A reality check
Two years after their arrival in Dalton, Rodriguez said he, his brothers and his mother broke ties with the relatives they’d been living with, feeling unsupported by them. Some of those relatives were here legally, and Rodriguez knows now that they made fun of the fact that he and his family weren’t, meanwhile offering no information on how they might obtain legal residency.
But it wasn’t until Rodriguez learned in seventh grade that he was an illegal alien that he began to deal firsthand with embarrassment about his status. But he was treated no differently by the friend who had invited him on the cruise, Jon Wilbanks, and in fact, Wilbanks’ family offered extensive support to Rodriguez over the years. Jon’s mother, Amy Quinn, allowed him to live with the family for some four years from ages 13-17, considering him as much one of her children as Jon or his two siblings.
Eventually, she formally started the process to adopt him in order to help him obtain citizenship. Aleman, though, turned that request down, still fearful of breaking up her own family.
“I didn’t want to lose him,” she said. “It’s my family and I’m a single mother.”
In many ways, Rodriguez was no different than many of his classmates growing up who were citizens or legal immigrants. He played sports, eventually settling on football and wrestling by his senior year at Southeast. He did OK in his literature classes, had trouble in math and became known for being friendly and talkative and open, even with strangers, although there was one topic he generally held back from discussing.
While he had no trouble telling Wilbanks about his illegal status, he said he avoided the topic with most friends and acquaintances. That was easy enough for a few years, but when others began getting their learner’s permits and driver’s licenses, he had to make excuses about why he wasn’t doing the same.
He started dating classmate Megan Hopkins when they both were sophomores. She was a manager for Southeast’s wrestling team, and she found Rodriguez fun to be around, with a personality that made others like him, too. Rodriguez quit the wrestling team halfway through his freshman and sophomore seasons, but with her encouragement he persisted as an upperclassman. She pushed him to do better in school, too, begging him to complete his homework and helping him do so.
“He’s had an influence on me, too,” Hopkins said. “He’s made me more considerate to people, just his personality with people. I guess we’ve kind of balanced each other out.”
The couple pride themselves on the fact that they’ve been open and honest with one another in their nearly three years together. But Rodriguez waited eight months before he confessed to her that he was here illegally.
“Honestly, it didn’t faze me at all,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why did it take you so long to tell me? What’s the big deal?’ I just didn’t think anything about it until all of this started happening.
“And then I realized it’s a big deal.”