Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month: Judy Rayo shares her harrowing journey to U.S., what “American dream” really means

Judy's family

It was 2002 when we came to America, 19 years ago.

I was only 9 and I was the only child walking the desert with my mother, my older brother and a group of 15 people.

The coyote or the man guiding us across the border made us out to believe we’d be in America in no time. It was an adventure for me when we first set foot on the desert. However, after three days and four nights of walking with very little to no rest, it became a nightmare.

We experienced thirst and starvation, heat and exhaustion, loss of hope as we came across those who did not make it, gun threats and eventually evasion. It was an experience that after all these years, I remember every detail. It was a story I was ashamed to speak about. There were so many awful things that happened in those days. There was always that fear of deportation and being discovered that we were here illegally.

At 9 years of age, I felt the pressure to be the interpreter for my parents as I myself was still learning the language and serving as communicator of all adult responsibilities. It was a desperate need to “sound American” not because I was ashamed of my roots but because I wanted to fit in and be understood.

I started elementary school and learned the language by watching my classmates interact, unfortunately the ESL program in my school had not yet taken flight. Within a year, I could speak the English language without an accent. I managed to graduate middle school with many awards and in the top three percent of my class. In high school, I graduated in the top 5 percent of my class. I was one of the smartest students and was awarded the Phoenix Award for best student in the entire school.

Those compliments I hold dearest to me as some of my proudest moments. “Who would have thought a little poor Hispanic girl would come this far,” I remember my guidance counselor once saying. That story I was so afraid to speak about now became my reason to keep progressing. I look at it as a sign of my strength because I made it! It was no longer a part of my life that I wanted to forget. It has now been the biggest motivational attribute in all of the goals I’ve set to reach. If I could survive that, there was nothing that I couldn’t accomplish.

My parents, who have been my biggest supporters, always ensured that I knew where I came from. To never lose sight of who I am and to always be authentic. In my father’s words, “we speak Spanish at home, you can always learn English with your little friends.” It has been a phrase that carries so much meaning.

I have become a bilingual independent woman who is fluent in Spanish and English, who can read and write in both languages, who also humorously can speak Spanglish with other bilinguals. It’s totally a skill! I am also that bilingual independent woman who loves to serve her community and has had the amazing experience to interpret for doctors and those Hispanics who cross my path needing help — never hesitating to aid those who still struggle.

Both my parents and I have come across so many wonderful humans who have offered support and love. Almost 12 years after coming into the United States, I was able to obtain a work authorization visa and was able to benefit my parents as well. I was able to start college and start my path in the medical field. Today my parents and I are now permanent residents and working on citizenship. We were able to visit our home country, Mexico, and see our families for the first time in over 15 years. We continue to contribute to this country fully. We want to embody what it signifies to be an asset to a country who gave us so many opportunities.

When people speak about the American dream, this is what it means to me: to know that not only did we survive, but we are living proof that life gets better.

— Judy Rayo is a private insurance precertification coordinator with Roper St. Francis Physician Partners.

Judy with her family