For Emiliano Ruelas Sosa, the doors to the American dream began to close when he was 15. Due to his legal status he was not allowed to get his driver’s permit or first job like other kids his age. That took a heavy toll on him.
Born in Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico in 2002, Ruelas was brought to the United States by his parents when he was only 5 months old.
The family settled in Salem, Oregon, near relatives. Ruelas recalls that every Sunday he and his family would go to church and then get together at his grandmother’s house.
“That was one of the great memories,” he says. “Being able to eat together, play games together, especially being with all my cousins that were my age.”
While attending school, in fourth grade, Ruelas recalls other kids calling him “illegal.”
“The kids called me that, but I didn’t know what the term meant, either,” he notes. “Their parents were Mexican but the kids had been born in the U.S.”
In high school, Ruelas played sports, including soccer, football and wrestling, but had few close friends.
“I didn’t meet people who looked like me and become friends with them until I got to college,” he says.
At 13, Ruelas started working with his dad in landscaping — weekends during the school year and full time during the summer.
“At that time it didn’t seem like a job,” he says. “It was more like a father-son bonding experience, which I enjoyed.”
Ruelas’ mindset has always been to do everything for his family, and his parents have been supportive and encouraging for him at all times, too. However, college was never in Ruelas’ plans. He didn’t think it was even an option.
“I didn’t think I could pursue the American dream because all the doors were closed,” he says. “Then I realized that I could actually go to college through the financial aid that Oregon offers. All it took was my motivation and my hard work… I knew I could rely on that.”
Applying to colleges was stressful. Since he had no peers to whom he could turn for guidance, he had to go through the whole process on his own. He remembers how not knowing what the future held for him would keep him up at night.
“Everyone has that stress of not knowing what you’re going to do after high school,” he says. “But that started for me when I was 15. I knew most people had the freedom of working here or there. I didn’t have the privilege of being able to think that way.”
Plus, without a driver’s license, a city bus or family members were the only transportation for him and his family.
“If we didn’t have a ride, we wouldn’t go,” he says.
Then in July 2019, Oregon passed a law that proof of legal residence was no longer required to get a driver’s license; this went into effect in January 2021.
Ruelas and his dad got appointments to take their tests at Oregon’s Driver & Motor Vehicle Services in March 2021, but starting in February of that year, they would go to the DMV the first thing every morning to see if they could get an earlier appointment.
“I had even memorized the driver’s manual,” Ruelas says.
One morning on their usual visit to DMV, they got lucky and hit a shift change between two groups of workers, so they were allowed to take the test earlier than their appointment. Both passed.
“I didn’t know they were going to take my picture that day,” Ruelas says.
When he first saw his license he remembers thinking he should have worn different clothes.
Ruelas anticipates graduating from Salem’s Willamette University with a bachelor’s degree in economics and business in December 2023. He wants to further his education and earn a master of business administration at either WU’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management or elsewhere in Oregon in the coming years. For now, he plans to work as much as possible to save up for graduate school.
Despite the uncertainty that comes with living in the U.S. as an undocumented person, Ruelas is optimistic.
“I like the way I’m working on my life so far,” he says. “I focus on what I can do and don’t think too much about what I cannot do. The position I’m in was meant for me; I know I can deal with it. I’m happy with my life right now.”