Chapel Talk: A Dreamer

Diego Panasiti arrived at Peddie three years ago and teaches Spanish, coaches soccer and supervises Roberson dormitory. He recently announced that he will be leaving Peddie this April to embark on a personal journey to connect his past, present and future.

Good morning, Peddie. I carry a hope that you will leave chapel today with a personal story, one of innocence and loss of innocence, a story of resilience, my story.

A dreamer

I’m what some people would refer to as a “dreamer.” Not the escapist type that seeks refuge in a fantasy world, although, for part of my life, I did feel like I was in a bad dream…No you see, the dreamer that I’m referring to is related to the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. After 23 years of living as an undocumented individual, as a dreamer, I signed a document 6 years ago that lifted that burden off my shoulders, I was considered “legal.” This is the story of those 23 years as an undocumented person.

I ask myself: “What makes humans so foreign to one another that they resort to calling each other aliens, illegals?” If we refer to the dictionary to define “alien” we find words such as strange, foreign, differing in nature or character to the point of incompatibility. As a species, we’ve migrated throughout this planet for millennia, but since the birth of the nation, we’ve delineated our spaces, erected barriers, and created terms like alien, illegal alien, non-citizen, illegal immigrant. Hate has given birth to terms like wetback and mojado, referring to those who risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande. Therefore, if you unknowingly and unlawfully cross a national boundary as a child you’re considered an “illegal.” This was how I grew up, as a dreamer, along with a family of dreamers.

Let me explain how circumstances led me to become a “dreamer.” Furthermore, let me be clear that I speak on behalf of those individuals who are victims of circumstance - the displaced, the unseen - not criminals involved in the human and drug trafficking. In some respect, I speak for all Americans, as we are a nation of immigrants, of dreamers. In fact, I speak for all Americans North and South who share a common history, laced with heartache, triumph, and a binding belief that our tomorrow will be brighter than our yesterdays.

Circumstance had it that my family would have to walk through a nightmare to be able to dream, to be able to hope, to be able to survive. I was born in Mendoza, Argentina in September of 1981 at the height of a military repression. Just to give those that haven’t taken a Spanish class with me a better perspective, General Videla, then the vanguard of Argentina´s government, oversaw the disappearance of more than 30,000 citizens from 1976-1983. The target of these disappearances were mostly young academics, people with a voice, people that the government at the time labeled subversives. It was a tragic period in my country’s history and nearly a tragic ending for my relatives as my uncle was almost one of those memories. He was incarcerated and tortured for his ideologies, but somehow managed to be released from his year-long captivity. Many circumstances led my family to decide to leave behind their loved ones, their community, and their country. Here was the tipping point to that decision, that moment when despair demanded action, that “¡ya basta! - Enough!” moment.

Before I begin to tell you about this ¡ya basta! moment, a little background on my family. By the eighth grade, my father dropped out of school to help my grandfather out as a celery farmer. He worked as a fireman driving a fire truck, he was a mechanic, and played professional football and was once a soldier…during a time when the government wasn’t able to make people disappear. My mother also had to give up her schooling to help her family. As the second oldest, she looked over her five younger brothers and sisters. My brother and sister arrived to the U.S. as teenagers; their adjustment was a difficult one. Neither would finish high school, yet the values and sense of survival instilled in us guided each of us to achieve our goals that sometimes seemed too far to reach. I give thanks to life for my family, they have been my pillar of support throughout my life, the reason I confront obstacles and keep moving forward.

Back to the tipping point… ¡Ya Basta!

One day in Argentina, my father left the house and realized his new truck had been stolen. As a fireman, my father knew people at the local police station. When he reported his truck stolen, an officer pointed out to him that he would be far better off not looking for the truck, because someone in the police force had stolen it. He was encouraged to forget about it and continue on, or else the outcome would not be good. This situation, on top of so many others they lived through, was what prompted my family to say enough. They lost trust in their community, their country.

In 1980, before I was born, my family visited the U.S. My father visited his brother in California whom he had not seen since the military repression began. Now, my uncle’s move to the U.S. was less dramatic, he gained his citizenship. And he did this through hard work. His work brought him many good things, ultimately achieving what in the early 80´s was considered the American Dream. On the other hand, in 1983, my parents are denied a visa to enter into the U.S., simply because my father failed to mention in his application that he had visited his brother. With no more legal avenues to pursue, my parents decided then to take an enormous risk. They would cross into the United States undocumented.

