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Exploring the impact of Florida’s new immigration law on the undocumented community and their loved ones.

'Living in the shadow': A family of Mexican immigrants tells their Florida story

Arroyo family in Mexico
Family snapshot
Courtesy of the Arroyo family
Nine of the Arroyo family siblings — along with their parents Donaciano Arroyo and Maria Vaca — are shown in a family photo taken, perhaps in the 1980s, before family members moved from Mexico to the U.S. in the 1990s. A tenth sibling — an undocument woman being referred to here as "Ave" — is not shown. Familly members said they believe she was taking the picture.

Faith is a recurring theme for the Arroyos, ever since, back in Mexico, their parents would lead them in prayer together.

Immigrant families are everywhere in Florida.

A third of the state’s children live in those families, according to 2021 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Many of the families are a mix of immigration statuses. Some members are U.S. citizens, some are seeking asylum, some have a permit to live and work here, like a green card, and some are undocumented.

As part of WMFE’s special series – Central Florida Seen and Heard: Immigration Divide – members of a multi-generational immigrant family in Dover talked about their Florida story.

'A faithful family'

This interview is at the home of 50-year-old Santiago Arroyo. He's one of 10 siblings. Nine of them followed their parents from Mexico to Florida in the 1990s. He’s a U.S. citizen now and runs a house-painting company with business across Central Florida.

"We started like my father," he said. "I work in the fields, picked strawberries, picked cucumbers, oranges, and then we start, we start moving from the agriculture to the warehouses, and then to the construction. "

Then Santiago Arroyo started his own company.

On a Wednesday evening, his mom and dad, several of his sisters, plus some of their kids and grandkids have gathered. The kitchen table is loaded with the makings of chicken tinga tostadas.

The food is cleared away and two microphones are placed on the table.

The first question is for an older sister, a woman with curly gray-streaked black hair and luminous brown eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. She's chosen the nickname “Ave” because she’s still undocumented.

The question: "If you were to choose a word to describe your family, what would that be?"

"A faithful family," Ave said. "I think God is our center of our life. I know that God blessed us as a family to bring here in this country."

It’s a recurring theme for the Arroyos – being rooted in faith – ever since, back in Mexico, their parents would lead them in saying the rosary together.

Coming to Florida

Their father – Donaciano Arroyo, who’s 81 now – says he first came over by himself in 1988 to pick strawberries. He spoke in Spanish, and Nanci Palacios of the nonprofit Faith in Florida helped with translation.

"I came to Florida because I needed job opportunities," he said. "I didn't really have a lot of schooling back home, and all I had was my two arms."

Donaciano Arroyo was undocumented at first, and he and is wife traveled widely doing agricultural work. Later, he worked as a welder.

The family says he became a U.S. citizen in 2006, which has made a big difference for most of the siblings.

"The urgency behind being able to become a citizen was my children were having difficulty being able to adjust their status," Donaciano Arroyo said, "and so I had to apply for citizenship to make it easier to petition for my family."

Santiago Arroyo said that during his own first 15 years in the U.S. – when he was still undocumented -- he worried about driving without a license.

"That was my biggest fear," he said, "that if I get in trouble with the law, my legal situation never will be fixed. After my father becomes a citizen, everything sped up. In six months, we were already with a green card."

Donaciano Arroyo and Maria Vaca pose with a granddaughter — going here by a nickname, "Chary," — following a family interview in Dover.
Joe Byrnes
Donaciano Arroyo and Maria Vaca pose with a granddaughter — going here by a nickname, "Chary," — following a family interview in Dover.

A granddaughter's perspective

The family members range in age from 1 to 81. And when they get together it’s loud and fun and there’s a great variety of good food. That’s according to a niece, who asked to be called by the nickname “Chary” to protect an undocumented relative.

One holiday — Nochebuena — is an especially big deal, she said.

"Christmas Eve is a very important day and it’s just like you’re up at like 8 in the morning trying to prepare food and you’re up until midnight. You know, and just these traditions they’re trying to instill in us, that we’re still hopefully able to, like, show our kids in the future."

Chary says her aunts and uncles grew up together but were shaped by different experiences of life in America.

"So they all have different feelings, different interpretations of everything," Chary added. "It’s like they all have their own struggles."

Ave's story

For Ave, as a married mother of five, a permanent resident card – the green card -- remained out of her reach, even though her father had become a U.S. citizen.

"Before, or when my children were small," she said. "I was afraid. I didn't want to drive. So I was keeping most of the time in my house. Every time that we went to the church or buy groceries it was, like, hard because I'm always tell(ing) my children, ‘Be good, don't move. The police is everywhere.’"

Her children were also afraid, Ave said. "All these years, it's like living in the shadow. So we're not talk(ing) about this, not even with my family because it's something like just inside me or my own family."

She thanks God for the courage to take courses and find a job. Ave said she’s worked for the same company for 20 years -- starting in the fields, moving up to a warehouse and eventually working in an office.

Her sisters have asked her to visit Mexico with them and that’s something she longs to do.

I wanted to go with them one time to see my Mejico lindo y querido because it’s my country, Ave said. But visiting her "beautiful and beloved Mexico" would mean leaving behind, perhaps for good, the life -- and the grandchildren -- she has here in Florida.

The family likes to take vacations together. But Ave says the new Florida immigration law – which took effect July 1st – forced them to move their vacation up this year. Senate Bill 1718 makes it a felony to transport an undocumented person into -- or back into -- Florida.

"And," she added, "we were thinking, ‘Oh, maybe this is going to be the last vacation, family vacation, because of these laws.’"

Still, for Ave, their life here is a promise fulfilled.

"When we were in Mexico," she said, "we used to pray the rosary every day. So there is a promise. When families pray together, they will be together. That promise that our God says, it became true in our family because we are living all together, the nine siblings, we’re still living in Florida. "

Ave said that the new fears that have come to her community with SB 1718 have reminded her of that promise.

Abigail is one of the youngest members of the large Arroyo family that first came to Florida from Mexico in the 1980s and '90s.
Joe Byrnes
Abigail is one of the youngest members of the large Arroyo family that first came to Florida from Mexico in the 1980s and '90s.

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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