Most stories about “millennials” focus on middle-class, educated twentysomethings, while the ones who grew up poor or working-class are simply ignored. Welcome to Uncovered, a series that sheds light on this forgotten group of our generation.
In 2001, when Daniel Hurtado was 6 years old, he came to New Jersey from Colombia. “I have known no other land as my home,” he says. “I feel American in every sense of the word.”
Now 21, Daniel is one of the nearly 750,000 beneficiaries of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Created by President Obama in 2012, the program temporarily defers deportations for eligible undocumented youth and gives them access to renewable two-year work permits and Social Security numbers. Because of DACA, Daniel has been able to study at community college, get a job, and drive a car. Now he’s waiting to find out if he will receive a private scholarship to help him attend Rutgers University, where he was recently accepted. Because his status disqualifies him from taking out student loans, without the scholarship, Daniel would have to delay school to work and save tuition money.
In this photo essay, Daniel—also a budding photographer—tells the story of his life: the obstacles he faced as a young immigrant, the opportunities provided to him by DACA, and the struggle to weigh his own dreams and ambitions with the responsibilities he feels toward family, particularly his hard-working mother. “I am constantly trying to find a balance between my personal fulfillment and helping my mother,” he says.
Listen to Daniel’s interview with StoryCorps here.
I often find myself thinking about two realities in my life. I want to make my mother proud and all her struggles to support me worth it. But I also want to be a “normal American,” traveling, learning, and exploring what the world has to offer without any hesitation. I know the balance lies in furthering my education and one day being able to help my mother the way she did for me.
My mother, Lorena, raised me alone on a salary of less than $20,000 a year. She has worked in a cafeteria for about 15 years. I feel I owe so much to this woman who sacrificed her own pursuit of happiness to give me a real shot at it. She is the drive I have within to aspire for more.
This is my mother hugging me in August of 1999 at the airport preparing to leave Colombia and seek a better life in America. When I look at this image I think about this flame she had burning within to seek a better tomorrow. Although America has knocked and bruised her, she has passed on the flame for me to continue the search for a better tomorrow.
I was born in Colombia before I was brought to Elizabeth, New Jersey. Elizabeth was dominated by Latinos. I left there in 5th grade and moved to Rahway, New Jersey, a majority white and black town. I discovered I had so much more to learn to consider myself American. I remember not being able to say tongue–somehow tong and tongue were the same word. This is our apartment of the last five years. We’ve always rented. If I remember correctly we’ve moved about eight times since 2001.
I learned so much from a teacher at my high school who was my robotics mentor. The biggest let down senior year was finding out that I qualified for no scholarships from FIRST robotics due to my status. I pretty much started giving up on school. When I finally learned about DACA I saw an opportunity to actually become someone and not just an “ALIEN.” It’s funny to say, but I feel I owe my current situation to Obama. He’s had such an effect on our lives and ability to feel human.
When I was 14 and starting high school, I began to realize that I was not as American as I thought. There was no better way to prove my love for this country than to serve its military. I joined the JROTC program at school, but I found out that I couldn’t join the military because I had no status in this country. I dropped out of ROTC. Even today with DACA I still cannot join.
When I saw all my friends getting a license at 16, I started to think that maybe I wouldn't get the same opportunities as others around me. After I graduated high school I biked for three semesters to community college and paid for tuition out of pocket. When I received DACA, I was most excited when I got my license. One of the biggest changes DACA brought me was the freedom of movement. I bought a car soon after and now I can take my bike anywhere for fun.
This is my mother in New York City’s Times Square, 2002. I see so many of my aspirations in her here. It brightens my smile to see myself in her shoes looking to break boundaries and pursue a future that doesn't seem so bleak.
9/11 happened during my second week of 2nd grade—during my first year of school in America. I felt someone had attacked my home. This is my grandma from Spain in front of the Freedom Tower during this past December. She too left Colombia in pursuit of a better future. My mother and I came to America while she and my aunt went to Spain. It has not been easy to see our family separated. I think this is one of the biggest pains and sacrifices in my mother’s heart. She calls or FaceTimes one of them almost everyday. I’ve only seen my grandma three times since I left Colombia. Many cousins, uncles, and other relatives I haven’t seen in years.
My mother has been working the same job for about 15 years. With a child to raise she never found the breathing room to risk taking a leap to a new job. Now that I earn my own money, I can hardly wrap my mind around how she was able to raise me alone on her salary. Here she is preparing to do her taxes. I’ve recently helped her build a new resume. She’s not too enthralled with the idea of finding a new job but I know she would benefit from it.
