Pedro Paz, UNT
Hey guys! I’m beyond excited to share with you a concise flyover of my experience. I want to make sure y’all understand that what I’m going to be sharing are my personal stories that often times aren’t as straightforward as they’re made out to sound. There may be some parts that I share that are heavily influenced by my emotions. Thankfully, though, the Spirit can speak to you, and through me, to convey what He desires for you to know. So I pray that happens for you tonight and moving forward.
For those of you who don’t know me yet, my name is Pedro Paz and I’ve lived in the United States for almost 17 years. I’ve gone through our public school system here in TX, took the cheaper route in starting college by going to Collin, where I got involved in FOCUS, and graduated from UNT last summer with a bachelors in Speech Pathology and Audiology. If you saw my accomplishments, involvements, and job positions over the years you’d think me to be just like any other person who calls America home. But it’d take a little more probing, on your part, to learn that I was actually born in Mexico, Spanish is my first language, and that I illegally immigrated to the United States and grew up with the title of “illegal alien”, and “undocumented” most of my life. Those titles, along with other factors that I’ll share, hopefully will add to your understanding of why I grew up with an awfully skewed understanding of what I should focus on and become, as well as any other reason why people crack jokes. Most people’s favorite response when I pronounce a word incorrectly or assume a meaning that’s not right for a word, is “English isn’t his first language.” They’re not wrong! I’ve lived with the tension of wanting to fit in, to prove myself as “normal,” and even the strong desire to prove myself as better than most. In pursuing these desires I’ve come face-to-face with many truths, the main one being where my identity truly lies.
Let me start by telling you about my parents. My parents got married when they were 16 and 17 in your typical Romeo and Juliet -esque manner, except they’re still very much alive. Then they had me two years later while they were still in high school. They both essentially dropped out of school but my dad ended up going back and finishing and getting his diploma. My mom never got her degree. For pre-K and kindergarten my parents paid for me to go to a private school in Mexico. They didn’t have a car then, so as to reduce cost one of them would take me to school on their bicycle. During kindergarten my dad started visiting the United States to make some more money. On one visit he stayed in the US for a couple of months. He noticed, like so many other families that come here, that this land offered great opportunities. The biggest two being that he could earn a substantially larger paycheck and I could learn English and be ahead in comparison to my peers. After that first time, he returned to Mexico and took my mom with him to stay together in the US for six months. Although seemingly impulsive and dangerous, you have to realize all they had were each other and me. My parents started “dating” when they were in seventh grade. In sixth grade my mom found out her “sister” was actually her mom, since she’d grown up thinking her grandma was her mom and her aunts and uncles her siblings.
To make matters worse, her real mom was the one she disliked the most of her siblings. My dad’s mom passed away when he was nine and instead of his dad stepping up his role in their family, he left my dad and his three older siblings in a house to fend for themselves. So when my dad asked my mom to trust him as they entered into this new country, she didn’t think twice. After those six months of my parents being in the US and me living with my grandparents, my mom’s actual mom and husband, my grandma and her friend and a handful of other kids drove out here to reunite me with my parents. As we approached the border, I was told to pretend to be asleep. I had a different kid’s identification ready but they never checked me since I was asleep.
When I moved to the United States I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening; I knew I’d get to be with my parents again but in a place I’d never been before. Starting elementary school was interesting. I was in bilingual classes for three years until I tested out and I distinctly remember wanting to be in regular classes. It was obvious that I had to be with the students who didn’t fit in like the kids in the other classes. To start, we didn’t speak English, most of us one bit, and we were a lot darker than the rest. Y’know, I somehow remembered knowing the rest of the classrooms were full of “normal” people while ours was not. It became very important for me to join the “normal” people.
My aspirations started off rough because learning English wasn’t easy for me. There were many days that I’d call my mom from school sobbing because it was so difficult. There were times when I’d cry in the morning because I didn’t want to go to school, unlike my sister who cried and missed the bus because she wanted to stay to finish an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. I have one distinct memory of sitting on my bed against the wall “writing” on the wall with my finger in “English” while speaking out loud to myself. It really was just gibberish but I’d convinced myself otherwise. After a couple months, thankfully, it became easier to the point where I even lost my accent. Those memories actually give you guys some insight into my work ethic nowadays. I have a strong desire to fall within the confines of normality, a hard time not giving up on things when I can’t do them well early on, and a frequent tendency to deceive myself into thinking I’m doing a lot better than I actually am. Yes, I know, I need to grow up. As soon as I transitioned into “regular” classes, I started trying to be around everyone else who was normal- mainly any ethnic group besides Hispanics.
