The Two Worlds of Bill De La Rosa

By Mel Allen

Years from now, when Bill De La Rosa thinks about the morning of May 28, 2016, he’ll remember this: the sun blistering down on 460 of his fellow graduates, sitting in their black caps and gowns, the deep green of the lawn, and the trees whose leaves stirred whenever a breeze blew. He’s standing on the stage in front of the Bowdoin Art Museum, one of two students chosen to speak at commencement, an honored tradition at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. The quad is filled with some 2,000 people, but what he’ll remember is seeing the faces of his family, eight in all, who sit side by side just behind the graduates.

They’ve come for the first time from Mexico and Arizona to see this campus, one that Bill has described as being so lovely, as if it were an enchanted place from a storybook. They hold their phones high over their heads, pointed toward him standing on the stage. 

And he’ll remember two who are not here: his father, Arsenio, age 83, too weak to travel from Tucson, his body ravaged from a stroke and years of breathing poison while flying crop dusters; and 2,800 miles away, a woman with a warm, pretty face and dark hair. She’s 47 years old. She lives in a tiny apartment 400 feet from the American border in Nogales, Mexico. It’s early in Nogales, 7:30 a.m., three hours behind Maine time. She’s visiting a friend, one who speaks English. On her friend’s computer, Bowdoin’s commencement streams live.

There on the screen stands Bill, handsome, with soft brown eyes. Under his cap his hair is short and neat.  A speaker introduces him by extolling his accomplishments, among them earning a Gates Millennium Scholarship, a Truman Scholarship, acceptance to Oxford University, and a month earlier being named the national Hispanic Scholar of the Year. The audience takes this in. In terms of academia, they know they’re watching a shining star. Then Bill begins to speak, and soon audible ripples of surprise drift out from the audience … 

I was born in a small border town known as Nogales, Arizona, but raised in Nogales, Mexico. When I was 7 years old, my family risked moving permanently to Tucson, Arizona, in search of a better future. We left everything we owned in the small motel room where I spent my childhood. When we arrived in Tucson, we had no money, no place to go, no place to call home. We slept wherever we felt safe—in our car, in alleyways, within trailer parks …

My mother earned a living cleaning rooms at our local Motel 6. Sometimes I would tag along and help her clean, so she could come home a little bit earlier … In October 2009, my mother was deported from the United States to Mexico, and she was barred from returning to her home and family for 10 years …

The pretty dark-haired woman is Gloria Arrellano De La Rosa. She leans in close to the computer screen. Her friend translates Bill’s words into Spanish. Bill knows she’s watching. And he knows she’ll be saying softly to herself, “Mijo. Mijo.”  “My son. My son.”

When you meet Bill De La Rosa, your first thought will be how young he looks, how soft-spoken he is. For years his story stayed mostly private; few of his high-school classmates, few of his Bowdoin classmates, knew what was driving him. Both in Tucson, and then in Maine, it seemed that wherever there was a need to help, he volunteered. In his first year at Bowdoin, even while navigating a strange new physical and cultural landscape, he made his way to Portland twice a week to help Spanish-speaking newcomers adjust to Maine, and to volunteer at a legal-aid society. Later he worked with Maine’s Somali refugees, and then spent summers carrying water into the brutally forbidding desert that separates Mexico from Arizona, where so many migrants have died trying to cross. It was as though he’d looked at a broken world and determined that he could piece things back together one fragment at a time: Portland, Tucson, Nogales, Mexico. 

Then, last September, Arizona Public Media and the Arizona Daily Star told the story of Bill De La Rosa and his family, and what had happened when his mother was deported, leaving Bill and his family caught in the crossfire of history. They became the compelling faces of a nation divided on the complex dilemma of immigration. The student paper, the Bowdoin Orient, picked up the story, and Bill felt the eyes of his classmates pinned on him when he came to the cafeteria or walked to class.

