“When I arrived at the border and crossed the Rio Grande, the thoughts and feelings when I got to the other side was ‘yeah, you are actually stepping into American territory.’ I didn’t know more things were coming, I just thought ‘yes, I did it!’”
Sophomore Lenni Joya Amaya was fifteen years old when he decided he was ready to journey from Sociedad Morazán, El Salvador to the United States to meet his parents and three siblings for the very first time. His mother Maria Vilorio, from over 5,700 miles away, had tried two times prior to deliver him across the border by attempting to obtain student VISAs, but these efforts only ended in denial. “The final and hardest one of all, but the most meaningful to me,” Lenni explained, “was the undocumented way. That’s how I came to the United States.” By the end of August 2011, with $5,000 in the pockets of local smugglers and $300 disguised in the bottom of his shoe, Lenni was on his way towards his own version of the American Dream.
“I decided to put myself on that road. It took me 15 days to arrive at the border and it was a hell of a travel. You hear so many stories about those who have gone but, you don’t know until you experience being stopped by police, get your money stolen, or look at people with guns in their hands. You don’t know until you’re sitting in the back of a trailer and don’t even know where you’re going in the middle of the night.”
Lenni didn’t know how to swim when he crossed the Rio Grande, and afterwards, for three days and nights he and his group trekked across the Texas desert without food or water. They walked in the day and slept between two to four hour intervals so as to avoid detection, until, on the morning of the fourth day they were discovered. “I woke up at 5 a.m. and all the sudden, the border patrol was there,” Lenni recalls.
A minor at the time, Lenni was housed at an assimilation center where young people were “taught the American way.” This is where Lenni received his first taste of the English tongue, and what would eventually blossom into a passion for language learning. “The first time I came home I felt like my head was going to explode,” he laughs. “English has a lot of shhhhh sounds, like a wind coming to my head.”
“As a young person I was scared, but eager to learn because I was so interested. The workers [at the Texas center] were so kind, they knew why we wanted to come to America. They just wanted us to come the right way.” Lenni describes that his first English lessons came from Rosetta Stone, but he was taught math, science and American history as well. “It was just a month that I was there, but every day was different. There were about five new faces a week, but only about one or two left at the end of the month.”
His parents were unable to visit him in Texas, as there was much to be done to bring Lenni together with his family in Huntington, New York. His mother had to prove that she could support him financially as well as offer a safe, permanent home. He explains that the fear of the paperwork not going through, and even the possibility of deportation was always on his mind. “My mom is documented, she can work, do taxes etc., but, like me, she came the undocumented way. It took her three months.
In El Salvador, Lenni lived with his grandparents in the rural area of Sociedad Morazán. Every morning around 6 a.m. Lenni performed tasks such as milking the cows and tending to other livestock, and then went to school where he sought to achieve the highest grades. On other days he worked in the corn fields after class, depending on the season. “I loved the animals, but I hated the heat,” he remembers.
His father was the first to leave for the United States, departing before his first son’s birth. His mother gave birth to Lenni when she was 15, but when he turned two years old, she left to live with her father in the Bronx, New York. “As a regular citizen in El Salvador, I never dreamed of coming to America because I always heard of it as a country that separates families,” he admits. “The father goes off to work for the family and he sends money back. That’s just the way it is.”
Upon reaching his teenage years, he recounts not only personal changes, but also societal. “There was beginning to be a lot of violence in my country due to the gangs and narcos,” he recalls. What’s more, when Lenni realized in the seventh grade that he was gay, he found that his life could only get harder. “Kids are judgemental. They just see the way you act. If you act too girly, or always hanging out with girls, if you talk and move around a lot—you’re gay,” he says, rolling his eyes. “This was before I even knew myself!”
Lenni explains that his younger brother Eric had come to visit three times, and the wish to know his family became overpowering. “Every month they [his mother and father] sent me money for food and called to check up and see how I was. But it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I pushed more to come and she [his mother] said ‘okay, you’re ready.”
Once in the United States, Lenni began the English as a Second Language program (ESL) at his high school. At first he wanted to pursue math, as his dreams had always included becoming a math teacher, but after meeting his ESL teacher Silvia, these dreams changed. Silvia had fled her home country Libya for Italy due persecution for being Jewish. “I was surprised to learn she had left her home country too, and English was not her first language. I thought, ‘if you can do it, I can do it.’” Lenni calls Silvia once a week to catch up, but also to practice Italian. He credits his love of language to his beloved teacher, as he recollects, “In El Salvador, I hated English!”
A double major in Spanish and political science, with a concentration in bilingual education, Lenni also sports a triple minor in global studies, Italian and Latin American and Caribbean studies. He just completed a semester abroad in Argentina, and is looking to apply for the Fulbright scholarship in the future. “The beauty of Spanish is there are so many different forms. It is so interesting to think about and listen to—the Argentinian tone is like beautiful singing, mixed with French and Italian, the Mexicans speak in song too, and in El Salvador, we don’t have tones like in Argentina, Spain or República Dominicana, anyone can listen to us and understand very easily,” he glows.
Lenni, currently a permanent resident, explains excitedly that in 2018 he will be able to apply for full citizenship. “One of the reasons why I want to become a citizen is so I can help my mom and dad get into the process as well, and I can help better their status. And also,” he blushes, “To say ‘I am a full citizen of the United States.’ Being a political science major I know the importance, and I want my voice to be heard—and also the Fulbright.”