(MCT) — It was one of those Chicago days that bites the toes.
Carolina Rivera stood shivering at a bus stop with her kids, escorting them to school. The bus didn’t come. Still didn’t come. The snow blew and the kids’ feet froze, and in that moment she realized what she had to do:
Learn to drive.
“I was not thinking about the license,” Rivera said Thursday, a decade after that icy day. “I was just thinking of taking care of my children. I didn’t want my children to be suffering in the cold.”
Back then, Rivera couldn’t have gotten a driver’s license even if she had tried. Now she’s among the 250,000 or so undocumented immigrants in Illinois poised for the chance to get one. All the legislation needs is the governor’s signature.
We sat down in the cramped offices of the Southwest Organizing Project, in an old brick two-flat on West 63rd Street, to talk about what the chance meant to her.
A driver’s license was the least of Rivera’s worries when she arrived in Chicago.
“April 29, 1992,” she said. “I will never forget.”
Born in a small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, not far from Puerto Vallarta, she was 11 when her parents sent her to live with relatives in a slightly bigger town because it had a school that went past sixth grade.
At 18, she and her husband decided to come to the United States, just for a while. Five months pregnant, Rivera walked all night to the California border, then squeezed into a van with 20 strangers. After two days in a San Diego apartment, she landed on the hallowed ground called Midway Airport.
She had seen the photos of Chicago, heard the stories. The skyscrapers, the wide streets, the grandeur and opportunity.
She and her husband moved into a Little Village basement with one of her husband’s uncles. She tugged at the sofa bed.
“It was not what I pictured,” she said.
Even so, it was better than Mexico.
She gave birth to a daughter and eventually to another daughter and a son. She navigated through her new life on the bus, hitched rides with unlicensed relatives. She lugged a rolling cart to the laundromat and the grocery.
It was OK, until that freezing day at the bus stop.
Her husband’s aunts and uncles taught her to drive in a battered little red car, noisy and so low-slung that it sometimes scraped the alleys where she slowly maneuvered up and down until she was brave enough to drive around the block. Her husband bought her an 11-year-old white Maxima. For a while, she drove only one-way streets to avoid traffic.
The more she drove, the more she worried, but she shrugged off the fear, assuring herself that the lack of a license made her a better driver.
No speeding. No running red lights. No rolling through stop signs. Nothing to alarm police. Whenever a police car pulled up behind her, she would turn on to a different street, very carefully, to lose it.
In 2008, she said, her husband was detained after a minor car-related incident that revealed a previous DUI. He was deported. Driving became more stressful.
“I am the only support of my children here,” she said. She pieces jobs together to get by. “They are always worried about me because they know I don’t have a driver’s license.”
Once someone broke into her car and stole the radio. Another time, a car hit hers.
“I didn’t call the police,” she said. “What if they ask for my driver’s license?”
And — a small concern, she knows — but without a state ID, she couldn’t get a Blockbuster card.
Driving is a freedom that for most of us borders on necessity. Rivera looks forward to that freedom stripped of fear.
She drives a 1998 Concorde these days, bought off the street for $1,200. She ferries her fifth-grade son to and from school. She drives her 15-year-old daughter, who attends a magnet high school, to and from the “L” line. She drives to her jobs.
When immigrants like her don’t have to fear police on the roads, she said, they’re likelier to trust them in other ways.
“Now if something happens to my car, now if something happens in my neighborhood, I will have more trust in the police,” she said. “I can picture myself driving with the police behind me and not having to turn.”
I guaranteed her that even with a license, you squirm.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted at email@example.com.