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Immigration status made all the difference between my brother and me

My younger brother was a US citizen with a driver’s license; I was not. But he never let that divide us.

mari kanstad johnsen for the boston globe

“Stay focused and look straight ahead,” my little brother advised. His reassuring tone soothed my flustered nerves. With the patience of a young Yoda, he taught me how to drive on the highway (stop closing your eyes), how to parallel park (check your mirrors), and how to wave at strangers you accidentally cut off (it happens). At 21, I was finally behind the wheel.

Growing up, my brother was a US citizen while I was a citizen-in-waiting. Our parents and I had left Colombia when I was 13 months old; he was born in Texas three years later. He could travel, visit our family abroad, and take driver’s ed. I had to settle for staycations, Skype calls, and hitched rides. He could dream of running for president. I had nightmares of being deported.

We were siblings, friends, and rivals. The back seat of our parents’ Dodge minivan was a battlefield. Like all good siblings, each of us blamed the other when a seat belt broke or ice cream stains mysteriously materialized. We raced each other to open Christmas presents and fought to avoid taking out the trash or to maximize our computer time. Our mother tried her best to equalize our opportunities, insisting that we share chores and take turns riding in the front seat of the car. But she could never equalize our immigration status.

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That simple difference defined our realities. Although my brother and I both grew up in the United States and call it home, I was an immigrant. For years, my parents and I waited for the wheels of the slow and byzantine immigration system to turn. With my visa petition pending, I was stuck in teenage purgatory. Most adolescent rites of passage, like getting a driver’s license or an on-the-books after-school job, were painfully out of reach for me — but easily attainable for my brother.

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In those pre ride-sharing days, my inability to drive meant I was tethered to family and friends with a driver’s license. It meant asking to be dropped off a block away to feign autonomy. It meant depending on others’ generosity.

On break from college, I discovered a champagne-colored, leather-seated used Acura parked in our driveway. Despite its dents and crayon stains, my brother’s new car oozed independence.

Without complaint, he agreed to drop me off at friends’ houses and drive me to appointments. During rides together, our sibling quarrels faded. Free of our parents’ rules, we blasted the reggaeton songs our mom disliked and binged on drive-through burgers. His car was my American passport to freedom.

When I felt immobilized and directionless, my brother would say, “Keep pushing forward.” Quietly witty, he always seemed to know the right quirky Internet video or meme to cheer me up. Through small gestures of support, he bridged the divide between us.

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After more than a decade, my backlogged immigration petition was approved in 2013 (I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship next year). At last, some long-awaited milestones — most notably a driver’s license — were within reach. My brother rode shotgun as I practiced driving and gracefully steered the car into the bushes, a story he’s fond of retelling. He waited at the DMV as I triumphantly took my road test — and failed. And he cheered me on again when, on my second try, I passed.

Last year, I ventured out into Boston on my first-ever solo drive. My shoulders tensed and my hands gripped an unfamiliar steering wheel. Dread dissolved into satisfaction as I navigated the narrow streets and disappearing lane markers. Windows down, radio up, I turned on some reggaeton and remembered to stay focused and keep pushing forward.

Jennifer Angarita is a writer in Boston. Send comments to connections@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.

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