"I consider myself really lucky because I didn't have to walk or cross the river," says Maria today, as casually as if she were voicing a preference for Frontier Airlines over Southwest. "I was kind of like priority mail." She doesn't know how much it cost to bring her here; her face clouds at the question. "It was expensive for my mom, though."
The smugglers took Maria and her cousin to Boulder and left them with Maria's mother, other cousins and uncles. There was a king-sized mattress in each of two snug bedrooms -- one for the male cousins and one for the female cousins. They had to tilt the mattresses against the wall during the day to have room to move around. It was early summer, and she had never seen so much green. There were beautiful purple and yellow flowers in people's yards.
Maria enrolled in Boulder schools and struggled to fit in. By the time she got to high school, her English was good. Teachers told her she should be taking advanced placement college-prep classes, but she dropped out. A teacher called to tell her, "You're too smart to stop." She went back to school and took up weight training because it was the only available gym class. A notoriously hard-assed football coach ran the class and subjected her to hazing, but when she weathered it, he recognized that she was an athlete. Encouraged to go out for track, she took up pole vaulting and sprinting.
Still, at times Maria fell into despair. In her senior year, caught between the two worlds of achievement and hopelessness, she found herself in a room with George Garcia, at that time superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District. Garcia, who had come from a poor immigrant Mexican family, gave inspirational speeches every year to immigrant kids. Work hard and you can get anywhere, he told about 100 students gathered in that crowded room. Maria started crying.
Superintendent Garcia asked Maria why she was upset. Unable to hold back her frustration, she replied, "You tell me that I can do anything, but I can't." So Garcia asked the crowd of students: How many of them were in a similar situation? Maybe two-thirds raised their hands, Maria recalls. If that was true in fashionable, wealthy, ultraliberal Boulder, it was true in many places: Maria realized she was far from alone in her difficulties. That knowledge overwhelmed her, in a good way. "It's not just me," she realized. "I knew then I was not going to give up."
That year, 2006, Maria graduated from Boulder High School. A friend from the same village in Mexico gave a speech at the graduation ceremony, optimistically describing her journey to the podium. That girl ended up going back to Zacatecas when she hit the U.S. immigration wall after graduation.
Maria stayed to fight for immigration reform, for her own future. She earned a certificate from the Boulder College of Massage Therapy. She's considering moving to New Mexico, where she would be allowed to make a living with her certificate, get a driver's license and pay in-state tuition for more college education (all of which are difficult or impossible in Colorado). She's heard of others like her moving from Colorado and Arizona to places like New Mexico and Texas, where there are more opportunities. They are displaced people within U.S. borders.
Sitting in the Barnes and Noble in Boulder, near the Whole Foods market and the Vitamin Cottage that form Boulder's organic retail core, Maria can't understand why people would insist she leave the U.S. She wonders: How would this country be a better, safer or more just place without her and the thousands like her?
"Boulder is very much a part of me," Maria says. "I am American. I grew up here."
The twins, Amina and Fatimah, were just a year old when their parents came home and found their oldest sister under the bed, crying. It was 1988, the year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and South Africa was a violent mess. Car bombs routinely exploded any veneer of normalcy. International sanctions against the apartheid government strangled commerce; hand grenades and limpet mines assassinated children. Cape Town wasn't a good place for a young family.
The parents scooped up the twin girls and both of their siblings without stopping to file for political asylum. On a tourist visa, they sought refuge with relatives in Miami.
So the twins celebrated their second birthday in Florida. Over the years, their parents spent thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers. But when Mandela was elected South Africa's president in 1994, asylum seekers didn't seem as pressing of an issue to U.S. authorities. Under immigration law at the time, the twins' parents were able to receive Social Security cards and work legally. But they could never get the children naturalized.