They gave her the most American name they could think of, their only child, born in Maryland on the most American day of the year, Fourth of July.
Heather, her undocumented parents called their 6-pound, 11-ounce baby. But the nurses at the hospital couldn’t understand their Mexican accents.
“They wrote down ‘Heater,’ ” her father, José Piña, 38, recalled with a laugh.
Now, on her 9th birthday, Heather Piña sat at the dining-room table, eating her mother’s tacos and drinking tamarind juice, as people gathered outside to grill hot dogs and hamburgers for Independence Day.
A year earlier, the family had spent the holiday at a party, splashing on an inflatable waterslide before watching fireworks with friends.
This July 4, they weren’t celebrating. The only reminders of the birthday Heather and the nation shared were the sound of a far-off boombox and the occasional bottle rocket, whistling in the distance before popping like a balloon.
The country had elected a president who had called children like Heather “anchor babies,” and people like her parents “rapists” and drug smugglers. Donald Trump’s vow to build a border wall and step up deportations was cheered by millions of his supporters, who favor tougher action against those who enter the United States illegally. But it set off a wave of fear among the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Heather’s parents weren’t immune to it — no one in their community was. But they have been active in the immigrant rights movement for several years, taking Heather out of school to attend demonstrations.
Twice during the Obama years, she’d watched as her mother, Madai Ledezma, 35, and father were deliberately arrested at protests outside the White House.
This is what it meant to be American, they taught her. Speaking out. Seeking change. Demanding rights.
After President Trump’s election, they kept protesting, even as his immigration crackdown crept closer to their own lives. Even as they, too, became afraid.
Madai leaned forward, her hoodie cinched tightly around her face, white-knuckled hands gripping the steering wheel.
She had driven by herself only twice since getting her driver’s license, but José was working late again at a construction site, and she didn’t want to miss her English class. So Madai buckled Heather into a booster seat in the back of their weathered Dodge Stratus, next to a protest sign.
On Trump’s first full day in office, she, José and Heather attended the Women’s March, joining thousands of other demonstrators outside the downtown Washington hotel bearing the president’s name.
Now, less than a month later, Madai glanced nervously from side to side as she drove, foot pumping the brakes. She didn’t want to risk getting pulled over — not even in one of the country’s bluest states.
Already, Trump had ordered the hiring of 10,000 more immigration officers and 5,000 more Border Patrol agents. He had promised to strip money from sanctuary cities and demanded Congress approve $2.6 billion for a border wall. Scariest of all for the Piñas, Trump ended an Obama-era policy of leniency for undocumented immigrants without criminal records. Now, anyone was fair game.
“Arizona Mother Deported to Mexico After 21 Years in U.S.,” read a headline the week before.
“Mexican woman fearing deportation takes refuge at Denver church,” read another that morning.
Every time an article about a deportation went viral, Madai wondered if her family was next. There were rumors of raids on construction sites like José’s, and stories of people being detained while dropping their kids off at school. When strangers knocked on the door, Heather hid.
Even Madai, who called herself a chingona, or badass, on Facebook, was afraid.
“I don’t like to go out in the morning anymore because it’s too risky,” she said, her speedometer glued to the speed limit.
A traffic stop could lead to deportation. Attendance at her English classes had dwindled. During the presidential campaign, Madai knocked on doors in Virginia for Hillary Clinton, though she couldn’t vote. Now she was too spooked to help a friend conduct a poll in a Latino-heavy neighborhood.
She and José were considering signing a power-of-attorney form that would allow friends or relatives to take care of their daughter if they were deported. Madai weighed whether to get Heather, a cherubic girl with almond-shaped eyes and a wild imagination, Mexican citizenship.
“Para si algo pasa,” she said. In case something happens.
She dropped Heather off at a friend’s house, then winced as she climbed back into the car: Stress made her stomach hurt, and life sin papeles was nothing if not stressful.
Moments later, as she turned onto a wider street, car horns suddenly began blaring.
“Why are they honking?” she shouted, looking in the rearview mirror. “Are they honking at me?”
The real culprit was a black party bus with a rear door swinging open. Madai carefully passed it before pulling into the high school, where she parked at a distance from other cars. When she saw that her vehicle was on the line, she parked it again — just to be safe.
Heather stood on a muddy stableyard at Mount Vernon on a bright March afternoon, excitedly gripping a toy rifle. All around her, Hispanic and African American third-graders clamored to get into formation.
“Company,” shouted a man in colonial clothing and a tricorner hat. “At the double-quick, forward march!”
As the man struck a martial tattoo on his drum, another man in period costume began playing a fife and leading Heather’s class in circles outside George Washington’s iconic white-columned home.
“Ordenados,” yelled Madai, a bright-green “chaperone” sticker on her maroon hoodie. Stay organized.
Here, framed by America’s past, was a vision of its future.
Heather had been looking forward to the field trip. The night before, she asked her mother if the 18th century mansion was haunted. Now she stood in line to tour the famous estate.
“Washington’s bed!” she squealed, translating a sign for Madai.
Then a classmate approached. The boy was also Hispanic, but he made fun of the Mexican sandwiches Heather often brought for lunch.
Heather slunk up to her mom, her head down.
“Mama,” she said. “Tortas are from Mexico, aren’t they?”
Not for the first time, the girl with the all-American name and birthday wondered where she belonged.
Her family’s path to the United States stretched back 20 years and more than 2,000 miles to the city of Tultepec, an hour drive north of Mexico City. José and Madai had met as teenagers and fallen in love under a fig tree.
