I recently came across a photo of me as a kid. I immediately fell back into the moment it was taken and recalled every single detail. I was a student at William B. Cruise #11 School in Passaic, New Jersey, in my ESL Class (English as a Second Language). I had recently arrived into the United States from Peru, and all the new experiences and people were very foreign and scary to me. Mrs. Zeger’s class was the only class I felt comfortable and unafraid. In my little mind, it was the only place I could attempt to speak English without anyone judging me. Although Mrs. Zeger wasn’t my actual teacher, she would come to our class daily to pull out a small group of recent-arrivals, including me, into a miniature room next door. The room seemed to have been a storage closet in the past, but they changed it to appear more classroom-like; outfitting it with a long table, a small bookcase, and a table with three computers covered in plastic that I never saw anyone use. The maintenance sink had never been removed, and it was off to the corner next to the windows. It was our little spot.
I cannot recall why Mrs. Zeger brought a disposable Kodak camera to school that day. I was wearing my favorite long sleeve t-shirt, which had purple, light blue, and navy horizontal stripes. My hair was short, and my permanent teeth were finally growing. My smile was radiant and genuine; it went from ear to ear, as if someone had just said a joke or mentioned something that truly made me happy. Mrs. Zeger took a photo of all of us in the group, and a few days later, she came back to school with our printed photos. I did not think much of the photo in that moment, so as any other 7year-old would, I simply brought it home to my parents. They stowed it away in a small memory box in the closet of their bedroom. I never the saw the photo again until just recently as a 32year-old man, exactly 25 years after the photo was taken. The idea of keeping a time capsule never crossed my mind, but when I uncovered this gem, I realized my parents had indeed kept a capsule. Their idea was somewhat unintentional but absolutely impactful, bringing me to tears and transporting me to the early spring of 1993.
The photo reminded me of my first few days in the United States, accompanied with the memories of hardships and adjustments I had to experience. These were memorable years of not fitting in for being extremely shy, and for being the only Peruvian kid in the class amidst a sea of kids from other nations. I recall how difficult it was to coexist with the larger student population, who were mostly English-speaking students. I was oftentimes overwhelmed, especially during encounters when I had no idea what they were saying to me. I would see them giggle, so I would giggle back. It was my unconscious coping mechanism. I remember that first year being the most difficult year of my life. I felt so alone and unable to speak about it. I have had years that were tough as an adult, but nothing might ever compare to my first year in the states, post-Peru. I did not have the words to express how I felt to my parents or teachers, and I did not feel like my young classmates would have known how to help me. Thus, the struggle seemingly increased with each passing day. I did not want to alarm my parents because I could see that they were dealing with their own problems. Even at the young age of seven, I believed I'd feel guilty if I had added to their worries. I knew we were living in a country in which we were the minority, but I never understood the struggle that my undocumented mom and dad endured to make ends meet with their factory wages and two young children. There is no question that seeing my parents handle this adversity with much grace and optimism propelled me forward and guided me through many difficult experiences. I was able to follow their example.
I wish I could write a letter to the boy in the photo. I would want to speak to him in person, but I know that he would be very afraid to speak to me. Talking to his future-self would probably be extremely daunting. Yet, the 7-year old Emanuel would definitely read the letter, even if he could not understand much of the advice he was receiving in that moment. I wish I was able to transfer into him the confidence I possess today, especially during moments when I know he struggled to even make it out of bed. I wish I was able to show him video footage of important milestones that would shape his life down the road: graduations, first job, winning Mr. United States... These and many other accomplishments may have put him at ease to know that better days were on the way. I know he would be proud of his future-self, and all his amazing accomplishments throughout the years. Today, looking at the boy in the photo motivates to continue my work for the immigrant community and to continue aiding undocumented youth growing up in similar situations as my own. My year as Mr. United States 2017 is dedicated to that little boy and to all the little boys and girls who were brought into the United States at a young age by no decision of their own. I dedicate my year of service to every little kid who consistently pushes through their hardships, even when they’re unable to find their voice. My reign is genuinely dedicated to every person hoping for better days. It gets better… Better days are always ahead.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one speaks countlessly. To me, this photo is worth more than a thousand words, because it continues to inform my life’s story. I left the photo with my parents, who keep it alongside their other little gems in their time capsule. I’m not sure what the photo means to them, but I know it is in safe care; it’s protected by the very people who nurtured me into the man I am today. That timeless photo reassures me of so many things. Not only can I go back home to revisit my gem in our little town in New Jersey, but I can also revive the spirit of the little boy who became more than just a dreamer.
-Emanuel Anzules, Mr. United States 2017