Transitioning to middle school was difficult because I didn’t really know where I fit in. In elementary school, I remember days where I’d walk around the playground and try to find a group of kids to play with but either they were playing games I was unfamiliar or disinterested in or they would seem exclusive. During sixth grade, my family and I moved to Houston a month before that grade ended. The three years I spent in Houston were the first of me having to be around Hispanic people, since probably less than 10% of the students in our middle school were white. For the first time, I befriended so many people who spoke Spanish at home like I did! It was such a great opportunity for me to see how I could be normal, by speaking English, yet not hide or deny the fact that I was Mexican.
While I was growing up and sporadically learning how to navigate through the environments I was in, my parents got sucked up into two different worlds. For my dad it was work. He worked long hours, often leaving at 6 in the morning and getting home closer to 9. He interacted with Americans that often times had demanding, needless, and time insensitive lawn care requests. I didn’t know a whole lot about my dad except 1) that he worked a lot for “okay” pay and 2) through his words, and infrequent actions, that he loved me and expressed that to me by buying me whatever, whenever he could. I grew up ashamed of him, “thankful”, but ashamed. It wasn’t because of how he was as a human but because in comparison to the ideal I’d made in my mind of a dad, he didn’t provide as well, have a presentable enough job, and didn’t understand my needs as a growing child. The main need being his presence. Then there was my mom. My mom and I have always been especially close.
Like I said, my dad has always worked a lot and even when the three of us would hang out, before Aless my younger sister (who is actually here today with her friends!) when it was just the three of us I’d always gravitate more towards my mom and my dad seemed more like he was joining my mom and I. As soon as I knew English well enough I started acting as my mom’s little secretary. When she had questions for the TV provider, I would call them and ask, when I needed to miss school because I had a stomach ache or a sore throat I would write the letter for the school out for my mom so she could re write it in her own handwriting and sign it, when we went out and she couldn’t find something I’d be the one to ask where to locate it. I enjoyed getting to do those things for my mom. She would do and say things that irked me and because of having tacos and enchiladas and mole packed for lunch, left me feeling embarrassed.
I often wonder why I didn’t have conversations about my race with my parents growing up. I’ve reasoned that it’s probably because they were young, in their late twenties to mid thirties during my adolescence, and because they wanted me to have the same opportunities as everyone else without me having to worry about the fact that my legal status made me different. Unfortunately, during those times, that was not my assumption so I came across as highly ungrateful. I asked for expensive things that stretched my parents but fed my ego. At some point, to everyone around me, I fit in! That was a success. I had little to zero limitations growing up. But that feeling came to an end. I don’t quite remember when we had the conversation about me being undocumented. It might have been when my parents found me constantly searching online for my dream sixteenth birthday car and figuring out the steps to obtain a driver’s license. When I heard I didn’t have the same privileges as most of those around me, I was awfully upset. Mainly at the fact that there was a barrier between me and being normal like everyone else.
The more I came to terms with my status, the greater of a desire I had to share with the people around me. I wanted them to see that I didn’t fit the mold that they had in mind when they thought of an illegal immigrant. I wanted to prove them wrong and have them see that I was just as capable as them to fit in, do well, and contribute in some way. I loved telling people about my status cause they’d always be so surprised. One of those people I told was named Haley. When I told her, she responded very differently than others. She was genuinely upset. I didn’t make anything of her initial reaction until she told me that she’d asked her parents and they’d agreed they’d be okay with her marrying me after high school to get me on the path to citizenship. I was excited when we started planning the logistics behind that in the fall of 2011 during our senior year. God however had a different plan. Simultaneously during my senior year, I started, for the first time, becoming interested in pursuing a relationship with God. Long story short, as that year went on, I felt less and less okay with marrying Haley for the sake of obtaining citizenship. I had the conviction that if I were to get married it would be for good and if I were to obtain citizenship it’d be through a way that wasn’t necessarily within my control. I thanked Haley and her parents profusely but denied their offer. By the middle of our senior year, God was laying some groundwork for me to step into a life I would’ve never dreamt of for myself.
