I know what it’s like to hide in plain sight. I’ve done it since I was 11 years old. I always knew that telling my story had consequences. The risks were very real, for myself and my family. So I kept quiet. I focused on being a kid. I tried to be the best student and athlete I could be.

Today I want to tell you my story. I’m a professional soccer player, but this is not a sports story — not really. It’s not a “success” story or a sob story, either. It’s just a story about my life, and it really means a lot to me that you’re taking a few minutes of your day to read it. After you read it, you can decide for yourself who I am and what’s right and wrong.

My journey doesn’t have an ending yet, but I can tell you the beginning. It starts in the desert, on my eleventh birthday.

I woke up that day, August 30, 2004, on the Mexico side of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from northern Mexico to parts of Texas and Arizona. A few days later I was in Sacramento. I’ve never been back to Mexico.

It’s been 14 years since that day, and a lot has happened in my life. Sacramento became my new home, and I lived there through high school. Then I spent four years at the University of San Francisco, where I played D-I soccer and graduated with a degree in Finance. I married my college girlfriend a few months later. In the 2015 MLS draft, I was selected in the first round by D.C. United and made my MLS debut that year. In 2017, the L.A. Galaxy signed me to its reserve club. Today I’m a midfielder for the Galaxy II team.

But those are just the bullet points. My story is about what people couldn’t see by watching me play soccer or looking at my résumé. A few months after I got to Sacramento, my temporary visa expired.

I was 11 years old, and I was undocumented.

I woke up that day to the promise of a Whopper.

My grandfather wished me happy birthday, and then he told me the news: We were going on a trip. A long trip — to visit my mother in a place called Sacramento, where she’d recently gone, also on a temporary visa. He promised to stop at Burger King on the way. So in my mind, the trip didn’t sound like a big deal. My birthday was off to a pretty great start.

We loaded our stuff into the bed of my grandfather’s old Chevy pickup. My grandpa told me and my brother to bring all of our important belongings. He covered our stuff with a grey tarp. I rode in the middle seat, between my grandpa, at the wheel, and my brother, who was 21 at the time.

Aaron Dana/The Players' Tribune

Actually, it wasn’t my first time going across the border. Growing up, my mother had taken me, my brother and my sister across the El Paso-Juárez border — on temporary visas that allowed for short visits. Usually, they were day trips — to Wal-Mart or other chain stores. Man, I loved those trips. My mom would give me a couple dollars to spend and my favorite spot was a dollar store in El Paso. I’d go crazy in there, buying a squirt gun or a yo-yo or a mini soccer ball or a bag of Jolly Ranchers or some other toy.

What I knew about America was limited to what I saw on those trips: America was a collection of gigantic department stores, dollar stores and fast food places — connected by a confusing network of freeways. In my mind, America wasn’t where people lived — it was where you went for a special occasion. Because that was my experience.

At the border, my grandpa showed our IDs to the American border-patrol agents. I remember them looking over our visas. They walked around the truck, inspecting the outside. Then they waved us through.

The drive was long. The desert went on forever. I remember the billboards turning from Spanish to English, and how the Chihuahuan Desert went from mountainous to flat, and back again. Looking out the windshield at the freeways that went on and on, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about playing soccer and hanging out my friends. I missed my dog, Coqueta. She was a Boxer with a fawn coat and white spots. I was wishing she was riding in my lap in the truck. But my grandpa made good on his promise. I got that Whopper. I can’t do it justice, though, so you’ll just have to picture it — a skinny kid on his birthday, jammed into the middle seat of a pickup truck, with a burger in one hand and a chocolate milkshake in the other.

Then more driving. El Paso to Phoenix and into California. At some point on that long drive — maybe this is just how I remember it now — I think I started to put things together: This wasn’t a vacation. I was going to remember my eleventh birthday for a long time.

On the outskirts of Juárez, pink crosses line the desert. Hundreds of wooden crosses, painted pink, are clustered in uneven rows. When I was a kid, I learned what they meant. Each cross was placed in memory of a woman who was raped, tortured or killed in the drug violence that’s been going on in Juárez for years.

