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New book humanizes the journey of undocumented children in the US

Although it was 30 years ago, Margarita Quiñones-Peña still remembers saying goodbye to her grandfather when her pregnant mother took her and her older sister away from Mexico to meet her father in Chicago.

He was 3 years old. He said that although the memories were blurred, the feeling of leaving the place he knew as home never faded.

He is now 33 years old and still hasn’t come back. Tita, as she was called by her beloved grandfather, is undocumented. She was brought to this country without permission as a child. For a long time he was ashamed of his status and felt powerless, until he finally realized that, thanks to his family’s resilience, they had created a home of their own in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood despite all their struggles and sacrifices.

“There is no shame. Now, be proud of the sacrifices our parents made and our resilience to succeed despite the undocumentedness,” said Quiñones-Peña, now a software engineer, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a yoga instructor. Fortunately, he became a Dreamer in 2012, or the recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created by then-President Barack Obama that gave him work permits and protection against deportation.

He said his trip was essentially a “homecoming.” And it’s something immigrants share with hundreds of other children, whether they were brought here decades ago or the children of thousands of immigrants who are now coming to Chicago.

“Homecoming” is the title of the children’s book that the Quiñones wrote based on her story to honor her journey and empower herself, her family, and other undocumented children. “I want them to know what’s possible,” he said.

Quiñones-Peña said all proceeds from the book will be donated to help immigrants currently seeking asylum in Chicago.

A young immigrant boy reads with his book "Homecoming" By Margarita Quiñones-Peña at the Pilsen shelter on July 9, 2023.

Last Sunday, Quiñones-Peña celebrated the launch of her book by reading it to a group of immigrant children living with their parents in a community-run shelter in the Pilsen neighborhood.

More than 11,000 asylum seekers came to Chicago last year. Many families with children continue to live in temporary shelters.

The book, in Spanish and English, with a picture of Quiñones-Peña and his family overlooking the historic Small Village Arch. She shares her memories of crossing the border dressed as a princess on a Halloween night with her mother and 4-year-old sister. He remembers those who helped them along the way and describes their eventual reunion with his father in Chicago.

At the end of the book, Quiñones-Peña shares the source of the story with photos of her family. It is followed by a section where children reading this can write their own immigration journeys.

He said the project was born out of his love for his family and a desire to settle accounts with his own story. Quiñones-Peña said that it is liberating to share your own truth and find strength in it.

“There are hundreds of people experiencing this, but we feel the need to hide it. Or we never talk about it because we fear embarrassment or that we will be judged or even punished for it.”

Margarita Quiñones-Peña plays with a young immigrant after reading a children's book aloud in a Pilsen shelter.
"Homecoming," A new children's book by Margaret Quiñones-Peña.

There are approximately 600,000 DACA recipients in the United States, but approximately 3 million undocumented youth qualify for benefits, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Even if they are eligible, most are unable to apply to the program because the program was halted during the administration of former President Donald Trump and is going through the courts.

“I didn’t quite understand what was going on as a kid, but it was this journey that determined who I would become,” Quiñones-Peña wrote in the book. “Although we are currently protected from deportation, we live with limited rights and do not yet have a path to citizenship despite our contributions and knowing other homes.”

For most of his life, he was secretive about his status, fearing stigma and judgment, not even sharing it with his wife.

With the book, she wants newcomers to know that there’s nothing wrong with being undocumented. They can also call this city home,” he said.

For most of his life, Quiñones-Peña did not know the whole story of how his mother was pregnant and crossing the southern border with her two young children. “About two years ago, Quiñones-Peña finally decided to ask her mother,” she said.

His mother, Antonia Quiñones, opened with tears in her eyes as the two of them sat in the kitchen. His mother, now 63, remembered that it wasn’t easy. It was a memory he had buried, trying to forget the painful experience.

But it was incredible, Quiñones-Peña says, “I realized that this is a beautiful story because of the willfulness and community that came together to help us get here from the very beginning, rather than being embarrassed or embarrassed.”

“This needs to be celebrated,” said Quiñones-Peña.

In 1993, Antonia Quiñones decided to leave her hometown of Santiago Papasquiaro in Durango, Mexico, to meet her husband Eduardo Quiñones in Chicago. Antonia remembered that Eduardo had been going back and forth for years, but that was not enough to keep the family together.

“I wanted my family to be together,” she said. “But I also knew it was unrealistic for their father to return to live in Mexico.”

So even though she was pregnant, she made her way to the border.

“It was a sacrifice but it was worth it,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t understand this, but as parents we make these decisions for our children; everything was for them.”

The family settled in Little Village or La Villita, and Antonia worked in maintenance and care work, and among other jobs, Eduardo, now 66, worked as a factory worker. Despite their undocumented status, they were able to send their three daughters to college.

When Quiñones-Peña gifted the book to her mother on Mother’s Day, Antonia said she had nothing to say. Worried that Margarita would be criticized, she did not want her daughter to publish the book.

But Quiñones-Peña was inspired when the first few buses carrying refugees began to arrive in the city. So she gave extra yoga classes and saved as much money as possible to start the project.

“I am very proud of my daughter because she is so strong,” her father said.

Quiñones-Peña is the only person in her family who is still undocumented. Despite having DACA, he does not have a path of citizenship that would allow him to visit Mexico. His family became citizens after being sponsored by a family member, but Quiñones-Peña could not be involved due to complex immigration policies. Her older sister, María Cecilia Quiñones-Peña, 34, is now married and her younger sister, Veronica Quiñones, 29, is a citizen as she was born in Chicago.

“But I’m not losing hope,” said Quiñones-Peña. It was a promise he had made to his now-dead grandfather. He believes that one day he will return to the place where he was born, to the plaza where his grandfather sold seeds to earn a living while playing with his older sister.

Quiñones-Peña said Chicago’s Southwest Side will forever be her home, regardless of her resident status.

larodriguez@chicagotribune.com

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