I always knew my parents had come here from Mexico illegally but I didn’t know any of the details. I was busy hanging out with my family and friends, going to school or longing to go to a show for the rockabilly band the Horrorpops. I would cry when I saw the news reports about people drowning in the Rio Grande or dying in the desert while trying to cross the border, but then I would go back to my life. I never gave my parents’ stories much thought until the recent immigration debate.
As I heard about the protests and the school walkouts over HR 4437, the bill that would make it a felony to be undocumented, I became curious about how and why my parents had come here.
When I was a child, my dad and grandma told me stories about Mexico so I would appreciate my home. I knew that some people live in huts made from sticks. Beans and tortillas are the daily food, meat and cheese are too expensive. The flu or cancer couldn’t be treated by a doctor because there was not enough money for it. I saw this when I went to Mexico for the first time five years ago to visit my mom’s hometown in Michoacán. It was sad to see a woman whose roof was falling apart. I had never seen this kind of poverty before.
But I hardly knew anything about my dad’s childhood. The most I knew was that he began working at an early age, picking up tree branches for his mom to use as firewood for cooking. It was a constant example he used to encourage his children to do well in school and go to college.
One afternoon, as I relaxed on the bench on our front porch, my dad sat next to me. I wanted to ask him about his life in Mexico, but I wasn’t sure how to begin the conversation. I mean, here was my dad, enjoying the time remaining before he got a call to pick up his cargo for his job as a truck driver, and I was about to bring back memories from years ago that could be painful. "Tell me about your life in Mexico," I said suddenly. He smiled. After a few moments of silence he began telling me his story.
Growing up in Puebla, Mexico, my dad had a childhood like any other kid. At dusk all of the children in the neighborhood would play with marbles, hide and seek and trompo, a spinning top with a string attached. He was raised in a small town called Coatzingo, about five hours from Mexico City, where material things didn’t matter much, where as long as you had a plate of food on the table, health, strength and life, you were grateful to God for what you had been given.
Everyone knew each other. On the way to the corner store he was greeted by people saying, "Buenos días," or his friend’s mom asking him how his mother was doing.
As his father grew too old for field work, and his mother became feeble after raising five girls and two boys, it was up to my dad, the oldest male, to work his father’s land. The family would feed themselves from the harvest of corn and tomatoes. They sold many of the vegetables to people in other towns. The money earned was enough to eat and build his family a one-room wooden home, yet he wished to build his mom a larger home.
The lure of Los Angeles
Then there were the many intriguing stories he’d heard from other immigrants who had returned from the U.S. about the fabulous lights of Hollywood, how magical Disneyland was and how downtown Los Angeles had the tallest skyscrapers ever. I was surprised that he was excited about something so ordinary, something that doesn’t seem like a big deal to me because I live here.
After speaking with his family, they agreed that my dad was responsible enough to go to the U.S. He would send them some of the money he earned to sustain his family back home. So one afternoon in November, at age 17, my dad and a cousin left their homes for Tijuana. They stayed with an uncle who contacted a coyote, a person who brings immigrants into the U.S. illegally. This person was to guide my dad, his cousin and nine others across the border.
The coyote told them to follow him. "If you were left behind, you would be left alone to survive at your own fate," my dad said. "I ran as fast as I could. I tried to keep up, hiding behind a bush every time a large beam of light from the border patrol helicopters and patrols pointed toward us."
After going over the hill there was a fence between the U.S. and Mexico. "Many jumped the fence and some went under it through wide holes dug by other immigrants," he said. "I went under it."
They continued running until they reached a wide river. "Take off your shoes, shirts and pants," the coyote said. "Tie your shoes together in a knot and hang them around your neck. Wrap your jeans and shirts on your head."
"We did as we were told," my dad said. He saw the water reach the necks of those who went in before him. "I felt a sudden urge of fright." As he described crossing the river, my heart raced. I realized that something could have happened to him and he may not have survived. It was scary to think that my father, the man who gave me piggy back rides to the park, could have died.
