The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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American at Heart—But Not on Paper

The first time I went looking for work I was 15. I went to Modell’s sports store because one of my friends had worked there and told me about his experience stocking shoeboxes in the back all by himself. He was like me and didn’t like working with customers, so I figured the job would suit me perfectly, keeping me away from obnoxious people.

I grabbed an application from a box near the front entrance of the store. As I rode the escalator to the second level I filled out everything except the box for Social Security number and made my way to the registers.

When I arrived face-to-face with the manager, he said, “Hello sir, welcome to Modell’s. My name is Chris. How can I help you today?”

To increase the odds of him liking me, I decided to imitate his formal manner and extended my arm to shake his hand. I introduced myself and said, “I filled out this application in hope of working with people who know how to do their job.” I gave a wide grin and placed the application in his hand right side up.

He must have been impressed with the way I handled the situation, because on the spot he looked the application over. It didn’t come as a surprise when he pointed out the missing Social Security number, even though I’d hoped he’d ignore it. I made an “Oh, that’s what I forgot” gesture, followed by a confident explanation. “I’ll bring it in tomorrow since I can never remember numbers properly,” I said.

He said I could start training that day, but instead I made up an excuse and said tomorrow would be a better idea. He smirked and told me, “For future reference, try to memorize your Social Security number, since it will haunt you all your life.”

The truth was that I didn’t have a Social Security number. As an undocumented Latin-American immigrant, I can’t legally work in the United States. I exited the store feeling confident that I could have gotten the job, but also gloomy that I hadn’t. I began to realize that my options for getting a job were severely limited.

I arrived in the United States at age 5 with both my parents. People often believe I’m American-born because I don’t speak with an accent and my English is a bit better than my Spanish. Though I want to maintain my native culture, I feel “Americanized” because I try to learn from the diverse group of people all around me, from the melting pot of ideas that makes America.

Despite this, I can’t take part in the privileges most Americans enjoy, like driving a car or applying for a standard job, because my parents brought me here illegally when I was too young to have a say.

The Modell’s manager ended up calling my house and leaving messages that the position was still available and they needed me ASAP. To get him off my back I said I was failing school and couldn’t be distracted by a job, but I think he figured out the truth. Before, I had been an eager applicant, but at the mention of “Social Security number” my attitude had completely changed.

I thought my situation was unfair, especially when I saw all my friends working and I wasn’t allowed to take the same steps toward independence. No teenager wants to hassle their parents for money for the rest of their life; I needed a job. But jobs that paid off the books didn’t have a sign outside that said, “No Social? No problem, we hire!”

I knew I could either dwell on the injustice and do nothing, or be creative. So that winter, I decided to risk catching a flu or fever shoveling snow from people’s houses. I walked to Shore Road in Bay Ridge, a wealthy area in Brooklyn where many residents are older and might need shoveling done.

Over two days, I made around $300 shoveling entire driveways by myself and helping owners who were shoveling outside their homes. In one home, the owners served me hot chocolate and a croissant; in another, I received a $100 check for helping a couple dig out their car. I enjoyed the experience of manual work and meeting generous people, but I knew I couldn’t do this all year. I needed to find a more stable source of income.

image by Patricia Battles

One of my friends was in charge of handling flyers for jewelry stores, restaurants and cell phone providers. Since he paid in cash we agreed that I would handle one or two routes for minimum wage. But the job was tedious. I had to stand on a street corner handing flyers to passersby. I had to pick up any discarded flyers or I would get money deducted. After a while, I got tired of people throwing the flyers on the ground five feet away from me, so I quit.

Looking at my options, I began to understand that jobs with no set schedule or promised salary would leave me facing uncertainties all the time. But I wanted to buy a bike, so I had to do something.

The friends that I hung out with didn’t have jobs but always had money. In my time of need, I realized they could give me a financial boost. I didn’t need to ask what they did for money since I already knew. All I did was ask, “Can I help develop more customers?”

I started working with them in the underground economy. Money was abundant and in this job I didn’t have to do any hard manual labor or distribute things alone. At first I just passed the word around the school about who sold what item and how great it was. I acted as a walking advertisement, because I was absorbed in the desire to make money.

Gradually I began ditching classes to hang out with these people. But I knew I couldn’t sustain this lifestyle. Getting caught by the police would jeopardize my entire future—in my situation, the risk was not only jail, but possible deportation.

Besides this, I realized money wasn’t the only reason I wanted a job. I also wanted to accomplish something with a larger meaning, not just help people consume things. Once I discovered that there were some things I didn’t want to do for money, I stopped communicating with my old friends and decided to change my attitude.

I finally asked my father if I would be able to work with him. I had been reluctant to do this because I had bad childhood memories of him taking me to work with him—I was stubborn and wouldn’t listen to him, and I didn’t like it when he would yell at me for making a mistake.

Yet as a handyman he’s made many good connections, since he does a professional job on construction, electrical and plumbing projects. Working with him again as a teenager reminded me I can always earn an honest living doing what he does.

I also started working in a video game store because I wanted the chance to do something different and, of course, because I would be paid off the books and wouldn’t need a Social Security number. More recently, I began advertising my services as a repairman for percussion instruments in online forums. The ads have brought me a few jobs so far, and I’m hoping to develop my craftsman skills and one day turn my hobby into a steady income.

But the video store underwent a change in management a few weeks ago, and the new bosses wanted all employees to bring in their legal documents and appear on the store’s payroll, so that was the end of that job.

I’ve gotten so used to these frustrations that they’re not a big deal anymore. I know if I want a job all I have to do is look harder than most people. I see this as less of a headache than you might expect, because I believe my efforts make me stronger all the time. By using these experiences to increase my determination, I can take control of my life, instead of believing that because of my parents’ decisions I’m condemned.

I haven’t had much time to think about my plans for long-term work, since I’ve been busy trying to finish high school. Besides, in many ways I’ve lived as an American almost my entire life, so immigration problems don’t always seem real. My dream is to become a teacher, because I want to help develop not only good students, but good citizens. But it will be hard to pursue such meaningful employment without documentation.

It would be disappointing to have to relinquish my goals just because I need to make money to support myself; I don’t want to do any job that comes my way just to get by. But my other options are to move back to a country that is practically foreign to me, or live life under a fake identity and face more problems. So I’ll do what I have to do to survive, but I’m also going to look for ways to make my life fulfilling.

I will attend community college, continue to learn from people I meet, and volunteer around my neighborhood. My desire is to contribute to society and help my community prosper, and in this sense I don’t need to be a citizen to be a good American or find satisfaction in what I do.

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