“It felt eerie,” he said. “We don’t all come from the same place, the same privilege, or shared experience. Here was something that wasn’t just happening far away. But this had happened to someone on your campus.” A “strange feeling,” he said, to be known as the face of misfortune and endurance, but it was his story, and now he embraced it. His story is who he has become.

We met first on a late-February day in Brunswick in 2016. We talked while lunchtime throngs passed through the crowded aisles of Wild Oats Bakery & Café. “I remember it was a day full of sun,” he said, of Thursday, October 22, 2009, the day when his life changed.  He was 15, a sophomore at Pueblo Magnet High School, located in South Tucson, the poorest area in one of the poorest cities in the country.  He lived in public housing with his parents, two brothers—Jim, 17, and Bobby, just 4—and sister, Naomi, age 9. They lived tight, but his mother made their home sparkle, and nobody ever left her table hungry. He was a good student, report cards filled with As, a popular boy with an easy smile who ran cross-country. 

Every day that week, he’d run home from school, awaiting his mother’s call. “My mom was the pillar,” Bill said. “Mom was it. She did the cooking, shopping, cleaning, tucking Bobby in. I just went to school.” She’d taken Bobby with her across the border to Mexico, seeking papers she needed to live legally; all four children had been born in the United States, all four were American citizens. Her husband, Arsenio, nearly 40 years older, was also a naturalized American citizen. Her lawyer had advised her to cross the border back into Mexico and admit her past, and soon she would rejoin her family. And it was then, on the Thursday, a day he remembered for its sunshine, that Bill De La Rosa walked into the house and heard the phone ring. 

“I rush to answer it,” he said, “and it’s my mom. And she’s outside on a pay phone, and it’s pouring. And she’s just crying. And she keeps saying, ‘Mijo no me dieron. No. No. No. Me dieron diez. Me dieron diez.’ [“They gave me 10 years. They gave me 10 years.”] And I just stood there. I looked at a picture on top of the TV. It was a family portrait. It was the last picture we had together. I knew it would never be the same. And I cried. I cried a lot.”

Gloria De La Rosa’s story contains strands within strands of complexity, but while we sat in the café, Bill did his best to guide me to its core. Years earlier, his mother had crossed into Arizona legally with a visa. She gave birth there to two sons, Jim and Bill. When her visa expired, the family moved back to Nogales, Mexico, where they lived in a single room in a motel owned by a relative.

“My dad would walk Jim and me across the border to go to school in the U.S.,” Bill said. “I didn’t speak English. My mom was working at a grocery store, earning practically nothing. One day she took my brother and me to the movies. It was thePokémon movie, and it was the first movie we ever saw.  Another time she took us to get pizza. It was far away, and we walked. These things were special because they happened only once.” 

When Bill was 7, the family crossed again to the U.S., making their way to what they hoped would be a new life in Tucson. This time Gloria, whose visa had long expired, came illegally, and she became one more undocumented person blending into a cityscape, as ubiquitous and as invisible as cactus. 

As Bill told his story, his eyes seemed to squint as if trying to remember the years of what he calls “the darkness of poverty,” when his family “drifted place to place, slept on floors for months.” By 2005 they’d found public housing; Gloria worked cleaning rooms, and Bill sold her tortillas door to door. When Gloria left to obtain her legal papers, it was a chance to move another notch closer to her American dream. “She’d tell me she was worried,” Bill said. “I kept saying, ‘Don’t worry—you don’t have to worry. You’re married with four children. We’re all American citizens. Your husband is sick. There’s nothing to worry about.’”

But of course there was. Nobody had warned her about a 1996 law called the “unlawful presence bar.” What the law stated was clear: If you had entered the U.S. illegally and had stayed for more than a year, and then returned to Mexico, you were barred from even applying for re-entry for 10 years. No appeal, no recourse. And that’s when everything changed for Bill De La Rosa.

