“I’m going to wake up and realize I’m still undocumented.”
My name is Liana Montecinos.
How old are you?
What do you do for work?
I am a senior paralegal at Benach Collopy and also a law student at UDC Law.
What year of law?
3L, evening student.
Tell us where you were born.
How long have you lived in the USA?
I came to the United States when I was 11, in 1999, so about 16 years.
Can you tell us why you left Honduras?
When I was 11 years old, my grandmother died in a horrible car accident and my sister and I had no one to take care of us in Honduras because my great-grandmother was very old and she was sick. So a family member helped us get to the United States to join my mother.
What was your citizenship status at that point?
I was undocumented. We walked through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, and crossed the Rio Grande.
How old was your sister?
And you walked. Tell me a little about that.
The journey from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, to the United States was incredibly difficult because first of all I didn’t know we were leaving Honduras. I was told I was going to [the capital] Tegucigalpa. I had never been to Tegucigalpa so I didn’t realize we were exiting countries until we saw the drastic difference when we got to Mexico. We were told not to speak because our accent would give us away. We were told to cover our faces because the way we looked would give us away depending on what village we were at. So it was incredibly difficult.
I remember one time that we were riding a little bus in a Mexican village and people just pointed at us. And people just pointed at us and said, Those are los pollos mojados, the wet chickens. My sister and I were so embarrassed, somebody took pity on us and gave us a blanket so we could cover our faces. That’s a demonstration of difficult the journey was because there’s lots of discrimination, lots of danger, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, it’s a combination of a lot of bad elements.
Can you tell us where you crossed into the United States?
Yes. I believe we crossed through Matamoros [in Mexico]. We used a—in Spanish it’s called a neumatico—it’s an empty wheel or tire, and it’s inflated, and you ride on top of it and you get pulled. But I was very tiny so I could just slip through the hole. I had to sit practically on top of another lady who was on top of the tire.
Because you didn’t know you were leaving Honduras for good, did you get to say goodbye to your great-grandmother?
No, I did not, and that’s something that still pains me. I was very angry for a long time. It was about a year I would cry every night because I really missed my great-grandmother. She was the person who took care of me since I was 40 days old so she was practically my mother. We would do everything together. Eat together, sleep together, pray together, go to the bathroom together. When I came to the United States I didn’t even have the opportunity to say goodbye because I wasn’t told we were leaving to the United States.
When you figured out you were entering the United States what did you think awaited you there. Did you have some sense of what it was going to be like?
As a child I had envisioned the United States to be just a land of wonders and big buildings and everything you would think of a modern city. But when we came here we lived in a tiny apartment and my mother had issues with her husband at that time. So it was totally different but I from the beginning immersed myself into school, and so that was the good part of it. I didn’t think it was that cold in Honduras, and we came in late November so it was extremely cold. It was hard.
What city were you living in?
Where did your mom work?
My mom would sell Mary Kay and gold, as an independent seller.
Tell us about what happened after you relocated to Virginia.
My mother had a very difficult childhood. She started working since she was about 4 or 6 years old and she was the oldest of I think 11 or 12 siblings. She had a very tough life, so I don’t blame her for what happened, but at the age of 15 I was removed by social services from my mother’s care. I was about to be placed in a foster care system but I was very stubborn and didn’t want to go into the foster care system so I asked my brother to take me in until I would emancipate at 16 and that’s what happened.
Did your sister come with you?
My sister didn’t have the same issues that I had with my mother. Some of the issues that came about with my mother were that I really wanted to be involved with sports, take AP, IB classes. My mother, since my older brother got involved in gangs, was overprotective and didn’t want me to do what American girls do as she put it. I didn’t want to give up on my education—since I was a little girl we were very poor and my great-grandmother would always say to me that even though we were poor and didn’t have a male protector, what I had was the opportunity to get a good education, that nobody would take that away from me. I really wanted to focus on school; my mother had other thoughts. Then the abuse came. My sister didn’t have any of those problems. She was very obedient to everything my mother said.
She felt that getting a really good education was an American thing? Or the sports were the American thing? I’m wondering what values she wanted you to have instead.
