CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — For the Vega-Zamora family, the saying could not be more true: It is not where you are. It is who you are with.
“We took the leap of faith, you know, and decided to come here,” says Mauricio Vega.
He and his wife, Bernardina, moved to the United States in 1999 with their two children, Aaron and Nashla.
“Costa Rica is a wonderful country. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I go there once or twice a year,” says Aaron. “The problem is back in the early 90s, [there] was a transition of society to the point where the economy was suffering for it.”
They said goodbye to Costa Rica and hello to Champaign in search of a better future.
“When we arrived here in Champaign, we just had $36 in our pockets,” recalls Mauricio. “I had to work two jobs, and my wife was working, too.
“In the beginning it was very hard,” adds Bernardina. “I missed my country.”
As the parents of two young children, she and Mauricio felt the risk was worth it.
“You always think about this country as the country of opportunity,” says Mauricio. “Since I was a kid, I always dreamed to live in this country.”
But to truly fulfill that dream, he says he wanted to be here legally. It was not easy to get there.
“It has honestly been a really unjust journey for them,” says Nashla. “I remember my mom would get fired from a job or my dad would have to switch jobs because of their documentation.”
Despite struggles, the family built a new life and made a new home in central Illinois.
“At least we are all together. We didn’t mind where we could be. Just together,” recalls Bernardina.
“We really didn’t see the hardship that much, or at least we ignored it because they made it seem like…everything [was] cool,” says Aaron.
He was 11 when they made the move. Nashla was 6.
“I remember sitting in class and not being able to speak English,” she says.
“When I came here, the shock was everything was different,” says Aaron. “In Costa Rica, soccer is the king sport. [My dad and I would] be on a computer on dial-up trying to listen to a game on the Costa Rican radio. You’d hear….wait for a minute, ‘goal!'”
But as kids, they adjusted pretty quickly in just a matter of months.
“Once I was able to speak even a lick of English, I hit the ground running,” says Nashla. “I went from quiet to getting on my report card, ‘does not stop talking… does great work, but doesn’t stop talking.'”
When they got to high school, however, citizenship status became more apparent.
“We both like to play sports, and not being able to further our sports or even get our college paid for…through sports because of our documentation was really hard,” recalls Nashla.
“I personally had 3 or 4 scholarships taken for me. There was nothing I could do,” says Aaron.
He eventually became a citizen in 2015 after marrying his wife. Nashla qualified for DACA.
Mauricio and Bernardina got their chance, too.
“When we became permanent residents in 2016, it was very exciting,” says Bernardina.
After residency, you have to wait 5 years to apply for citizenship.
“The process is, for one, so expensive and you have to provide so much information,” explains Nashla. “It’s really just a long, long waiting game.”
“I love this country. I do. But there’s certain laws and politics that are for the old ages,” adds Aaron. “What the government measures is your morals. So, think about how difficult it is for you to measure someone’s morals. What do you have to know about them to know that they’re going to be good citizens?”
The waiting game finally came to an end for Mauricio and Bernardina. The couple who took the leap had their grounding moment.
They became citizens in the place they have called home for more than 2 decades.
“I’m almost at [my parents’] age now and I can’t imagine being a couple years older with two kids, with $36 in my pocket, and somehow making it work,” says Nashla.
Mauricio and Bernardina’s ceremony took place in St. Louis this past August.
“They are the strongest people I ever met. Everyday as a father, I just try to imitate them,” says Aaron.
WCIA is celebrating Hispanic Heritage all month, culminating in a 30-minute special. That is set for Thursday, October 13 at 6:30pm.