“When my mother would speak to me, she’d be at the wall,” he said. “That was the only place she got reception. The wall was steel rods, with space between, where you could see through to the other side. And she would look across and just cry. She’d say, ‘Bill, I don’t belong here. I’m back where I started. I’m going to cross the desert.’ I’d say, ‘No, you must not. You’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.’”

In a heartbeat, Bill became mother, father, cook, housekeeper, brother, nurse, tireless immigration-law researcher. As often as they could, the family visited Gloria; they brought Bobby back to live with his siblings. Bill’s brother, Jim, graduated from high school and joined the U.S. Marines. I asked Bill how he’d managed to become his high school’s valedictorian, earn scholarships, be recruited by the best colleges—all while caring for his family. Bill grew silent for a few moments. 

“I knew I had to stay hopeful, so we all had hope, so there’s hope also for my mom. If I don’t have hope, then she doesn’t either. I said perhaps the way I can give her hope is by showing her how I am in school. So I made myself just buckle down and go to school and get the job done. And when semester grades came out and rankings came out, I’d show her and say, ‘Look, Mom.’ 

“I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, so I just started wearing different masks. I became a different person in front of my friends, in front of teachers, in front of my dad and Naomi. In front of my mom. In middle school, every day before class, we all had to recite what teachers called ‘The Definite Dozen.’ There were 12 rules. And I always remembered number 12. It was the last rule, and every day we had to say it out loud. Only then we could take our seats. Number 12 was ‘Be relentless. And never give up.’ That was always in the back of my mind: ‘Be relentless. Never give up.’”

He drew deep breaths when he spoke, as if to make sure his emotions stayed steady. “But there were nights, and my siblings would be in bed, and Jim is off to the Marines, and I’m just with my dad, and he’s getting sicker, and they’d be asleep, and it’d be 2:00 in the morning, and I’d just be in my room studying, and it’s just really me. There would be nights …” He choked up for a moment. “There would be nights …” 

We walked down Maine Street toward the library, Bill’s second home. Even in late winter, with the trees bare, the campus gave the feeling of old and gracious comfort. Bells rang; students with backpacks hurried on their way. I’d asked about transitions: how one comes from South Tucson to Maine Street. Bill told about coming during a “recruiting” visit in November 2011, when “Explore Bowdoin” hosted the best and brightest of ethnically diverse, often poor, students, who a generation ago wouldn’t have been likely to come to an elite New England private college. “That trip opened my eyes,” Bill said. “I saw how big the world was. How small my bubble was in Tucson. As we were driving into Brunswick, and we’re driving through Pleasant Street, we made a right to the college. I was like, ‘So this is what prestigious looks like.’ I kept thinking, ‘This is New England. The lights. The architecture of the church. It’s incredible.’”

Bowdoin got inside him and held on. He applied for early admission. He was accepted. He was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Bowdoin said, Don’t worry about money. Soon he found that getting into Bowdoin was the easy part. The hard part lay ahead.

In a quiet private room Bill had reserved for us on the third floor of the library, he spoke carefully, as though he were picking his words one by one from a beach. He knew, no matter how he parsed it, that coming to Bowdoin would mean leaving his siblings and his father and mother behind. “I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing,” he said. “There were so many what-ifs. So much uncertainty. I could have simply gone to the University of Arizona. Lived at home, looked after things. But I said, ‘How can I best carry on and finish what my parents wanted for us?’” 

He met with family friends, his church, his sister’s and brother’s schools. They all said they’d call if Bill was needed. But the doubts crept in and never left. He worried about having to drop out if his father needed to go to a nursing home, or if he died. Then Naomi and Bobby would be without a legal guardian in the home, and the state would step in.

And deep inside, he wondered whether he was ready for a New England private college. “Yes, I was valedictorian,” he said, “but I was from South Tucson. I knew that. I was very self-conscious when I came to Bowdoin. It was intimidating.” He took a philosophy class the first semester of freshman year. “The moment I heard everyone speak,” he said, “ I heard how articulate, how expressive, they were. I crumbled. I was scared. I didn’t speak at all the whole semester. Not once. The professor called on me the last day. And he wished me luck.