On the eighteenth of April, my family and I were waiting in a car by the Mexican border in Tijuana, México. We would use friend of the family’s documentation to get across - with one little problem. The birth certificate I was to use to get across was a little girl’s. This meant my parents would have to dress me up as a little girl. I ask my mom every now and again to tell the story about that day, about how I somehow wandered away from the car and began climbing a fence; that bit should not surprise some of you. The fact of the matter is, that it wasn´t a good idea for border officials to see this little girl in a dress, with a sun hat, climbing a fence. Ultimately, I got tired of running around and climbing and fell asleep when we finally crossed the border by car into the US.

Realization

When I was 15, I had been invited to travel with my club soccer team to play the Puerto Rican National Team in a match and stay at their Olympic village for a week. Yes, Puerto Rico has a national team. For those who know me or who have trained with me…soccer remains at the core of my being. And at 15, soccer was the most important thing in my life. I dribbled a ball around everywhere I went. I could remember countless summer hours passed at my dad´s auto body shop, where I would work until the soccer ball got my attention. My dad didn´t mind - after all, he was soccer player, he got it. So, this trip was all I could talk or think about. Weeks before the trip, my dad sat me down after practice, by the look on his face I knew he had bad news; but what he told me, I carry until this day. In short, he explained to me that if I left the country to play the Puerto Rican National Team, we would be separated, and because of my status I would not be allowed to re-enter the country. I couldn´t join my team. This was my introduction to being undocumented. This defining moment in my life when I began to experience my own nightmare.

I had to learn to live in the shadows of anonymity. I couldn’t travel anywhere outside of the U.S. Because of my travel limitation, I never even got the chance to meet my grandparents; they died before I received permission to travel. In high school I could not explain to my friends why I did not have a driver´s license. I had to lie to them constantly. I was unable to receive any form of scholarships in high school or college for my studies that were offered to me. I remember telling my counselor, yea thanks but, I´m not interested. I was unsure if I would even be able to go to college. It was a dark time in my life full of a sense of hopelessness, fear, angst, and sadness. But I kept fighting, despite the shadows that loomed over me.

Fast forward to my arrival at Peddie. During the past three years, our community has shown me many important life lessons. I´m proud that we have shared this time together. Now, however, a new chapter in my life is beginning.  As of April, I will step down from my position as a teacher here and begin a this new chapter. I will retrace the very steps I took on that fateful day where my parents stood on the Mexican border on April 18th. I know what you´re thinking…no, I´m not going to wear a dress and a sun hat! From the border, I will begin to walk north on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles to the Canadian border. Life on the trail will be waking up at 6 every morning and walking 20-30 miles a day. I´m walking to regain my life balance, much like my parents did when they left their home. But why walk in the wild, exposed some may ask? Well, the Outing Club could back me up on this: there is something medicinal, almost transcendental, as you walk or stop to take in the natural world that surrounds you, something about experiencing the alpine glow of the high sierra, and how the violet rays of the sun reflect their energy off the peaks that pierce the sky, or drinking from the crystalline glacial waters of the same mountain’s streams. There is something spiritual that happens to me when I look at the Milky Way spreading itself amongst the stars that illuminate the night – an inward evaluation of the self, which will help me to begin to clarify my sense of identity and reveal it to the world.

Panasiti (center) with the Peddie Outing Club at Yosemite
In Spanish, to teach translates into enseñar, which literally means to show. I was taught not to measure education by the quantity of the knowledge I am able to transmit, or to demonstrate or boast over the data that I have memorized in books. I found a letter the other day from my graduate school advisor and I couldn´t find a cooler analogy to relate to my experience here as a member of the Peddie Community, as a friend, a scholar, a teacher, a dorm parent, and the many other hats we all share here. In this letter he was reflecting on his life as an educator and the meaning of enseñar. He related it to how he would approach teaching someone to fly like a bird. “My goal would not be to instruct you on the mechanics on how to flap your wings. Instead, I´d show you the secrets of the wind.” When I first read that letter a few years ago, it carried a far different meaning for me than these words do today. Today, I am a Peddie Falcon, and as a Falcon I am aware that while we are versed on the mechanics of flight, we must strive to go a step beyond, to find the secrets of the wind, to, at the very least, attempt to make our dreams a reality. Thank you, muchas gracias, hasta siempre, and Ala viva.


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