My DREAM Story

My name is Carolina Bortolleto and I’m undocumented, unafraid, and American – a powerful statement, but how did I get to this point?

I moved to the US with my parents from Brazil when I was 9 years old in 1998. We came on a tourist visa and just overstayed.  We flew in to New York on a cold January night (I still remember the first time I breathed the cold air outside – “it tickles my lungs!” I exclaimed), played tourist in Manhattan for a couple weeks and then moved to Connecticut. Many immigrants start off their story with a search for a better life and economic opportunities. Sometimes I’m unsure how to begin my story. Truth is, we moved here because my mom loves the US and wanted to live here; she was tired of Brazil.

Thinking back to those early days here, I recall a strange mix of cheerfulness as I experienced new things and an overwhelming feeling of emptiness- unconsciously morning what I had lost. Slowly we build a life here and although my family has tried to adjust our status countless times, with several lawyers and thousands of dollars, it never works.

I have always known that I’m undocumented, but I didn’t see myself as different from the rest of my classmates. Soon, the reality of my status began to put up barriers. My 16th birthday came and went with no mention of a license or even driving (In fact, I still don’t drive). I began to realize that many other American milestones were beyond my reach, that because of my status, my life would be limited. Soon I would feel my status begin to gnaw away at my self worth and independence.  

I knew that because of my status, I was not eligible for financial aid and in state tuition. But this didn’t stop me from excelling in high school and I ended up graduating in the top 5% of my class.  I still went through the motions of a “normal” student – SATs, community service, extracurricular activities, college fairs, etc. I watched friends get acceptance letters and their excitement as they looked to the future. I applied to a bunch of colleges, just to see if I would get accepted, knowing full well that there was no way I could afford them.  And so I took my college acceptance letters and kept them as mementos of a high school career well done.

I thought it was unfair, why was I being punished for something that I didn’t do? Why couldn’t I have a life like everyone else? But then, my hard work did pay off, I got a merit scholarship from Western Connecticut State University that covered the in-state tuition, although I still had to pay the out of state.

The reality of my status temporarily averted, I threw myself in my studies. By filling all my time with challenging courses, I was avoiding facing the reality of my situation, that upon graduation, I would be stuck. But for the moment, I was busy being a college student. Though I tried not to think about my status, it impacted everything I did: when I had to turn down internships because of no work authorization, when my mom didn’t want to drive me to school because her license expired, when my professors asked me my plans for after graduation and I had no answer.

Being undocumented, you feel like you never really grow up, you can’t get a real job, you can’t drive, you can’t be independent, there’s always something holding you back from the life you believe should be yours. Even as I began college, I resented my situation. But my outlook would quickly improve.

 I found out about the DREAM Act right after I started college in 2006. As soon as I did I went online. There I discovered a vibrant community of DREAMers talking about their situation and their activism in discussion boards. Slowly I started to become more involved and plugging in online. Through facebook, I found out about events in other states and started going.  I heard stories of bright, motivated students who have been unable to pursue their dreams and go to college. Students more qualified than me (valedictorians!) who were working minimum wage jobs or were part time community college students. I was so lucky; I was able to go to a 4-year university full time. I felt a responsibility to speak out for others in this situation, to be their voice when they couldn’t. For me, it’s about fairness. It’s not fair that I got to go to college and others don’t. Why should I be lucky enough and not others? I’m no better than anyone else. We all deserve the same opportunities in life. The dream movement is about more than immigration, it’s about education and social justice.

As I became involved, I felt a sense of empowerment and community. I had found somewhere to belong. After a lifetime of feeling like I had no voice, like I was always dependent on others, like I was an incomplete person, I had found an identity, fulfillment, something greater than myself – I was a DREAMer, I had a purpose, I was empowered . I wanted other undocumented students in CT to feel this sense of empowerment and community.  I decided that I would become more involved in this movement and do what I could to start a group in CT.  Not knowing any other DREAMers in the state, the need to become more involved often kept me up at night. But slowly I connected with other interested students, and we formed our group, CT Students for a DREAM. I feel so privileged to witness and take part in this movement – I can’t imagine what my life would be without it.

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