This is an old picture my good friend Blaise sent me from the West Coast when he was serving in Americorps in 2012. In high school we both talked about joining this volunteer program for a year before college. I soon discovered I could not join due to my status. Again another aspiration to do more, do better was shattered. Blaise is currently using Americorps scholarships to help finance his bachelor's degree.
I originally had an interest in medicine as a career. I wanted to find out if I could really love it. I became a volunteer EMT through my local community college. I learned so much and most importantly made a realization that helping others was great. However, the technology that drove the medical industry was far more captivating to me. Since then I’ve decided to focus my education on technology and computers.
Before DACA my mother and grandma were able to afford to send me to one year of community college. My grandma always says, “If I win the lottery I am sending you to school to be a doctor.” I nearly gave up on college. I could not imagine paying for four years out-of-pocket. Once I received DACA I became employed and financed my second year of community college. Now I am able to apply for some private scholarships. I was recently accepted to Rutgers University and am now waiting on a response from the Dream Scholarship, which is intended for DACA students. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to take out any student loans due to my status. If I am not accepted for the Dream Scholarship, I will have to continue working and saving for the next year or two before I can afford tuition. Nonetheless I have no doubt that I will have a bachelor's degree in a computer field within the next five years.
To me, the best thing Rahway, New Jersey, seems to have going for it is a train line straight to New York City. Rahway is located next to Linden, home of New Jersey’s most toxic air. Sometimes when I look around at the people here I feel i’m looking at a stagnant pool of complacency. Uninspired, I seek to get away and find like-minds striving to be more.
This is my girlfriend, Antonette, another pivotal person in my life. She lost her mother when she was 12 . She helps me see all that we have to be grateful for. I can say I admire her, and it drives me to be that much better. She is a college graduate and constantly pushes me. I remember she once said, “With so many things to do in the world, why do something you don’t like."
I remember the first time I got a promotion to become a scheduling manager at another job. I was so happy with the title and the pay, yet so miserable with the meaningless work. I left that job to seek some excitement. For six months, I worked at a technology/logistics startup for six months. Now, I’m working at a ski resort for the season up in the Catskills. I couldn't be happier with the environment.
Alex, as far as I can remember, was my first real American friend. I learned a lot of my ideas about what being an American is from him. He had this huge backyard, so we would get all the kids in the neighborhood together and play football, baseball, and nearly every other sport. In hindsight I probably felt the most American then. I remember on our drive up to the Catskills, where Alex is also living right now, he said we should visit Canada soon. Unfortunately I’m not American enough yet. If I leave the country, I could not enter again for who knows how long.
The cottage at the bottom left is where Alex and I are living in the Catskills until the end of April. My mother has never had the luxury of getting away to a place like this. I hope that one day I could let her enjoy the beauty of this world as opposed to just keeping a roof over her head. Growing up in a suburban New Jersey town, I was not often surrounded by peace and quiet.
My friends’ passions revolve around music. Mine revolve around photos and the outdoors. I think we all inspire each other to do more and with them around, I forget about my status. I remember the summer after high school graduation in 2012, I wasn't the happiest graduate until I got a call from my friend Ernesto, seen here on the right. He said, “Hey, did you see the news?” (about Obama approving DACA.) Suddenly I was the happiest high school graduate because I could stay here and work.
I took this photo during a hike up Panther Mountain in the Catskills with Alex. When I look at this photo and remember how drained we both were it takes me back to this idea I have. It’s this analogy of two people that need to run five miles, and I feel like the guy that’s running with 50 pound weights strapped to his back while the person beside me is not carrying anything. And we are both going to run five miles, and they might feel very accomplished for running those five miles, but I know that I have to run 10 to feel as though I made all the struggles worth it. It’s very easy for me to feel under-achieved and under-accomplished.
I feel like I am at the biggest crossroads of my life. It is obvious that the decisions which I make today will shape the years to come.
That to me at times seems frightening. Will I be happy? Am I doing what’s best for me? Is money my only motive? What about my personal fulfillment? Will I look back and regret it? I suppose that is the magic which makes our lives fulfilling, the not knowing. Not knowing what’s to come and what’s to go, and embracing the change always putting our best foot forward. With that in mind, I’ve taken to learning computer programing in my free time attempting a head start towards my bachelor's degree. I’m still unsure of the finances and what computer discipline I will focus on. However, I do know that without education my options will be very narrow.
Supported by Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Photo editing by Zara Katz.
Audio interview produced and edited by Alexandra Nikolchev for a POV/StoryCorps campaign collecting stories from the undocumented immigrant community.
Daniel Hurtado is a photographer who worked on this story with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.