Undocumented, and riding shotgun

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Photo via Flickr/CC/Jared eberhardt

Up until my early 20s, I rode shotgun. With my high school and college sweetheart, I flipped through the soft sleeves of our shared CD binder in search of the right music. I double-checked our drive-through orders for extra ketchup. I pointed out the sights only I caught in time.

In 1991, my family left the Philippines for California, where my aunt had been living and where we as a family had vacationed several times. Our move happened seemingly overnight, and many of the details are, to this day, unclear to me. I have surmised that the attorney my parents hired to file our paperwork upon our arrival took off with their money and several pages from our passports.

Of course, I knew very little of this as I grew up and instead was absorbed with the pleasures of American teenagehood – driving in particular. I was thrilled by the prospect of taking long drives alone through Victoria Avenue, the historic, palm tree-lined road that runs, surrounded by orange groves, through Riverside. I wanted the luxury of getting into a car to clear my head.

But, when I asked to be taken to the DMV, my dad told me my immigration paperwork was still being processed, and I had to wait. (Of course, if I still lived in California today, the recent passage of the state law that allows the undocumented to obtain driver’s licenses as of January 1, 2015, would mean this wouldn’t be any issue.)

I continued to take the bus to school and to wait. In February of my senior year, I got my federal Student Aid Report in the mail with the following comment: The Social Security Administration (SSA) did not confirm that you are a U.S. Citizen.

By this point, my family had survived a trans-Pacific crossing, a repossessed house, a bankruptcy, a divorce, and interstate moves. We were a working household, living a fairly comfortable life in a commercial neighborhood. It never registered that I, seemingly an average teenager and employed now for two years, was an undocumented immigrant with a manila folder of falsified documents.

I graduated as high school valedictorian and had to turn down every single one of my college acceptances and accompanying scholarships because of my legal status, instead enrolling in classes at Riverside City College. I was in the habit of turning down social invitations if no one could pick me up and take me home. To outsiders, I irrationally tried to avoid parties—any situation that might prompt a police visit.

The difficulty of getting places was the issue I confronted every day and eventually, it was so difficult to get from home to college to work that my family decided it was worth the risk of my driving with a license from the Philippines. (The idea was that I could say I was visiting if pulled over.) When I was finally eligible to apply for a license at the age of 23, I was already living and attending graduate school in New York, where I didn’t need a car. The whole affair was anticlimactic.

Besides, I had learned by then that a license was not going to keep me from figuring out how to experience the long-awaited open road on my own terms.

The fall semester of my second year of college, I convinced my boyfriend to accompany me on a weeklong trip to San Francisco. I saved money by turning an empty 1-gallon jug of Frank’s RedHot sauce from my work at a local pizza place into a piggy bank and made all the plans.

The soundtrack was Tori Amos’ newly released album, Scarlet’s Walk, which follows a woman on a road trip across a forbidding America. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, rolled the windows down, fed the disc into the CD player, and propped my feet up on the dashboard.

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Alice James Books. She is a recipient of a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. Her website is www.janinejoseph.com. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.