José suggested they marry. She could stay in Tultepec while he made money in the United States. It was the mid-1990s, and the American economy was booming. So, too, was illegal immigration from Mexico.
But Madai refused, and they split up. José went north and found a job maintaining golf courses in Texas. They hadn’t spoken in almost nine years when José called and asked her to join him. Madai said yes.
“I remembered him being taller,” she recalled of their reunion. “And he said, ‘Since when did you get so tan?’ ”
They moved to Maryland in 2005, and Heather was born three years later.
Her American birth certificate came with benefits. She was the only member of her family with health-care coverage, through Medicaid. She was entitled to a U.S. passport. She would never have to worry about being deported.
But the biggest benefit of Heather’s American identity was a chance to protect her parents. In 2014, President Obama announced Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), a program that would have allowed undocumented immigrants with clean records and American children to receive protection from deportation.
The impact would have been enormous. Roughly 4 million U.S.-born children have at least one undocumented parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Heather didn’t really grasp the difference between her and her parents until she met children at school who had been detained at the border before being released.
“Mama, tengo papeles?” Heather asked when she came home. Do I have papers?
And Madai had explained that, yes, she had an American birth certificate and a Social Security number, and so many other things that her parents might never have.
Heather embraced her Mexican heritage, constantly asking her mother questions about the country — “Are there cicadas in Mexico? What does the ice cream taste like?” — even as her English outstripped her Spanish.
In Tultepec, people celebrated the festival of San Juan de Dios every March by setting off thousands of fireworks and lighting giant bull sculptures ablaze. Heather would watch on Facebook and draw bulls of her own, wishing she were there.
Her parents thought about sending her to Mexico to visit, but didn’t know who could take her.
Meanwhile, Madai’s younger brother said he wanted to come to the United States. Don’t, she told him. Being undocumented in the United States was harder than he realized. Trump had made it harder still.
Even Heather had been affected by the anxiety and uncertainty.
At Mount Vernon, the glimpse of a single word sent her rushing toward her mother.
“Mami,” she shouted. “It says Donald!”
Madai glanced at a wall etched with the name of a donor, Donald W. Reynolds.
“I don’t think that’s Donald Trump,” she said, holding her daughter close as the girl began to cry.
One by one, the children outside the White House implored the president not to deport their undocumented parents. Heather was one of the last to take the microphone at the April immigrant rights protest.
“Hello,” she said softly, as TV cameras recorded her words. “My name is Heather Piña. I am 8 years old. I was born on July 4 in Annapolis, Maryland.”
She had been attending protests since age 4, but this was different. Trump was barely 100 yards away.
Her mother had spent the previous day making Heather a T-shirt featuring her favorite cartoon character, WordGirl, punching through a wall with the president’s name on it. Now Heather tried to channel the superhero’s courage.
“When we’re in school, I don’t feel safe when I say the Pledge of Allegiance, especially when it says liberty and justice for all, because this doesn’t include my family. And I am afraid that they will separate me from my parents,” she said, reading the speech she and her mother had written the night before. “But we as children have lots of power, and we have to support and protect our parents.”
As Heather spoke, her mother stood beside her holding a sign declaring, “We belong together.”
One hundred days into the Trump presidency, Madai pushed aside her trepidation. She started going shopping in the mornings again. She and José abandoned some of their worst-case scenario plans, such as signing a power of attorney or obtaining dual citizenship for their daughter.
“Fear doesn’t let us think or do anything,” Madai said. “That’s how they control you.”
After dinner on July 4, Heather played a video game in the small bedroom she shares with her parents. On a tablet, she tried to guide a scrappy kid avatar along a series of train tracks, collecting gold coins, but an overweight sheriff and his dog kept catching her.
“Save me!” flashed a message each time she was caught. In an aquarium on the nightstand, a pair of goldfish she named Panfilo and Solovino swam in circles.
Her parents were sitting in the next room when there was a knock at the door. Madai looked at her husband.
“Aqui?” Madai asked him. Here?
The family had just moved to the apartment. Half their belongings were still in boxes. They didn’t know their neighbors.
José and Madai hadn’t wanted to trade their home in a leafy suburb for this drab apartment complex. They hadn’t wanted to move for the seventh time in a dozen years. And they hadn’t wanted to enroll Heather in a different school in the fall.
But they’d had repeated run-ins with their previous landlord, who’d threatened to call the police on them. So they loaded José’s work truck with their belongings and started over again in another community.
Madai went to the door and opened it cautiously.
“Hi,” came a warm voice. “This is for my baby.”
It was their new upstairs neighbor, who had heard Madai playing “Las Mañanitas” — a Mexican birthday song — for Heather that morning and had come to introduce herself. Now she was back with a present for the 9-year-old: a gift certificate to Chick-fil-A, where the woman worked.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” she told Heather. “I hope you had fun today.”
Madai and José were planning to celebrate Heather’s birthday later in the summer, when more of her friends were around, so the gift certificate was her only present.
“Thank you,” Heather said, holding it with two hands, reading every word.
One more gift arrived that evening. There was a faint rumble, like distant thunder. Heather’s eyes widened.
“Can we go outside?” she asked.
José disappeared out the front door, then returned, gesturing for the family to follow. To the southwest, blossoms of light were bursting over a local park.
“Over there!” Heather shouted, pointing at the fireworks.
White sparks flashed above the tree tops.
“That one looked like snow,” she said quietly.
Moments later, red, green and white rockets burst simulatenously, as if creating the Mexican flag.
“Viva Mexico,” Heather said with a smile.
One day, José said, they would see the fireworks in Tultepec together.
“When you have papers,” Heather replied, staring up into the rocket-streaked sky.