PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Juan Ceballos came to the United States so he could live freely as an openly gay man. But the move came with a high cost: he had to take on another secret identity as an undocumented immigrant.
Ceballos was 17 when he entered the United States by foot, a backpack on his shoulders, easily passing through the Tijuana border as an American student.
He quickly realized that, as an undocumented immigrant, it wouldn’t be easy to stay in the United States. And as a gay man, it wouldn’t be easy to go back to Mexico.
Ultimately, his fear of being deported outweighed his fear of being ostracized in Mexico.
“To be here was more difficult,” Ceballos said. “I was afraid.”
After only two months of living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, Ceballos decided to go back to Mexico.
But he didn’t last long there either.
His return to his hometown of San Luis Potosí, in central Mexico, thrust him back into the same bullying and verbal abuse that he had tried to escape.
Ceballos, who says he knew he was gay at a very young age, had a difficult relationship with his father, whom he describes as “macho.” The treatment he received from his father upon his return eventually led him back to the United States.
“My experience in Mexico was not good the last time I went to my hometown [because of] my father,” he said.
Three years later, Ceballos left Mexico for good. When his father passed away several years ago, he didn’t go to the services.
“I don’t want to say it this way, but I am glad he passed away. I wanted to be myself.”
Openly gay, secretly undocumented
Back in San Diego, he struggled to find work. He eventually found a job at a nursing home. When he wasn’t working, he read books to learn English and started venturing out to gay bars.
Then he fell in love, and he says it empowered him to live openly as a gay man — but he remained closeted as an undocumented immigrant.
“I always say to everyone ‘I’m gay.’ I’m not afraid [of that],” he said. “Here, I am free to say ‘I’m gay. It’s difficult to say ‘I’m illegal.’”
But his legal status took a toll on the relationship. Although his partner knew he was undocumented, Ceballos wouldn't travel for fear of deportation and was consumed with the stress of being found out.
While living in San Diego, Ceballos was startled when a neighbor proudly told him she had called immigration on an undocumented person working at a nearby hotel.
Eventually he and his partner broke up, and a heartbroken Ceballos decided to move to the gay-friendly city of Palm Springs — and further into the closet as an undocumented immigrant.
“When I came to Palm Springs 13 years ago, I just decided ‘This is none of your business,’" he said. “I have a different life here, and I never told anybody my status. Nothing, nothing.”
He began dating a new partner, Keith, six years ago, and eventually told him about his legal status. But he continued to keep his secret from everyone else.
“My friends think I am a citizen. I never discussed this with them,” he said.
He still avoids travel and takes precautions every day. He doesn’t speed, drink-and-drive or go to areas known to have immigration raids.
“I love this country and I don’t want [anything] to happen so they can take me out,” he said. “I don’t want anything, anything, to happen that I can be deported or I can be arrested for.”
DOMA ruling brings new hope
All of that changed on June 26, when the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and dismissed a challenge to a federal court ruling that California’s Proposition 8 was unconstitutional.
DOMA denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and Prop 8 prohibited gay marriages in California.
The ruling meant Ceballos would be able to marry his partner Keith, who could now petition for him to get a green card.
“I was crying. I was not able to work good because I kept looking at my phone and looking at Facebook, reading everything,” he recalled. By that time, his mother had moved to California and was able to share in his excitement. “My mom was with me that day, she came and gave me a hug, and we started crying together. It is amazing, amazing.”
That same morning, immediately after the Supreme Court decision was announced, Keith proposed to Ceballos. One week later, they were married at the Indio Courthouse.
Keith has since petitioned the US Citizen and Immigration Services for his husband to be granted legal residency.
Several years ago, Ceballos had an opportunity to marry a close female friend but he declined.
“For me, marriage is only with the person I love,” he said.
With Keith, it was a little different.
“We didn’t marry just for (legalization),” he said. “We married because we are in love.”
Now, as Ceballos awaits his green card, he feels his dreams are finally within reach.
“I just want to be free to drive, free to do what I want to, to make my goals, make my dreams come true,” he said. “Because I have a lot of dreams.”
Releasing the backpack
Ceballos says it's difficult to express his feelings about his two countries.
“I love my culture, I love to be Mexican, but I am proud and more in love with this country... because probably the things I have now never would happen in Mexico," he said. "I’m free to say ‘gay.’ I’m not free to do a lot of things, not yet. But if I was in Mexico I would not be free to be myself."
“My family is here, my nieces and nephews were born here, my three sisters and my mom are here. I hope I can stay here forever,” he added.
His immediate goal is to go back to school and get his real estate license, so he can go into business with his partner, a realtor.
But until he has his green card in hand, Ceballos says he's still lugging around that same backpack he crossed the border with 21 years ago.
“I feel like [the backpack] on my shoulders probably weighs a couple hundred pounds and probably that day" when I get my green card, he said, "it will be off. And I will [be able] to fly or run.”
One day, he hopes to become a U.S. citizen. “The day it happens will be the second-best day of my life,” he said.
The best day? “Meeting the guy I married.”
Additional reporting by Alejandra Alarcon. This article was produced as part of New America Media's LGBT immigration reporting fellowship sponsored by the Four Freedoms Fund.