I grew up in El Salvador in a small town in the countryside. There are only about 100 families there; I knew everybody and everybody knew me. The streets are dirt and turn into a river when it rains. There are brick and tile houses and corn fields everywhere. Trees, rivers, and the surrounding mountains made the air clean and sweet.
Our school had fewer than 60 students, and my godfather was one of the two teachers. There were fewer than 10 students in each grade, so multiple grades shared the same classroom and teacher. The school didn’t have a lot of resources, but the government provided all of us with books, pencils, shoes, and uniforms. There was a small area outside where an earthquake had destroyed two classrooms and only the brick floor remained. We used it as a place to play. I was happy going to school every day to learn and see my friends.
I was one of the best students. My favorite subjects were math, social studies, and science. The classroom had a big whiteboard and the teacher divided it in three parts, and he copied the lessons for each grade on the board.
Attending that school was a beautiful part of my childhood; whenever I remember it, I see myself playing soccer or marbles on the concrete. I can taste the pupusas, empanadas, and rice and beans that my grandmother prepared for us when it was her day to cook for the students. The school provided the ingredients and all the families took turns making lunch for everyone.
For 7th and 8th grades, I went to a bigger school that was a half-hour walk away. It had 100 students and more teachers, and we didn’t share classrooms with other grades. I knew many of the students already, so I had friends. In this school I took English classes but I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t think learning English would be important.
My Move to America
My parents had moved to New York when I was younger, leaving me to stay in El Salvador with my grandmother. But after 9th grade, my parents made arrangements for me to join them in the United States after a gang tried to force me to join by threatening me and my family.
After I arrived in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in north Manhattan, my mom and I spent one month visiting high schools nearby, trying to find the right one for me. But then my mom decided she didn’t want me to go to a school in our neighborhood. She said there were too many Spanish speakers, and it would be harder for me to learn English. I agreed with her. My parents don’t speak any English and I knew I had to learn the language fast.
So we went to a New York City Department of Education office that helps students with school enrollment. A social worker there asked us in Spanish if we were looking for high schools, and after we said yes, she told us she works for the International High School at Union Square.
She told us that all of the students there are immigrants and English learners. She took us on the train to the school right then! We filled out the paperwork, and the next day I started my first day in an American school.
I was nervous but also curious about what school would be like. I didn’t say a word to anybody. I picked up my schedule in the main office. I got a little upset when they put me in 9th grade instead of 10th, but someone in the office told me it was because I needed to learn English, so I didn’t feel bad. (Teens who are seeking asylum are usually placed in the 9th grade regardless of their age.)
In the hallways, crowds of students spoke Arabic, French, Chinese, Spanish, and other languages, and they had different skin tones. Many of them were wearing hijabs, turbans, and colorful shirts. There were elevators, smart boards, computers, security guards, cameras, and metal detectors—everything was so different compared to my simple school in El Salvador.
In class, all of us were learning English. (I was sorry I hadn’t paid better attention during English classes in El Salvador.) We helped each other with translations, and the students who knew a little more English had to help the new students, including me.
After class, a boy and a girl came up to me and said “De donde eres? Cómo te llamas?” (Where are you from? What’s your name?) The boy was from Ecuador and the girl from Colombia. I told them that I was from El Salvador, and they said that there were only two other students from El Salvador attending the school. That made me uncomfortable because I was used to being with my own people. Now I was going to be surrounded by kids from all over the world. I did not know what to expect.
Friends From Around the World
As the days turned into weeks, a few students helped me fit in. I no longer sat alone during lunch, and I became friends with students who helped me with my homework and also included me in their after-school plans. We’d hang out almost every day in the park, or go to McDonald’s or Roosevelt Island. We told each other about our cultures and what we did back in our home countries.
Within three months, I was participating in class, raising my hand to answer questions in English. My grades improved because I was able to express my opinions and ideas more clearly too. I got to work in teams with students from Yemen, Mali, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, and China.
As my English improved, I also started making friends with other kids who didn’t speak Spanish. I made some of these friends while helping them with English. They were from Italy, the Philippines, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Burkina Faso, Yemen, and other places.
Learning About New Cultures
These friendships exposed me to new cultures, music, food, and languages, and they helped me to see the world differently. At my school in El Salvador, we were all from the same place. But here at my school I see that we all have something to learn from each other. Going to a school with a diverse group of students opened me up to learning about other places and cultures that I would not have been exposed to in El Salvador.
For example, I have a friend from the Philippines who has shown me images of the mountains and rivers in her country, and now traveling there is one of my future goals. She also affectionately calls me “Cuya” which means older brother in her language, Tagalog. My Italian friend has taught me words that impress my boss at the Italian restaurant where I work. I say to customers: “Tutto bene?” (Everything good?)
Being in a new country, a new home, and a new school wasn’t easy. But this school, where we are all treated equally by our teachers and each other, helped me to open myself up to strangers. I was shy in the beginning, but now I can start conversations from nothing, and I am not afraid of being judged because of the way I look and think.
Before I left home, I used to hold some stereotypes about people who were from different backgrounds than me. But going to this high school helped me see that being from a different place than someone else doesn’t make me any different from them. We can all share ideas, learn in the same classroom, and be friends, just like at my small, homogenous school in El Salvador.
Before I came to the U.S., I thought only white people were “true Americans” because in American movies I saw only white actors. But now I realize that my classmates and I are all Americans too. Our skin color, language, and beliefs don’t make us any less American than anyone else.
Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that not everyone feels the way I do. In El Salvador, I didn’t learn about racism or inequality because my classmates and I were all from the same place, spoke the same language, and shared the same background. But in my history class here, I learned about racism and discrimination in this country.
We’ve been learning about the Atlantic slave trade, Native Americans, slavery before and after the Civil War, and how those ideas of superiority and inequality still affect U.S. democracy.
It makes me feel proud to have friends from all over the world. All of us know that it is not easy to be an immigrant. All of us have gone through a journey to get to where we are—not only by crossing physical borders, but also by expanding our understanding of America, the world, and ourselves.
Undocumented but Feeling Safe at School
I was undocumented for almost two years while my asylum case was pending, but I always felt safe at school. After the 2016 presidential elections, the teachers were worried about the possibility of undocumented students being deported. They wanted us to feel safe and comfortable coming to school, so they put posters in the hallways saying that the school supports us and that they were protecting us. In the beginning I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought teachers were just being dramatic.
After President Trump started to take aggressive actions against immigrants, I got scared and my parents were worried; now I understood why the teachers were acting like this. The school brought in lawyers and people who know about immigration to meet with us. They told us our rights, and what we should and should not do if an immigration officer stops us. This helped me feel more comfortable. They also gave us a red Know Your Rights Card that they told us to keep with us at all times, and to use it instead of talking to an immigration officer.