I don’t know what was in her head. I think she wanted to protect me and didn’t want me to get into gangs, and thought I was pretending to be studying but that I was doing other things. Because I used to do everything in school: I would do cheerleading, soccer, volleyball, basketball, track, and sometimes she wondered why I was in school for so long. She would go and see me and in fact I was practicing. She values education. It’s hard when you haven’t had an education to truly value it, to see how much work and dedication it takes, and that was the issue.
At what point did you go from undocumented to having some kind of legal status?
It is a long and complex immigration history, but it was well into 10 years after that we obtained employment verification documents through my mother’s previous asylum filing. But then we were placed into removal proceedings, and then my case got separated from my mother’s and my sister’s, and that’s when a mentor and an angel that I found through my journey helped me hire Ava and from then on we applied for asylum.
Tell us who Ava is.
Ava Benach is my attorney and my current boss and she was the person who took my case when many attorneys did not want to take it because there was no obvious form of relief. She actually delivered for me—we got asylum, I was a year after able to get an adjustment of status, and five years after that I was able to naturalize and that was able to happen in June of this year.
During that time when your status was ambiguous and in question, what were you worried about? What kinds of things were you afraid would happen to you?
I was worried about so many things. First, being here, in the United States. Putting myself through college as an undocumented student, paying triple the tuition, was incredibly hard because I was constantly trying to motivate myself. I was pulling all-nighters and the next week I would have a hearing and I was questioning myself and say, Why so much work if a judge is going to decide to ship me away to a country I no longer know?
But I always have faith and I always grabbed on to something, whether it was the teachings that my great-grandmother gave me or whether faith in myself, faith that there was justice, and I worked really hard. So that was my situation, but I was also very much afraid of going back home because since I was a child I went through a lot of things and I didn’t want to go to a place that I knew as a woman, especially a single one, that I was going to be mistreated, perhaps raped, because of my views and the way I see the world that I was going to be persecuted.
When you first came here when you were 11, and I’m guessing you didn’t know English—
—where did you go to school, how did you go to school, how long did it take you to feel American or at least feel you could find your way here?
I went to Glasgow Middle School and then went to J.E.B. Stuart High School. I always tell my kids—I say “my kids” because I have a nonprofit and I motivate the students to go to college and I always tell my story that when I came I didn’t know any English. My mother would tell me, Liana, hello means hola, and so when we went for the first time to the counselor at Glasgow Middle School, Ms. Ball, and she said “Hi,” I had no idea what hi was. I felt inadequate, I was embarrassed, I just smiled and later I found out what was happening, and I said to myself, if I can help myself not to feel inadequate again, I will do it. I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I would study; I would learn five English words per day, watch Dragon Tales. I really committed myself to learning English. If I don’t know a word, I look it up, I memorize it.
When I felt American—that’s an interesting question. I’ve always felt American, but when people rejected me, and I saw through the immigration proceedings that I really wasn’t Americans—it wasn’t until my naturalization that I felt that American society accepted me. But even then, I have an accent, I look different. I don’t know whether people accept me. But I think I’m coming to realize that being American is not what others think, it’s embracing the values of the United States, of democracy, of freedom of speech. Now that I’m in law school I’m learning that in depth. I think I’ve felt American since the beginning, but I’m also very proud of my heritage, and one can always embrace both.
Did your friends as you were coming up know that you were undocumented, was that something you had to keep secret?
It depends. I had very close friends, but I tried to keep it secret or just share it with intimate friends, because it’s something that in the Latino community it’s a stigma. Normally the people who are undocumented here are the Central Americans that do not meet the quota system for the visas in the United States and have to walk through Guatemala and Mexico, so by revealing your status you’re revealing that you didn’t have enough money to get a visa, or that you didn’t have a family member here. So it’s revealing a lot.
But now I’m very open about it. And as I was going with Ava and her representation I became more open about it because I knew that I was being given the opportunity to be a voice for other students who perhaps didn’t have the ideal profile case, or didn’t have the grades. I felt an obligation to do it, and ever since I haven’t stopped—it still pains me, but it’s my story, it’s my journey. I no longer have shame about it.
