A DREAMer in Silicon Valley
I grew up in East Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, before and after the dot.com bubble. Despite living in a tough neighborhood of violence, I watched Star Trek Voyager, Friends, read Dr. Seuss and memorized musicals from Funny Girl to The Wizard of Oz. On the weekends, I helped my dad clean office buildings. He hid me in the trash cart to sneak me into work. I picked up the trash and refilled the trash can with bags at every room. Today, I am in one of those conference rooms whiteboarding with engineers and product managers to solve the toughest problems in Big Data.
Anyone who thinks East Palo Alto is a precious community doesn’t live there anymore. During the worst days of gang violence, I had to become street smart and know that as an immigrant and only child in a house of 17 people, I wasn’t in a position to fight back. My strategy was always to keep a low profile and be on the lookout for trouble. The community of EPA put me in touch with amazing people through Eastside.
Eastside is a private school in EPA that helps underrepresented and first generation students get into college. A couple sponsored me from 6th through 12th grade. Every day I met volunteers and teachers from the surrounding towns and Stanford University. Through a reading program, I met Christina, or Chris as I like to call her, who for the past 15 years has been a mentor and a friend. She helped me become a better reader and eventually edit a manuscript for a book.
The education and support I received at Eastside allowed me to be successful and stay safe. It sounds crazy, but I couldn't get a cell phone. If something happened to me while my parents worked the night shift as janitors, I couldn’t call 911. I didn't have a credit history which requires a social security number. That’s when I started becoming aware of my status as an undocumented student. A Stanford med school student, Julie, helped me out. Although the phone was under her name, I paid her in cash for my part of the bill every month.
One of my biggest worries in college was: how can I pay for college? I didn't have access to any financial aid from the government or loans. I earned my education through private scholarships and funding while still maintaining good grades throughout college.
By 2011, when I graduated from Columbia University it was tough to see most of my peers go into finance and tech while my path remained uncertain. How was I supposed to make a living without paperwork to work legally in the United States? Some people said, “Well just go back to Mexico!” But my family and friends are here. I don’t even speak Spanish well. America is my home. I chose to stay because I love this country and want to give back.
While my friends settled into their new jobs or first apartment, I was struggling to lease an apartment in EPA, Palo Alto, and Mountain View. I had no credit history, and my parents didn't have one either. Despite recommendations, grades and bank statements, all landlords wanted a social security number to run a background check. I asked a friend, a US citizen, to cosign the lease with me. But she said, “Sorry, you’re too risky.” Eventually, a building manager listened to my story and showed me the place I live in today.
The uncertainty after college led me to discover a career in Design. I worked as a freelancer to make ends meet. Back in high school and college, I used to make infographics for the school newspaper, so I learned the tools of the trade well. I went from making posters for real estate agents to redesigning a CRM system for a broker. Before DACA, I helped Stanford graduate students on public speaking. They told me about the d.school at Stanford. I’ve spent evenings learning and practicing Design Thinking and also immersing myself in the world of design through any means - sometimes just sneaking into a classroom.
My life changed a lot in 2012 when President Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It wasn't amnesty. It was a temporary solution that protected children, who were brought here before the age of 16, from deportation and allowed them to get a work permit. DACA didn't grant a lawful status or a path towards citizenship either. Every two years, I had to pass a rigorous background check and pay $495 to obtain the work permit.
Through DACA, I was finally able to work in corporate America and earn a better living to pay more taxes. At Cisco, I was designing without knowing I was a product designer. I went from redesigning a training experience for Partners worldwide to leading Design Thinking workshops to help teams understand users better. One engineer said to me, "Rocio, you're a product designer!" I responded, "What? I'm just trying to solve a problem here."
After three years at Cisco, I decided to venture into the startup world, but I didn't know how. That's when my physics teacher from high school, now working at Dropbox, connected me to a product designer. I continued freelancing to build up my portfolio and eventually apply for Product Design roles at startups. Today I have the opportunity to contribute to my community and country by doing the thing I love.
After the termination of DACA, my future is on hold again. But unlike 2011, I am afraid. I provided a lot of information to the government so they can find me at any time and deport me. I don’t have any memories of Mexico. America has been my only home and the country I will always love and serve. For more than 16 years, I followed Congress’ attempt to pass the DREAM Act since 2001. This fall we have an opportunity to work together and finally pass the DREAM Act. Some of us may feel discouraged after the presidential election on how much difference an individual can make. But here’s an opportunity to prove to ourselves and the world that our democracy works.
If Congress does not pass the DREAM Act, it will be a great loss for America. DREAMers are contributing to many industries and defining the future of technology. It doesn’t make sense to deport talented individuals without criminal records, who only want to live out their dreams and make America great. The debate on DREAMers and DACA recipients poses a fundamental question: Do we hold our children accountable for our parents’ actions?
Let’s work together to support the DREAM Act by calling our representatives.
Download Rocio’s and other Dreamer’s posters for print here.