On May 21, I will walk onto a stage on Healy Lawn, shake University President John J. DeGioia’s hand and receive my Bachelor of Science diploma. Like many students at Georgetown, I will be the first in my family to experience this moment. When DeGioia shakes my hand, however, he will not only be shaking my hand — he will also be shaking my grandfather’s.
My grandfather’s name is Juan Garcia, but to me, he has always been Papa Juan. In the late ’60s, when his family was living in Chihuahua, Mexico, Papa Juan did the unthinkable. He left my grandmother and their eight children to work as a janitor at Flamingo’s — a hotel casino on the Las Vegas strip. He was there without papers and barely knew any English, and his work was tedious and demeaning. The emotional and physical toils Papa Juan endured made it possible for the Garcias to eat and make it by back in Chihuahua. Those were the sacrifices deemed necessary to provide for an ever-growing family, and Papa Juan was committed to taking them on.
He was only able to go back to visit Chihuahua twice a year. Even though he was able to consistently send money back home, Papa Juan had bigger plans for his family. But his arrangements then were not enough. He could not simply work away his life in separation from his loved ones, but he also knew that if he went back to Chihuahua, he would be unable to bring his family out of poverty. As a man with limited education and little social standing, socio-economic mobility was out of the picture.
After saving up enough money, Papa Juan was able to relocate his family to Tijuana, where my mother was born. The hope was that by living closer to the border, it would facilitate Papa Juan’s ability to visit more often and perhaps, one day, he would be in the position to bring his family to el Norte — to the United States.
After years of saving and securing the necessary funds, and enduring a long and tedious immigration process, Papa Juan was able to obtain green cards for every member of the family. And so, with the proper documentation to live in the United States, the Garcias moved to America’s finest city: San Diego, Calif.
Even though the Garcias were living in San Diego, their life was not one of luxury as their primary source of income revolved around selling used electronics at the local swap meet. They could barely make ends meet and they all had to pull their weight. My mother’s older siblings lived at home and contributed to the rent. Even the youngest Garcias helped out on swap meet day.
But in Papa Juan’s point of view, he had made it. He had secured a future for his children in a country where it did not matter what your last name was. A country where drive, integrity and hard work opened doors that simply did not exist in Mexico for people from lower classes. Papa Juan was proud that his children would receive an education in the United States. He was proud that his grandchildren would be born American and have the opportunity to go even further.
To say Papa Juan’s journey motivated me throughout my time at Georgetown would be an understatement. His story has not only placed my own obstacles in perspective; it has also been the source of my passion for immigrant rights. My privilege of never having to worry about my citizenship status is one that I do not take for granted and one that I completely owe to Papa Juan.
Though my grandfather will be unable to attend commencement due to his health, when I proudly shake DeGioia’s hand, I will not be thinking of the countless hours I have spent in Lauinger Library, the parties I have been to or the amazing classes I have taken. At that moment, I will be thinking of Papa Juan, who sacrificed it all so that I could walk across that stage.
Martin De Leon is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.
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