On the other side of the river in California, the group met a white man who was to help them cross the Santa Clara checkpoint. The friendly man told them to get in the trunk of his car. "Up to the checkpoint the radio will be playing music in English. You can talk, laugh, sneeze." He told them. "When we are one mile away from the checkpoint I will change the station to Spanish radio. Then you are to be silent. You will hear music in English once we are a mile away from the checkpoint."
I tried to picture my dad in that trunk with nine others and I realized how terrible it must have been. I hate rooms without windows, it makes me desperate to not have a view to the outside world. I wondered if he felt like he was suffocating.
After they made it safely across the checkpoint, a different man took my dad and his cousin to a gas station near their Aunt Lupe’s work, ending their one-week trip.
As he stepped out of the car he noticed the immense difference between Coatzingo and Los Angeles. There were concrete sidewalks, paved roads and traffic signs. He wondered if he would be able to adapt to this new way of life, but he felt relieved to have finally arrived at his new home.
He started at the bottom
My father’s first job was in a clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles making only $1.25 an hour.
In 1986 my father became a legal U.S. resident through the amnesty given to undocumented workers who had arrived in or before 1985, which was the year he arrived. He was able to work jobs that paid minimum wage. That same year he met my mom, who crossed the border in a car, hiding under large pieces of wood along with her mother and sister.
Five years later my dad became a U.S. citizen. Through citizenship he was able to get legal residency for my mom and his parents, who had come here illegally after him. He was able to afford building his mother a five-bedroom house in Coatzingo, which my family usually stays in when they visit. About 10 years after my dad became a citizen my parents purchased their own home. Two years ago he became a truck driver and he is paid a better salary.
When I asked my dad what he missed the most from Mexico, he answered, "Everything." I asked him to be more specific and he responded firmly, "Well what means everything to you? I miss my home, I miss my town, my people, the mellow way of life. I miss not caring about what time it is and not having to race the clock at all times. I miss breathing pure air. Nothing here feels like Mexico, but this is where I am." He said he plans to return to Mexico when he retires.
All my life I thought everything he needed was here. He had never told me how much he missed his small town and his people. It made me feel like he wanted to return to Mexico, but it was his family that kept him here.
Before I fell asleep that day, in the middle of my worries over my chemistry grade and the French Club meetings I had been missing, I thought about what my dad had said. I put myself in his shoes and I couldn’t imagine not having life as I know it. I can’t imagine leaving my home and not waking up every morning and looking at the Elvis Presley poster on my bedroom wall. I can’t imagine leaving friends behind and walking into a new country wondering if the faces will be friendly or not. I can’t imagine being expected to immediately learn a new language and going on with my life pretending I don’t miss my home.
I realized I should’ve asked about this earlier. It would have made me even more proud of being their daughter and more proud of my Latino background. My parents said that since my siblings and I were growing up in this country, it wasn’t important. But it was important because it helped me see things differently. It was no longer people on TV risking their lives, but my parents.
Now I want to fight for immigrant rights
Just thinking about my mom behind pieces of wood, or my dad crossing a polluted river, makes me understand what illegal immigrants go through to come to here, in search of the "American Dream." It made me feel like part of la raza, the Latino community which demands basic human rights. I, too, can fight for the cause.
On May 1, to support the national boycott, I didn’t go to the store after school. I did go to school, however, because I believe education is necessary for the progress of the Latino community. We have to get an education and show everyone that Latinos can be positive contributors to society. I remember being in kindergarten and doing my homework at the kitchen table. My dad would come home tired from his job at a belt factory, sit in front of me and tell me, "Study hard so you won’t end up like me, breaking my back." He wanted better for his kids. My parents worked hard to come to this country. It would be sad to throw it away and not get an education.
If people put race and legal conditions aside and realize that we are all simply human beings, maybe they would understand why immigrants enter the country undocumented. Immigrants are not criminals. They’re here to improve their lives. I am proud of my father. He faced many risks coming to this country, yet he had the courage to come here, improve his life and give his children opportunities he never had.