By Diana Leyva
On Gallatin Pike, in Madison, Tenn., there is a small, family-owned Salvadoran restaurant called “El Pulgarcito,”. It is here where Trevecca junior, Cristiam Lopez, spent six years, washing dishes from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Lopez was born in San Vicente, El Salvador, he immigrated to the United States with his family when he was just 2-years-old.
An engineering major, Lopez was granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, in 2016. He is one of the 7,650 DACA students residing in Tennessee.
In 2014, his family was able to open “El Pulgarcito” after years of having managed their church kitchen.
From 2010 until 2014, Lopez along with his siblings Daniela and Jefferson Lopez would help their parents at Casa de Dios U.S.A.
On Saturdays, they would open the church kitchen at 8 a.m., and get home at 12 a.m. On Sundays, the church would have four services throughout the day, the first one being at 6 a.m. so Lopez and his family would be up at 4 a.m. to prepare for the day ahead.
He described it as difficult, especially being so young at the time.
“It was a struggle, because my parents didn’t want that for us, working that early, not sleeping. But it was a sacrifice we had to make to help them out,” he said.
Lopez considers his parents opening up a restaurant a blessing. Seeing his parents come to the U.S. with nothing and working countless years to attain a goal was motivation for him.
“All my life I wanted to be a soccer player, a professional soccer player,” said Lopez.
Playing in clubs since he was young helped him in developing his skills, and he dreamed of playing professionally in the Major Soccer League. However, he knew traveling internationally would be out of reach, due to his status. He questioned the possibility of playing professionally even if the opportunity ever presented itself.
“That made me think, maybe it’s not possible. It was mostly those things that made me realize that it’s hard to be undocumented. You lose a lot of opportunities,” he said.
Constantly working and being focused on soccer didn’t give Lopez much time to think about his future, doing something besides working at his family’s restaurant wasn’t something he considered.
However that all changed when he was accepted as an Equal Chance for Education beneficiary.
“That really changed my whole perspective on what I was going to do after graduation. Because before that, I didn’t really know what to do,” he said.
While he was excited about his new journey as an ECE scholar, the challenges of being a DACA student were still very present.
There was still that fear of not knowing what the future could bring, fear of no longer being able to provide for his family back home, fear of deportation and losing everything he had worked for.
“Everything you do is not only for yourself, but also for your family outside the U.S., it’s what keeps you going here. As an immigrant, you don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else, you have to accept what you get,” he said.
During his first 100 days in office, President Joe Biden made immigration a top priority, signing a plethora of executive orders including the U.S. Citzenship Act of 2021, which if signed into law, would be the largest and most reformative program in U.S. history, aiding not just DACA recipients but also the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The bill was introduced to the House of Representatives on Feb. 18, 2021, and referred to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship on April 28, 2021.
There has not been any progress on the bill since.
For Lopez, hearing promises but not seeing any real, tangible progress being made makes it difficult for him to remain positive about the future of DACA.
“Hearing those things is unsettling just because you’re building hope. You’re working hard every day with the mindset of, ‘Ok tomorrow I can get those opportunities, tomorrow I’ll be able to do something else.’ … You’re told something’s going to change but you don’t see it happening. You’re stuck with, ‘Should I give up? Or should I keep going?’ It all comes back to what keeps us going as undocumented people – our families outside the U.S.,” said Lopez.
However, Lopez said that having DACA has given him the motivation of working hard towards his engineering degree, not only to give back to his parents but to give back to everyone who was able to help him get to where he is.
Two years ago Lopez was able to find work outside his family’s restaurant at Office Depot. His boss was understanding of his situation as a DACA student and as a student athlete. Lopez said his boss was like a mentor to him, offering him advice and connecting him with others who could assist him with his desired career field.
Lopez said it is thanks to people like his boss that he has been able to overcome the challenges that come with being an undocumented student.
“Overcoming is not just individual, but career building and networking. Building and growing those relationships with people who can eventually give you not only motivation but a second chance,” he said.
If the Dream Act was passed tomorrow, Lopez said he would be extremely grateful for all the work which was done in the dark and would take the time to talk about his family’s business and everything they experienced.
He would also travel, visit the places he’s always wanted to see but most importantly visit his family back home. His grandmother on his father’s side resided in the U.S. but moved back to El Salvador, he says it’s hard to think if he will ever see her again.
Currently, his goal is to obtain his degree, have his own business and someday give back to those who have been in his same situation.
As far as his dreams for other undocumented immigrants – equality. That everyone could have access to the same opportunities, employment and education.
“We’re just as driven as everybody else in helping our families, helping ourselves, and giving each other a better life,” he said.