“Sophomore year was my hardest. At the start of the semester, Jim was deployed. It became mentally exhausting. I’d be in the dining hall with all this food and thinking of everyone at home. It was like I was living in two places at once. I withdrew from a class. I went to counseling.”

And yet there he was, two years later, on Saturday, October 17, 2015, the only student asked to speak at the inauguration of Bowdoin president Clayton Rose. Later, Bill would tell Teresa Toro, his high-school guidance counselor, who’d helped steer him to college, “I couldn’t believe it. I marched with everyone in full garb across the campus. Bagpipes played. I kept thinking, ‘Here’s this little boy crossing the border to a school and he doesn’t speak English, who lived in Motel San Luis, and here I am speaking at something that only happened 16 times in the history of Bowdoin.’ How does that happen? It must happen for a reason.”

A friend of Bill’s told me that she felt he carried an “invisible bucket. It’s heavy, and he carries it everywhere with him. No one can see it, but he’s carrying it.” Before I left, I asked whether he remembered the last time he simply let go and had fun and let himself be a 22-year-old going to school. Carefree. He smiled briefly, and shook his head: No. He couldn’t remember.

The next day, a Saturday, we met again at the library, and Bill talked about the fire inside him, the migrants who, no matter the obstacles, will risk everything to find what they hope will be a better future, if only they can survive the desert, elude patrols and the vigilante “minutemen” who wait in trucks where the desert empties onto roads. In his library cubicle, which many days he would enter in the morning and not leave until dark, he kept stacks of books devoted to his thesis: why people persist in trying to cross the Sonoran Desert, where more than 2,500 human remains have been found and unknown others simply disappear into the sun-baked sand. Despite the brutal environment, despite the odds, they still try. His thesis probed why. He’d entered Bowdoin to study government and find his way to law school. But in October of his first year, he heard a guest speaker, an anthropologist named Jason De León, talk about his work in the Sonoran Desert, investigating how migrants died there, and how it wasn’t an accident but the certain outcome of a border policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence.”

“The policy is ‘We’ll let the desert deter people. People will suffer, people will die, and the word will spread,’” Bill explained. As he talked, his voice was measured, he spoke slowly, and for the first time I felt anger just beneath the soft voice. “When I heard De León, I knew I wanted to get involved,” he said. “It seems counterintuitive. I come to Maine, and that’s how I find my path.”

The talk led Bill to change his goals. He wrote to De León, and for two summers he worked at a migrant shelter hard against the desert. His two worlds became three: college studies, worrying about his faraway family, and now, the men, women, and children poised to cross despite the odds.

“[At the shelter], I became close with a woman from the state of Puebla,” Bill said. “She told me about her daughters, and it was why she was migrating. She was going to the U.S. to find a job, and she’d send them to college.

“One day she said, ‘When you come tomorrow to the shelter, I won’t be here.’ The next day when I came she was gone. She had told me, ‘Don’t worry. When I get to the other side, I’m going to find you on Facebook. I’m going to add you as a friend.’”

He looked down and shook his head. “It’s been over a year. I never heard from her again.”

He became acutely aware that his life in Maine, surrounded by beauty and comfort, was unimaginable to the migrants he studied or to his family. While his fellow students talked about tests and papers, movies, parties, adventures, sports, he kept thinking that “right now someone is trying to make their way across, and they’re possibly dying.” 

When we said goodbye early that afternoon, we made plans to see each other again after alternative spring break, during which he would lead 10 Bowdoin classmates to visit his mother in Nogales, to stand by the wall that he felt defined who he was, to visit the shelter, to meet migrants, and to enter the desert where they might, he told them, encounter human remains. It would be a journey from his world in Maine to his world by the border, and it would be one that nobody would forget.

