Out From the Shadows

Undocumented but undeterred, a Silver Spring man becomes an advocate for “Dreamers”



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Juan Manuel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant, has become an advocate for young people brought to the U.S. as children who are at risk of being deported. Photo by Liz Lynch.

 

It took Juan Manuel Guzman 29 days to travel from his hometown in Bolivia to Silver Spring, including two perilous weeks dodging the Border Patrol in Texas. “I arrived on Jan. 3, 2006, and on Jan. 5 I was working,” recalls Juan, who was 17 at the time. “I was at Home Depot at 5 or 6 in the morning, it was dark and cold as hell. We were going to load concrete blocks on my uncle’s pickup truck—he works in construction—and from that point onwards, that was my life in the U.S.”

But the boy’s father, who dropped out of school very young, had always stressed the importance of education. “I had in my head this idea that I have to go to college,” Juan says. Now 30, he has an undergraduate degree from the University of Baltimore and a master’s from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. 

Guzman also has an apartment near the Glenmont Metro station, a longtime girlfriend he hopes to marry, and a sense of mission: to advocate for the “Dreamers,” young people brought to the U.S. as children who risk deportation from the only country many of them have ever known. The boy who loaded concrete blocks in the predawn darkness now gives speeches, organizes rallies, writes articles and lobbies members of Congress.

There’s one thing Juan Guzman does not have: a valid visa for staying in the United States. He is undocumented and can be expelled at any time. He spent years hiding “in the shadows,” fearing police, avoiding airports, deceiving officials, earning low wages, living with stress and missing his family back home that he could never visit. But after finishing school, Juan decided to step forward and confront an administration that resents and rejects immigrants like himself. 

“I had to tell people that I had papers when I didn’t, and that for me was painful because I don’t like to lie to people in their faces,” he tells me one Sunday morning, the day before helping to lead a march supporting the “Dreamers” that filled the National Mall. “It became a very uncomfortable situation because I wanted to be free, I wanted to be able to have a voice.”

Juan’s search for his voice began back in Bolivia, where jobs were scarce and the future grim, and as he notes, “I come from a family of immigrants.” His parents spent eight years as undocumented workers in Argentina, and many relatives, including two older siblings, moved to America. When Juan graduated from high school, the family decided he would escort his 5-year-old nephew, Marcelo, to join the child’s father in the Washington suburbs.

Guzman was eager for the chance. He’d always been obsessed with American culture—basketball players like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, rappers like Eminem, movies like Home Alone. “It was a movie that gave me a lot of perspective, because in Home Alone you see a nice house, the commercialism, the gadgets that the kid has,” he recalls. “Early in my childhood I realized things are really different there.”

He can still quote Eminem songs that fired his youthful imagination, including these lines from “8 Mile”: “I’m a man/ Gotta make a new plan/ Time for me to just stand up and travel new land/ Time for me to just take matters into my own hands.” 

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