So this has become your career path. The first half of your life story becomes your job. Do you know what kind of law you want to practice?
I knew that was coming. Tell us when you decided to become a citizen.
As soon as I could file. I had it marked in my calendar. It was Dec. 26, 2015. I filed as soon as Ava signed, I sent my filing over, because it’s such a privilege to be able to apply for naturalization. I never took it for granted and never will because of all the trouble we went through. As soon as I could I applied for adjustment, I filed for naturalization. If there was another step to it I would do it as soon as I would be able to.
Tell us what it was like being sworn in in June of this year.
It was—surreal. I didn’t believe it. I just thought something is happening here and this is a dream and I’m going to wake up and I’m going realize I’m still undocumented. After you’ve gone through so many years of emotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion—sometimes I had to study for exams but I had to work on my declaration, because we needed to submit it to the asylum office—it was just a process that had always been a part of me. I’m in disbelief. I don’t know that it has ended, the process has been so long and painful.
Is it painful for you to be joining the naturalized citizenry in the season of this conversation about who is a “real” American? It must be bittersweet entering into an election season that is bubbling over with very complicated ideas about immigrants.
It is a bittersweet sentiment, but I know so many wonderful Americans, such as the lady who helped me get my status. She is a naturalized American—she’s originally from Australia, though her husband is American. They have shown me that many people will reject you, and that’s OK. You can’t change the way they are. You can only move forward and change how you are, and how you’ll react to that. All of my life I’ve been rejected, starting with my father who abandoned me before I was born, and so it’s not that I’m desensitized to that but I’m able to move on and see the good in people. I don’t think what we’re hearing in the media that it’s representative of most of American society and that’s what I want to take away. I want to contribute to the good.
Does home mean to you your childhood in Honduras or your experiences here in the United States, or are both of those things home in different ways?
Yes, both of them are home in different ways. Life in Honduras brings me a lot of sad memories but it takes me back to a time where I had the people that loved me the most in this world, my great-grandmother and my grandmother, who are no longer alive. Remembering them and remembering how my siblings and my sisters and all of us, 15 children in a tiny adobe house—we didn’t have light or water but we were together. That makes me feel home.
Now in the United States since the age of 15 I’ve been living alone, and I’ve been providing for myself. So it’s tough. But this is home too. I have met wonderful people, the mentors who are guiding me. I’ve grown to believe that you have your blood relatives and that’s your family, because you had no option and maybe they’re wonderful and maybe they’re not, but you can also create your own family, and that’s what I’ve done. So I have two homes, but I’m working on my home here a little more because I’ve been taking one step at a time with all of the responsibilities that I’ve had here.
You said when you were struggling that you would think back to some of the wisdom that your grandmother and your great-grandmother gave you, values that they gave you. Do you remember what some of those values are?
My great-grandmother was the one who raised me since I was 40 days old, and one of the things she would always tell me is that education was my treasure in heaven. She was a person of faith of rock, and every time something happened to us that was bad we would pray, and the solution she would always come up with is education, education. She was not an educated person but she truly valued it. I remember when drunk men would barge into our home and force us to do things we didn’t want to do, force my grandmother to do things she didn’t want to do, and my great-grandmother, and when that would pass, we would run away from home and sleep at our neighbors, and we would end up praying. She would say Lianita, mija, education is what’s going to get you out of here. And I believed her.
What does it mean to you to be an American?
It’s to be privileged and to be free. The United States, it’s truly an amazing nation. I’m very critical of it in some aspects, and we’ve had a very shameful history, but what I love about the United States is that an individual can make a lot of change. You can be anything you want to be. In Latin America that’s not the case. You are categorized based on your last name. You cannot move up the chain in society because your family didn’t, or you’re not blue-blooded. In the United States is different. If you work hard, the opportunities are given to you, or at least you can find them. For me, being an American, it’s truly being free, it’s to have a lot of privilege, and with privilege comes responsibilities, and I take it very seriously. I do know that for some people I’m never going to be American enough and for others I’m never going to be Honduran enough, and I’ll work with that identity situation. But as of now, I really want to embrace it and I want to uphold American values as much as I can.