This story was produced for The Oaklandside by El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab serving Oakland’s Latino and Mayan immigrant communities.

Lea esta historia en español.

I don’t remember exactly which city I was returning from, but I had spent the day working high up on a roof. I was very tired, and when I arrived home in Oakland, my wife asked if I knew what had happened. On television, the news said that President Obama was going to provide special permission [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA] to those who entered this country before 2007. My two children were eligible. After watching the news on TV, we started to wonder, “What should we do?”

This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words. Read more.

I made the decision to leave the town I lived in, near Guanajuato, because one day someone put a weapon to my forehead. I wanted my family to live in a safer place. I came to the United States on Our Lady of Guadalupe Day, [December 12th], 2002. My children and my wife arrived in Oakland in 2005. In Mexico, my children left their childhoods, and their friends, and came here to lock themselves up in our golden cage. 

In the beginning, we lived in a room where only a mattress fit. If we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to cross the house, which we shared with six other people. We brought food in and we would all eat together in the little room. We stayed there for a year. We struggled so much. I worked from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. My wife fell into depression because it was hard to adapt to a new country.

Everything we experienced brought us together as a family. There’s a Mexican saying: Si crees que te hace un mal, estás equivocado. Te está haciendo un bien. (If you believe something is hurting you, you’re wrong. It’s doing you good.)  If I stop by that room today, I would be very touched. 

Pedro Ramírez and his wife Lucrecia sit for a portrait in their East Oakland living room on Friday, July 7, 2023. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local

When DACA was announced, we had already moved into an apartment on 55th Street. It wasn’t so hard for my kids to adjust anymore. By that year, 2012, my daughter was already studying at Fremont High School and my son was at Greenleaf Elementary. We were moved [by the news] but we had to look for community help, lawyers who could guide us through the procedures. We didn’t have much money. 

One day, I came home from work and asked my wife where my son was. She told me that he had received his DACA permit and that he had biked to Alameda to sign up for military service. My son wanted to be a soldier. It was his dream, and also mine. 

I remember my son came home, sad. He’d been told that he could not defend this country because he was not a [permanent] resident or a U.S. citizen. He said it didn’t matter because he would go to a university to study instead, and that he wouldn’t stop chasing his dreams. 

My son applied to California State University, Chico. Then they called us because he was accepted and we had to go on a tour. He wanted to study criminology. As we walked, we got excited because it was such a big university and we said to my son, “You will be the first graduate in this family!” Seeing my son in college felt like the culmination of years of hard work. It was like seeing our dreams come true. 

Ramírez took his son’s college diploma out of the protective folder the family uses to hold their personal and legal documents on Friday, July 4, 2023. Credit: Hiram Alejandro Durán for El Tímpano/CatchLight Local

But near the end of the tour, they began telling us how much the school year was, and the price of housing, and I thought, “No, no, no.. how are you going to do it?” We knew that even if he had DACA, my son couldn’t receive benefits for school. 

My bosses knew that my son wanted to go to school but they laughed and asked me, “How are you going to pay for university with what you earn?” I told them, “If my son wants to fulfill his dreams, it will be so.”

I worked more than 40 hours. At work, several of my colleagues would drink sodas and water and then discard the cans and bottles. I secretly took them out of the trash cans and put them together in a bag. After work, I also went through other trash cans. I was making over $100 a month [recycling cans and bottles]. My daughter worked in a restaurant and also contributed financially. 

We limited ourselves to buying clothes. If we didn’t need something, we didn’t buy it. It was a family effort. We gave that extra money to my son so that he could pay for his housing at the university. 

I gave myself up to the Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos de Jalisco to help us, and despite the economic difficulties, we are proud that my son was able to graduate. One day before his graduation, I told my bosses that I would not be coming to work, and when they found out the reason, they were surprised. This country gives you second chances. Opportunities. I have my son’s diploma here hanging in the house. 

My son wanted to be a policeman, so he did a lot of research. He approached officers and asked how he could do it. He applied for the San Leandro Police Academy but it didn’t happen, just because he wasn’t born here. 

My son was disappointed. He started looking for a job and ended up at a company that installs carpets in houses. It was bittersweet because you see your son growing up, achieving his goals, but then you realize that other kids who he grew up with have privileges. We can’t blame life for what happens to us. Each of us has a book that has been written. 

But recently, we found out about this law [SB 960] that allows young people like my son to pursue their dream [of working in law enforcement]. After everything, can my son become a police officer? He has always wanted to defend this country. I feel like we have finally received some good news. My son will have his reward. As we say in Mexico: Dios aprieta, pero nunca ahorca. (God squeezes, but never chokes.)

As told to El Tímpano reporter Justo Robles.

Justo Robles was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and migrated to the United States in 2013. Since graduating from Rutgers University, he’s worked as a newsroom producer at Spanish-language television networks including Telemundo and Univision, earning Emmy awards in New York and California. As a bilingual reporter, he’s written from El Salvador, Mexico, and Northern California where he now lives. His work has been published in CBS News, NBC Latino, KQED, CNN, Universidad Portátil and Revista El Malpensante. As El Tímpano’s Community Voices Reporter, he works with community members to tell stories that shine light on the joys, struggles, and complexities of the immigrant experience.