.S. in 2001, in her native Spanish. “I had to leave my daughter for four years, because of the poverty we have in our country.”

For four years, she washed dishes, worked in factories and cleaned houses, but sacrificed seeing her daughter’s early years.

Vazquez says that was the hardest part for her too. She still remembers it vividly more than a decade later.

“I was six when she left,” says Vazquez. “I was playing, and she said, ‘I’m going to the movies,’ and I said, ‘Will you bring me Hawaiian pizza when you come back?’ and she said she would, but she never came back.”

She remembers the next day, her grandfather was crying, and he told her mother was on the phone.

“I came running…she asked me to forgive her,” says Vazquez. “She told me she was coming [to the U.S.]. and that she loved me and that this was for us.”

All of a sudden, her life went from being in the hands of her mother to her grandfather, then the following year she moved in with one of her aunts, and then with her grandmother.

“The worst part of it was seeing everyone else with their parents, and you didn’t have yours,” says Vazquez. “Like on Mother’s Day, making the gift and having no one to give it to. I remember that I used to ask my mom, ‘When are you coming back?, and she’d be like, ‘December,’ and December came, and she never came back.”

When Vazquez turned 10, she says her mother decided to send for her to join her in Philadelphia.

“I didn’t want to come here,” says Vazquez. “I remember in the beginning it’s very hard not having your parents, but you get used to it. They become strangers. I didn’t even know what she looked like. I said, ‘I’m happy here’…It’s so hard leaving all of your friends and family.”

But it was set, a truck came one night to pick up her grandmother, aunt, baby cousin and herself.

“Everyone was crying,” she remembers. “I knew it was something bad, but I didn’t fully understand what was happening…We took a plane from Mexico City to Tijuana, from there we stayed in a hotel, and someone else came to pick me up and brought me to Los Angeles — me and my cousin — he was a year and a half. They made me memorize a name and birthday, and we crossed by car. No one asked me anything.”

Her grandmother and aunt, on the other hand, she says had to cross the desert, and immigration caught them and sent them back, but they crossed again. Ten-year-old Vazquez had to wait three weeks for them, while staying with her coyote, and taking care of a baby.

Once Vazquez joined her mom in Philadelphia, the difficulties didn’t end there. She not only had to get reacquainted with her own mother, but she didn’t speak English and was bullied for wearing braids to school.

“When I first arrived, I was in class and the teacher used to yell at me, but I didn’t understand — it was very frustrating, but I overcame that,” says Vazquez who not only learned English in a year, but was accepted into one of the top four high schools in Philadelphia a few years later.

However, she says the next obstacle came when everyone started getting their permits and applying for colleges. She says she usually felt ashamed and kept her status to herself, but the desire to go to college made her overcome her shyness.

After she received no help from her school guidance counselor, a friend recommended a group called Juntos, which helps Latino undocumented immigrants.

“I realized that we were not the only ones in that situation,” says Vazquez. “You realize you have to speak up. You have to set the example for everybody else. You have to tell people to speak up for their rights. I became one of Junto’s youth leaders..and discovered the process of applying to college.”

Currently, she’s completing her second semester at Community College of Philadelphia and studying international business.

“I study Chinese, and I even want to learn more languages and travel — and eventually do marketing,” says Vazquez, who is thankful to her mom for this opportunity, because when things got tough, it was her who would hold her hands and tell her not to quit. “She said, ‘When things are the hardest, you can’t quit, you have to use it as motivation. You’re going to learn the language and become a good student and prove to them who you are.’”

Looking back on what her mom sacrificed for her, she feels the immigrants in Washington today didn’t do anything wrong.

“They just want a better life for their families,” says Vazquez. “And it’s true, ‘Si se puede.”

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