Though it was 30 years ago, Margarita Quiñones-Peña still remembers hugging her grandfather goodbye when her pregnant mother took her and her older sister by the hand to make their way to Chicago from Mexico to meet their father.

She was 3 years old. Though the memories are blurred, the feeling of leaving the place she knew as home has never faded, she said.

She is now 33 and still has not been able to return. Tita, as she was called by her beloved grandfather, is undocumented. She was brought to this country unauthorized as a child. For a long time, she was ashamed of her status and felt powerless, until she eventually realized that thanks to her family’s resilience, they had created a home of their own in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, despite all their struggles and sacrifices.

“There is nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, be proud of the sacrifices our parents have made and our resilience to succeed despite being undocumented,” said Quiñones-Peña, now a software engineer, a graduate of the University of Illinois Chicago and a yoga instructor. Thankfully, she said, in 2012 she became a Dreamer, or a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals a program created under then-President Barack Obama, which provided her with a work permit and protection from deportation.

Her journey, she said, was in fact a “homecoming.” And it is one that she shares with hundreds of other children of immigrants, whether they were brought here decades ago or are children of the migrants who are now arriving in Chicago by the thousands.

“Homecoming” is the name of the children’s book Quiñones wrote based on her story to honor her journey and to empower herself, her family and other undocumented children, she said. “I want them to know what is possible,” she said.

All of the book’s proceeds will be donated to help immigrants currently seeking asylum in Chicago, Quiñones-Peña said.

Margarita Quiñones-Peña, who was brought by her parents to Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood when she was 3 and is a DACA recipient, hugs a young migrant after reading her children’s book aloud on July 9, 2023, at a Pilsen shelter.
A young migrant reads along with children’s book

On a recent Sunday, Quiñones-Peña celebrated her book launch by reading it to a group of migrant children who live at a community-run shelter in the Pilsen neighborhood, with her parents by her side.

In Chicago, more than 11,000 asylum-seekers have arrived over the last year. Many families with children continue to live in temporary shelters.

The book, which includes an illustration of Quiñones-Peña and her family looking at the historic Little Village Arch, is in Spanish and English. She shares her memories of crossing the border on a Halloween night dressed up as a princess with her mother and older sister, who was 4. She recalls those who helped them along the way and describes eventually reuniting with her father in Chicago.

At the end of the book, Quiñones-Peña shares the origin of the story with pictures of her family. It is followed by a portion where children who read it can write their own immigration journey.

The project, she said, was born out of love for her family and the desire to come to terms with her own story. Sharing her truth and finding power in it was liberating, Quiñones-Peña said.

“There are hundreds of people who have experienced this, but we feel the need to hide it. Or we just never talk about it out of shame or fear that we will be judged or even punished for it,” she said.

Margarita Quiñones-Peña plays with a young migrant after reading her children’s book aloud at a Pilsen shelter.

There are about 600,000 DACA recipients in the U.S., but nearly 3 million undocumented youths are eligible for relief, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Even if they are eligible, most cannot apply to the program because it was halted during former President Donald Trump’s administration and is working its way through the courts.

“As a child, I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but it was this journey that dictated who I would become,” Quiñones-Peña wrote in the book. “Although we are currently protected from deportation, we live with limited rights and despite our contributions and knowing no other home, we do not yet have a path to citizenship.”

For most of her life, she was secretive about her status, afraid of stigma and judgment, not even sharing it with her partner.

With the book, she wants recently arrived children to know that there is nothing wrong with being undocumented. “They, too, can call this city a home,” she said.

For most of her life, Quiñones-Peña did not know the full story of how her mother was able to cross the southern border, pregnant and with two toddlers. About two years ago, Quiñones-Peña finally decided to ask her mom, she said.

With tears in her eyes, her mother, Antonia Quiñones, opened up while the two sat in the kitchen. It wasn’t easy, recalled her mother, now 63. It was a memory that she had buried away, trying to forget the painful experience.

But it was incredible, Quiñones-Peña said, “Instead of being embarrassed or ashamed, I realized it was such a beautiful story because of the intentionality and community that came together to help us get here from the beginning.”

“That needs to be celebrated,” Quiñones-Peña said.

In 1993, Antonia Quiñones decided to leave their native town of Santiago Papasquiaro in Durango, Mexico, to meet with her husband, Eduardo Quiñones, in Chicago. For years, Eduardo had traveled back and forth, but it wasn’t enough to keep the family together, Antonia recalled.

“I wanted my family to be together,” she said. “But I also knew that their father returning to live in Mexico was not realistic.”

So even though she was pregnant, she made her way to the border.

“It was a sacrifice, but it was worth it,” she said. “I know many people don’t understand it, but as parents, we make those decisions for our children; it was all for them.”

The family settled in Little Village, or La Villita, and Antonia worked in maintenance and care, and Eduardo, now 66, as a factory worker, among other jobs. Despite their undocumented status, they were able to put their three daughters through college.

When Quiñones-Peña gifted the book to her mother on Mother’s Day, she said Antonia had no words. She did not want her daughter to publish the book, worried that Margarita would be criticized.

But Quiñones-Peña was inspired when the first few buses of asylum-seekers began to arrive in the city. So she taught extra yoga classes and saved as much money as possible to get the project started.

“I’m so proud of my daughter because she is so strong,” said her father.

Quiñones-Peña is the only one in her family who is still undocumented. Though she has DACA, she does not have a path to citizenship, one that would allow her to visit Mexico. Her parents became citizens after a family member sponsored them, but due to complicated immigration policies, Quiñones-Peña could not be included in the process. Her older sister, María Cecilia Quiñones-Peña, 34, is now a citizen by marriage and her younger sister, Veronica Quiñones, 29, is a citizen because she was born in Chicago.

“But I don’t lose hope,” Quiñones-Peña said. It was a promise she made to her now-deceased grandfather. She has faith that one day she will return to the place where she was born, to the plaza where her grandfather used to sell seeds to make a living while she played with her older sister.

Regardless of her residency status, Quiñones-Peña said, the Southwest Side of Chicago will forever be home.

larodriguez@chicagotribune.com