Starting at Collin College was dreadful. I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t go to a four year like everyone else I knew because of not being able to receive financial aid and because the risk of going to a four year in Mexico was too high. I started out by taking 17 credit hours so as to somehow transfer asap. Again, thankfully God had a different plan. I found a piece of trash on the ground and on my path to recycle it, I flipped it over and saw an advertisement for a ministry called FOCUS. I checked out TNF the first week of school and have yet to stop going. Except for when I went to FNF for two years, for those of you who are still tracking with me. That first night I showed up I met someone, whom I can’t remember, who was glad to meet me and immediately said “you’ve got to meet Albert.” I did, and afterwards wondered if that person wanted me to meet him solely because I was Mexican like him. But that didn’t rub me the wrong away. He wasn’t really Mexican in my mind, anyway, since he didn’t even speak Spanish. I want to make a note here that there is no real definition of a “real” Mexican. We all, no matter where we grow up, are influenced by many factors outside of the core intent of that culture and heritage. So, I apologize to all of you who I’ve discredited their ethnicity from, it isn’t right to. Anywho, by the time I got to Collin and FOCUS I’d become skillful, so I thought, at presenting what I wanted people to think of me.
While I came in to our ministry with the pride of being an assimilated Mexican Christian, it became difficult not to become more and more aware of the fact that I was different, but because I tend to suppress things, I never let myself think through those thoughts. It wasn’t until transferring to UNT, that I realized how successful I’d been at assimilating yet maintaining the more important part of being an immigrant- the culturally relevant language. Because I retained the language, I was able to have short phone conversations with Bradley, mostly in Spanish, and talk to some of the Hispanic families that Jesus Project Ministries serves in New Orleans. I didn’t use my Spanish in core but I did get to lead with Troy Coleman, a black man, and do FOJ with Alex Garcia and Gibby who were in our core alongside Ernesto (JR) and Sergio Martinez.
There was a moment during that year that I remember chuckling at how God had let me go through life purposefully avoiding those friendships yet then through His Spirit’s work in my heart, lead me to unnoticeably invest just as I would with anyone else in those guys. It reminds of when Peter finally learned that the Gentiles were in on God’s plan for redemption and His new family that included anyone who made Him Lord. Although it’s hard for me to not feel as though a large portion of my value is in my ethnic identity and bilingual abilities, I can’t help but thank God for using those factors. They were out of my control! I was brought into this country illegally and although I now bare the weight of that, I can only stand amazed at how only He could’ve orchestrated all of this. Only He could use those things to bless His people and further His Kingdom. It only makes sense that the One who has allowed me to be who I am would use what I am to His glory.
If you guys remember nothing else, I want two groups of you to remember one thing. First off, my Mexican friends, I want you to realize that the traditions your parents have passed down to you and the fact that you may or may not speak Spanish and may or may not be on DACA does not define you. Your identity is not wrapped up in something so small. Despite that fact, those things are not to be suppressed or a source of shame. For those of you who still have both parents with you, remember they constantly do their best. Their best is likely not ideal, it’s likely not peer reviewed by as many godly people as ours may be, nor is it good in comparison to other parents with a greater abundance of resources but it is their best and they give it because of their love for you and desire to see you stand on their shoulders. If you’re anything like me, you may not have really let yourself think through your experience much but I encourage you to start trying to verbalize those things to your corefa or peer team leader or close friends or even me.
The more we understand how we’ve been shaped and influenced the better chances we’ll have to consistently yield to the work of the Spirit in us. Now to all of you who aren’t Mexican, don’t assume we’re all the same. Yes I’m Mexican but I can’t tolerate spicy things beyond a jalapeño and I don’t think in Spanish, but I am whiter than you think, and I do enjoy dancing. Remember, seek first to understand. Just as you don’t assume every “Christian” has meaningful interactions with God and an ability to have purposeful conversations and relationships, so you don’t assume every Mexican internally is like the other.
I’m beyond grateful for you guys and your willingness care for our Father’s people holistically. I pray our community is marked by our genuine interest in one another but more importantly by our identification as God’s children.