Every kid in Mexico learns about the cartels at a young age. I heard adults talking about them. My parents would whisper. The cartels are everywhere in Juárez, but in a way they’re invisible, too. It’s not like they wore uniforms. They could be your neighbors, the police, a teacher, a lawyer. You really didn’t know who was working for them and who was just trying to mind their own business. So people figure out that to survive, you play by the cartel’s code. Or you get out.

Aaron Dana/The Players' Tribune

I didn’t know it, but my mom had been planning our escape for a while.

The cartels came right up to our family’s doorstep. When I was too young to understand, one of my uncles went missing and we never found out what happened. Years later, I found out he had gotten involved with the cartels somehow. Then, when I was about nine, someone attempted to kidnap my older sister. Fortunately, it wasn’t successful. But for my mom, that was the last straw. She made a plan to get us out. She wanted a better life for us. She wanted us to have a future. We were going to leave the pink crosses behind.

This part of my story might sound like a scene from a movie about the drug wars in Mexico. I’ve seen a lot of those movies. They make it all look gritty, even glamorous. In real life, it’s not like that. The violence is real, but movies can’t show the way the cartels use fear as a weapon. Fear is everywhere in Juárez. The cost of questioning it can mean death. Movies like Sicario, I don’t know … I guess they feel a little fake.

Arriving in Sacramento in 2004, my first memory was how bright everything was. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was almost like I saw color for the first time. I remember how the desert started to transition into green. The grass, the trees, the flowers, the perfect lawns. There was so much green. In Juárez, the park across the street from our house was all dirt. The field had crooked lines because it was chalked by hand, and we didn’t have nets in the goals.

It was almost like I saw color for the first time.

My new home in Sacramento had a park across the street, too. It had real grass, a playground and lights that came on at night. That grass, I’m telling you, it was so green. I’d only played soccer on real grass once in my life — a game against a team in El Paso. I remember they had actual nets, matching uniforms, and three referees. During that game, I was like, This is it …
I enrolled in a new school in Sacramento and started learning English. Within a year, around age 12, I went from not knowing a word of English to being able to speak almost fluently. I got good grades, I worked hard in school and I played soccer. I made American friends who invited me over to their houses for pizza and movies. I tried very hard to remind myself never to take the feeling of it all for granted — to remember how we didn’t have it that nice in Juárez. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was something about me that my friends didn’t know. The weird thing was, I felt American. I was doing all the things an American kid did — all the things an American kid should do. But I was different.

From junior high through high school, I had to be disciplined. I told myself: Never get in trouble. Don’t make mistakes — not even one. If I made a mistake, I thought, I could be putting my entire family at risk. One slip up, and we’d lose it all and be sent back to Mexico. That mentality was always right under the surface of everything for me. I enjoyed being a kid, for sure. But those thoughts were never far from my mind. I felt a responsibility to my family. No matter how hard I worked, or how well I performed in school or on the soccer field or wherever else, it was frustrating to think that I could never really be “normal.” I couldn’t vote. I couldn’t get a driver’s license. I couldn’t apply for anything that asked for any sort of ID. From 11 years old on, I was in America and I loved America, but I didn’t own a piece a paper that said I was American. And I was scared to death of anyone finding out.

Aaron Dana/The Players' Tribune

With good grades in high school, I was fortunate to find a way to go to college. That’s when a lot of things changed for me — and for a lot of people like me. I heard about something called DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — President Obama’s executive order aimed to protect the more than 860,000 immigrants who’d come to America as children. Like I had.

They were calling us Dreamers. It had a good sound to it.

In college, I started to open up to more and more friends about my story. I remember, sometime during Obama’s second term, sitting around a common room talking about DACA and about current events. A few of my friends were born outside the U.S. like me, and some American-born, like Erin, the girl I’d end up marrying. When DACA finally became real, in 2014, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was my senior year at USF and I remember going to the counselor’s office to get any form I could — financial aid, grants, study abroad, IDs, you name it. I couldn’t wait to see my name on those forms.

I was a step closer to becoming a real American — the honor I’d been working for most of my life. It was huge weight in a legal sense, too. It meant I could finally do everyday things like drive on the highway without the fear of being pulled over and sent to jail — or even worse, sent back to a place I didn’t know anymore. To where the pink crosses were.

