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I was born in Mexico City, Mexico, and for the first few years of my life I lived in a slum called La Era, or The Era, as if the neighborhood was trying to convince you that concrete, barbed wire, and spiked glass gray rooftops were in fact, after all, modern and inviting. I don’t remember much, but since my father was fired from a factory there, it didn’t seem to make much sense at all — not much sense in looking for jobs that weren’t there, or money that didn’t exist.
Welcome to America, 1992. Originally planning a temporary stay, my parents and I became rooted here after my eldest brother died of cancer. His funeral was given in a little Catholic church called St. Peter’s. We were befriended by some kind nuns that offered us jobs and sought a home for us. We lived in what we comically called the “cucaracha” house; I never knew if that came from a want to laugh at ourselves so that we could keep being optimistic or a part of the cynicism that has fragmented my family today.
I slowly began to realize that because I was not a citizen, in other words, because I was not lucky enough to be born into the American society, my future hung in the balance — a grim gradient of uncertainty. I grew up, a little weathered, a little scornful, even jaded — a funny frustration at the immigration system. No, it wasn’t that bad. The people from the pueblos — they had it bad.
You see the pictures of people crossing the desert, scuttling arid bones, cadavers in body bags — suffocating — they couldn’t reach that prosperity their First World neighbor concocted: the “American” dream. Such an elusive dream, it seems, a nightmare that ends with animosity and walls. But these people are criminals, of course. I guess everyone is then, by those standards.
No pity — just necessity. Courage does not come from some mystic paragon; it forms in your hands. You don’t know it’s there, but once you grab it, you don’t let go, then it forms in your mouth, it moves your tongue, it speaks, it looks, it fears itself. By the strength of your conviction or by your sensibility to morality does it manifest. It starts when you deem it to start; when circumstance suggests initiative and in right disposition you recognize this.
I chose politics, a messy yet public medium to address what I felt to be a moral decay, an estrangement that led to Man vs. Man, a ridiculous notion in itself, even more so when Man #2 is privileged and fails to realize his privilege — but enough of poetic stance or analytical commentary.
Courage is audacious, and it takes a certain kind of attitude, almost inspiration, to provoke it to appear. It takes a sense of involvement, responsibility and concern. This is why courage is rare; it takes a special combination to have the desired effect. Courage makes possible other virtues, cradling them into existence. Like a pendulum on a clock, it keeps the time and it keeps it going. Kennedy is right.
When I came to the United States, I did not speak English, so I learned — like I said, not pity, but necessity: “A man does what he must.” Fear’s only fear, courage is contagious. Once, I read a speech declaring my support for immigrants to a crowd of about 3,000. I never needed courage for oratory, but when I remembered seeing the snipers, I had mustered all I the courage I could have — fear of death, even, was countered by belief in conviction, the “in spite” of Kennedy’s words.
I try to change things in however minuscule my methodology, but what’s important is that the actual attempt to change is made. Polemics, politics, and civil disobedience — these are all valid and viable. Courage, on the other hand, is universal.
Omar Berumen is a senior at Central High School. This essay won first prize and $1,000 in Rotary Club 99’s annual essay contest.