Juan Manuel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant, has become an advocate for young people brought to the U.S. as children who are at risk of being deported. Photo by Liz Lynch.
It took Juan Manuel Guzman 29 days to travel from his hometown in Bolivia to Silver Spring, including two perilous weeks dodging the Border Patrol in Texas. “I arrived on Jan. 3, 2006, and on Jan. 5 I was working,” recalls Juan, who was 17 at the time. “I was at Home Depot at 5 or 6 in the morning, it was dark and cold as hell. We were going to load concrete blocks on my uncle’s pickup truck—he works in construction—and from that point onwards, that was my life in the U.S.”
But the boy’s father, who dropped out of school very young, had always stressed the importance of education. “I had in my head this idea that I have to go to college,” Juan says. Now 30, he has an undergraduate degree from the University of Baltimore and a master’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Guzman also has an apartment near the Glenmont Metro station, a longtime girlfriend he hopes to marry, and a sense of mission: to advocate for the “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children who risk deportation from the only country many of them have ever known. The boy who loaded concrete blocks in the predawn darkness now gives speeches, organizes rallies, writes articles and lobbies members of Congress.
There’s one thing Juan Guzman does not have: a valid visa for staying in the United States. He is undocumented and can be expelled at any time. He spent years hiding “in the shadows,” fearing police, avoiding airports, deceiving officials, earning low wages, living with stress and missing his family back home that he could never visit. But after finishing school, Juan decided to step forward and confront an administration that resents and rejects immigrants like himself.
“I had to tell people that I had papers when I didn’t, and that for me was painful because I don’t like to lie to people in their faces,” he tells me one Sunday morning, the day before helping to lead a march supporting the “Dreamers” that filled the National Mall. “It became a very uncomfortable situation because I wanted to be free, I wanted to be able to have a voice.”
Juan’s search for his voice began back in Bolivia, where jobs were scarce and the future grim, and as he notes, “I come from a family of immigrants.” His parents spent eight years as undocumented workers in Argentina, and many relatives, including two older siblings, moved to America. When Juan graduated from high school, the family decided he would escort his 5-year-old nephew, Marcelo, to join the child’s father in the Washington suburbs.
Guzman was eager for the chance. He’d always been obsessed with American culture—basketball players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, rappers like Eminem, movies like Home Alone. “It was a movie that gave me a lot of perspective, because in Home Alone you see a nice house, the commercialism, the gadgets that the kid has,” he recalls. “Early in my childhood I realized things are really different there.”
He can still quote Eminem songs that fired his youthful imagination, including these lines from “8 Mile”: “I’m a man/ Gotta make a new plan/ Time for me to just stand up and travel new land/ Time for me to just take matters into my own hands.”
When he got to Silver Spring, taking matters into his own hands took on a different meaning. “My fingers were numb for a long time because I was lifting so much heavy stuff,” he says. “I started to know what it is to work. I went from zero experience to an adult immediately.”
Many jobs with his hands followed—carpenter and caterer, woodcutter and gardener—but he never forgot his father’s admonition about education. Guzman started taking free English classes at Montgomery College and finally saved enough money to pay for credit courses. It took him more than five years to finish a two-year degree, and as he puts it: “I always tell people I don’t have a talent for school. I just have a heart.”
Moving to Baltimore to finish college, Juan “had this wish to be normal,” to be a full-time student for the first time. A scholarship covered part of his tuition and his mother back in Bolivia borrowed money for the rest. Relatives who “were really proud of the fact that I was going to school” chipped in for food. He did well enough to get into Georgetown, but normalcy was still elusive. Even with a generous scholarship, money was always tight. An uncle gave him a bed in his basement, his mother borrowed more money, and he overtaxed his credit card, a debt he’s still paying off.
Guzman recalls the first day of a fall class. Other students talked about their summer adventures in places like Japan and Turkey. When it was Juan’s turn, he told them, “I was here, I was helping my uncle in construction.”
“I didn’t fit in, I was alone,” he says. “I didn’t have my undocumented community with me.”
That community now undergirds his confidence but also underscores his vulnerability. About 800,000 “Dreamers” are protected under a program started by President Obama that provides legal status to young people who arrived before turning 16, but because Juan was 17 he does not qualify. (President Trump has proclaimed the program “dead,” but two federal judges have barred him from ending it.)
When I ask why he decided to risk becoming an activist, he replies passionately: “Because I’m proud of who I am, of what my family is. Most of my family is undocumented and Trump uses broad brushes, he uses just one color to paint this picture of the undocumented immigrant, and in my experience that is not right. I felt awkward because I was silencing myself, but that is not the kid who came here to the U.S. No, that kid is strong, is fearless, and I wanted to regain that.”
At a time when “fear has become the new normal” for undocumented immigrants, as Juan puts it, his courage is more valuable than ever. The boy who loved Eminem is now inspired by the hero of the musical Hamilton, also an immigrant, who sings: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry/ And I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Steve Roberts (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.