'I Knew I Couldn’t Work Because of My Status'

How Cristina Jiménez went from doing under-the-table jobs to becoming a MacArthur Fellow and immigrants’ rights activist

Christina Jimenez, a MacArthur Fellow and immigrants' rights activist
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Cristina Jiménez was 13 years old, her family moved to the United States from Ecuador. Three years later, her peers started getting jobs at the mall. But Jiménez was undocumented; that was not an option for her. She opted instead to babysit and work as a “helper” to a social worker in her apartment building.

I recently talked with Jiménez, who is now the cofounder and president of United We Dream—a nonprofit that organizes immigrant-youth-led activism—and, at 33, the youngest of the MacArthur Fellows named last year. Immigration has been a hot-button issue during the Trump Administration; the president decided last September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, and Congress has not passed the hoped-for Dream Act legislation to reestablish legal status for so-called Dreamers. Jiménez and I spoke about her own immigration status, her parents’ career aspirations for her, and what happens when the boundaries between work and life blur. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Lolade Fadulu: I know that part of the reason your family moved to the United States was so that you and your brother would have access to a better education. I'm curious about your parents’ educational background and what their jobs were.

Cristina Jiménez: In Ecuador, both of my parents just reached high school in terms of their education. My dad grew up homeless, and so college wasn’t really a possibility for him, just based on all of the challenges that he faced while growing up. He started working at a car-manufacturing factory in Ecuador, became a union organizer when he was there, and then he went on to work for security at one of the largest banks in the country.

And then my mother grew up in a household where—I mean, it’s just not out of the ordinary for the culture and the social norms of the time—but in her family, they didn’t believe in investments in education for the women in the family. So, all her brothers were sent to school, college, and/or the military. All the women were encouraged, after high school, to do vocational jobs. So most of my aunts including my mom became seamstresses and hairdressers. My mom worked in those two areas for a long time, but after she had me in her 30s, she stopped working outside of the house and her full-time job was being a mom and a homemaker.

In terms of their jobs (once we moved to Queens, New York), my dad, when he was younger, was predominantly in the construction industry. As men get older in the construction business, they’re actually encouraged to leave the job; they push them out, basically. And so my dad was pushed out of his job once he was in his early 50s. And since then, he’s been working in a parking garage in Manhattan, parking cars, making much lower pay than in the construction job that he held for many years.

My mother, in the United States, fluctuated between being a domestic worker for families, cleaning homes, to working at a nail salon for a while. And now she’s a babysitter. She’s fluctuated between those three different jobs throughout the over 20 years that we’ve been here.

Fadulu: Your mother’s parents had different expectations for men and women. Did those ideas travel down to how your parents viewed what you and your brother would do career-wise?

Jiménez: My mom has had these dreams of achieving, almost through her children, what she was denied—which is an education. So for us, for both my brother and I, she’s been the main supporter, always encouraging us in school and ensuring that we were good students, as well as pursuing college.

When I was growing up undocumented, my family struggled a lot to pay for school because I didn’t have financial aid or support to go to school. It was a family effort to pay for college. My mom, myself working, and my dad—all of us pitching in for my tuition. And my brother’s in college right now.

Fadulu: Was that your first job, while you were working in college to pay for tuition?

Jiménez: Well, I had two different jobs when I started working for the first time, and that was here in the United States. I was babysitting a family, the pal of family friends here in the United States. I was doing this right after I turned 16, mainly during the summer. Also, there was a social worker in my building, one of our neighbors, who used to work for the government. She needed someone that could take notes for her but also carry her computer and her bags of papers and documents and materials that she would take to families. I was kind of her assistant. I used to go with her and do all of these visits, a lot in New York City, in particular to poor communities in the Bronx and Manhattan and Queens and Brooklyn, and I would just carry her stuff, her computer bag, her bags, a lot of documents and her lunch.

Fadulu: And she worked for the government?