When Bill led the students into the desert in mid-March, they found the ID of a young man named Danny tangled in a bush. He was only 22. “We saw his face,” a student named Jessica told me. “He’s our age. He’s making this dangerous journey. What happened to him? It was emotional. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his name.”

Bill brought his fellow students to a court hearing in Tucson, where some 50 newly captured migrants awaited deportation. They remembered the sound of shackles as one woman tried to wipe away her tears. They met with a staff member from the medical examiner’s office, where human remains discovered in the desert waited, in hopes of being identified. A forensic anthropologist showed them a photo of a boy, about 11 years old. In the photo, he’s playing drums and smiling. He was from Guatemala, and his body had been found in the desert beside his aunt, as they tried to reunite with his parents. It was all hard to take in and led to difficult moments.

And then Bill brought them to Nogales to meet his mother. She greeted them with“Mis tesoros, mis tesoros [my treasures],” and fed them heaping plates of her homemade specialties.  “Nobody leaves until it is all gone,” she told them.

“She was this incredible, beautiful woman who didn’t speak a word of English. I had tears,” one student recalled. “It was emotional. We hugged and hugged.”

When the group returned to Maine, Bill had an acceptance letter from Oxford University, a thesis to finish, two upcoming trips to Los Angeles as a finalist for (and about to be named winner of) Hispanic Scholar of the Year, a speech to deliver to an outdoor leadership school in Wyoming, a speech to write for commencement, and a decision on where he’d go next.

He had a scare when his father collapsed, but it turned out to be an infection, and gradually his father recovered. Bill was weighing several opportunities for the coming summer, one being a White House internship. “I know,” he told me, “that if I could get just two minutes with the president and tell him my story, then maybe he could pardon my mother and she could come home.”

He decided to work at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. “They do a lot on immigration, inequality, and poverty,” Bill said. “Immigration is also a poverty issue. A language issue. I’ll learn to see this in a different light.” He would ask Oxford to defer his admission to its master’s in migration studies for a year. His father was too frail for him to be adding

Which brings us back again to the young man finishing his speech on a sweltering Maine day in late May. “Growing up, my mother would always tell me, ‘Hay que sembrar buenos frutos para cosechar buenas cosas.’ ‘We have to plant good seeds to harvest great things.’ I would add that now that we are reaping the fruits of our labor, it is our responsibility to help
others plant their seeds …”

First his classmates and then the audience, which stretched to the outer shady trees, stood and applauded his words and the young man who’d spoken them. They didn’t stop for several minutes. When the ceremony ended, his family made their way to the field house, where food and refreshments awaited. In time, Bill found his way to his family. “I had to do a detour,” said his professor and mentor, Marcos López, “so many people wanted to hug him and take pictures.” A tall man in a suit stopped at Bill’s table. He’d listened to Bill’s speech and now he looked at his family. “Bill will change the world,” he said. “Bill will change the world.”

Bill was hungry, and there were still so many more people to hug, smiling photos to take. The heat steamed through everyone. When the crowds thinned, Bill and his little brother and sister took off their shoes and ran laughing through sprinklers on the grass. The next day, Bill would board a plane in Portland, Maine, and fly to Washington, D.C. One professor told me that Bill’s legacy will be that all the students of similar backgrounds who come after will know how Bill De La Rosa came too shy to speak in class and left an orator. If you look at Bill’s Facebook page, you’ll see the expectations that people hold for him. They say, See you when you’re a senator … a governor … See you when you’re POTUS.

A commencement is always filled with high hopes for the future. And who’s to say what Bill may do in the years ahead? But who’d bet against Bill De La Rosa finding some way to tell his story to a president? Who’d bet against Bill De La Rosa becoming a man whose vision and words might yet stir a nation into finding its way through difficult choices to make immigration reform unite rather than divide? Who’d bet against Bill De La Rosa being one who could change the world? I wouldn’t. Would anyone?   

Parts of this story by Mel Allen appeared in “The Unfinished Journey of Bill De La Rosa” in the summer 2016 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. 

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