They were calling us Dreamers. It had a good sound to it.

The year after graduating, in 2015, I became the first DACA recipient to play professional soccer in the United States. When I got married a year later, I became eligible to get a green card, which I received in the spring of 2017 while I was with the Galaxy.

Then came another curveball. The Trump administration announced a few months later that it would phase out DACA. We were back in limbo … Dreamers stuck between two countries and two cultures.

I felt American in every way that seemed to matter. Except one.

It still hurts my feelings when I hear people say that I’m not really American.

Sometimes people will even say it to my face — it actually happens more recently than it did 10 years ago. To some people, it still doesn’t matter that I’ve lived in this country longer than anywhere else. It doesn’t matter that I came here at 11, too young to decide for myself. It doesn’t matter that I excelled at school and soccer, or that I was a top student in college, or that I work and pay taxes in this country. It doesn’t seem to matter that I volunteered and was active in our local church. Or that I care about my friends and love my community.

Yes, I was born in Mexico. I feel very connected to Mexico. It’s where I was born and where I still have family. I’m proud of it. But I didn’t choose where I was born, and I didn’t choose what country I went to at age 11. I know this: Today, I am as American as I can possibly be. I know that it is a privilege to live in this country and to be a part of this democracy. It’s an honor to know what it means to speak freely, to worship whatever religion we’d like to in this country, to debate politics, to speak any language we want, to give back to our communities — all of it. I don’t take the feeling of grass beneath my feet for granted.

Stephanie Romero/LA Galaxy

I might have told you, as a kid, that America was great because it had Burger King and pristine soccer fields and good TV shows — those kinds of things. Today I know that’s not what’s really special about America.

To me, it’s always been the people.

I got to grow up surrounded by so many different kinds of people. It’s people who came here, like me, to escape broken and corrupt governments. It’s also American citizens, who share the same American values I’ve come to love. It’s people like my soccer coach, Tibor Pelle, who took me under his wing after we met when I was 14. He introduced me to his wife and his children — he helped edit my college essays, prepare for the SATs and plan for the rest of my life at that critical age. Basically, he treated me like family. The promise of this country — that we can be different, but live side by side and help each other out — is a beautiful thing.

It’s been almost 15 years since I left Juárez, and in those years, immigration has never been far from my mind. But by far the most upset I’ve been in all those years was this year, hearing about children being separated from their parents at the border. I know Americans are divided about immigration, but I don’t think you need to have a connection to Mexico to be affected by kids being separated from their parents. I’ve talked to a lot of American citizens who see it the same way. It’s an issue of dignity. It’s an American thing to care about. I think about those kids a lot these days. The family separations are still happening. What if that had happened to me at age 11? Or what if I never got to leave Juárez and extreme violence was a part of my everyday life?

They aren’t what-ifs for a lot of people. I have a cousin who lives in Juárez with his family. Recently, I mentioned that I was thinking of visiting him. He flat out told me that I shouldn’t … that it simply wouldn’t be safe. He said parents in Juárez don’t let their kids outside after dark. Last year, there were over 700 murders in Juárez. In El Paso, a few miles north, the number was 17.

I believe that one day I will be an American citizen, on paper — the same way I know I am an American in every other way. In 2016, I applied for a green card under the changes introduced by DACA. But now DACA is up in the air. That’s why I consider it my duty to speak up for Dreamers. I want everyone to know that the people I’ve met in America — the friends, teachers, and coaches who guided me over the years — are the reason I’ve succeeded on the soccer field and in the other parts of my life. When I wear the Galaxy uniform today, I wear it with an extra sense of pride. I think of all the people who helped me. I also think about the people who still need help.

Right now, people are fleeing violence and repression in their home countries to come here. The vast majority of immigrants, I believe, aren’t coming here to take jobs that Americans want. They don’t want to harm America. I think they are seeking what my mother wanted for me: Safety. Opportunity. A chance at life. More than ever before, I want to help represent the America that cares about those in need and does what it can to help those who are suffering.

That America exists — I know it. Even on days when I’m not feeling very hopeful, I know it. Because I’ve seen it.

It’s the country I call home.