Jiménez: Yeah. I just know that she was a social worker, she worked for a government agency. She would give me, like, $20 for the day, or something like that.

Fadulu: I see. And so you weren’t really thinking at all about your undocumented status while you were working for this woman who worked for the government or—

Jiménez: Well, I kind of felt that it wasn’t a job in that I wasn’t clocking in and out. I was her helper, and I was getting some pay for it. Certainly, I knew I couldn’t work because of my status, which presented a huge, huge challenge.

Fadulu: How did you find out that you couldn’t officially work due to your status?

Jiménez: I just think [being undocumented] becomes more real once you become eligible to work, in terms of age, and some of your friends in high school are working or trying to land a job at the mall, and you just can’t, which is where I really felt it. And also because I wanted to figure out ways in which I could go to college. I realized that I couldn’t get any support, which was a surprise for me. I wasn’t aware fully of the implications of my undocumented status in terms of college access.

Fadulu: When you started college, did you know you were going to get involved in activism?

Jiménez: No, it wasn’t, like, a career choice. I didn’t know that that could be a career, anyway, at the time. But I really started organizing for immigrant rights and access to higher education because of survival—because many other people that I met at the time couldn’t go to college. And I felt a deep sense of injustice about that. And so I just started to get engaged. I found community groups that were working on these issues, and I plugged in.

Fadulu: How did your parents feel when they saw that you were getting involved in activism?

Jiménez: I mean, at the beginning, they didn’t understand it. But because my dad was a union organizer in Ecuador, when I took them to one of the rallies, it clicked for him. They didn’t get it until they were exposed to it. But once they did, they were really supportive about it. Their dream has also always been that I go to law school. I haven’t gone to law school, but they just seem to be really supportive of my work.

I also think that, sometimes, particularly as I have gotten more visibility, they have gotten more worried about what could happen to me. We come from countries where people that do this kind of work get killed.

Fadulu: In my school, there were some student activists who were really gung-ho about causes while they were in college but then once they graduated, they went off, for a variety of reasons, into investment banking or something. Can you talk more about why you made the decision to stay in it?

Jiménez: As I got to meet more people like me, young people and their families really gave me a larger motivation to do this work. For many years, we didn’t see a lot of progress. I remember advocating for the Dream Act in the early 2000s, and we are in 2018, and we haven’t passed the Dream Act yet. And we were able to see programs like DACA, but DACA was terminated.

Fadulu: A lot of people talk about the whole work-life-balance idea. And it sounds like this is just life for you. It doesn’t necessarily feel like work or a career for you.

Jiménez: I do feel like this is my calling in life, and even though the undocumented experience has been very difficult and it has created a lot of trauma for me and my family, like for everyone in our communities, in many ways I’m grateful for the experience of being undocumented because it really led me to find my purpose in life.

I think of myself when I was really fearful and ashamed of my status and I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. And then I moved from this place of shame and fear to feeling empowered. And now I’m part of creating that experience for other young people and their families.

In terms of work-life balance, I think that all of us have struggled with it. Especially for folks like me, who are deeply into this work, and it’s so much about your life and your right to exist. And so for me, what’s been really helpful is to be really aware that if I want to continue to do this work and be good at it and give back good energy to people that I work with, I have to make sure that I rest and that I take care of my health.

Fadulu: What advice do you have for young people today who are now in the position that you were in when you were growing up?

Jiménez: I think my biggest advice is don’t let anyone tell you “no.” And believe in your potential and believe that you are worth it. My college advisor [in high school] told me that she was not going to help me apply for college, that I couldn’t go to college because I was undocumented. And if I had listened to her, if I had believed her, if I had not pushed back against that and sought out other people to help me, I don’t know what would have become of me. I am really thankful to my mom and her courage. She pushed me to really go back to school and find people that could help me.

And I was able to find a way. Educators and other people in power in different institutions have so much influence, often. And sometimes not in constructive ways, for young people in particular.