My Testimony: The Daughter Of Immigrants

There was a point in my life when I would write about myself on a daily basis. What I thought, how I felt, the drama in my life. I didn’t share it often and when I did, it opened a sort of Pandora’s Box. It was a blog that people couldn’t tie to me. Now, they can’t tie it to me at all. The email address is canceled, I can´t even log in anymore, but it’s all still there. I go back and read some of it and try to figure out what is still me in those pieces, if anything at all.

I also look back on it and think, damn, I was young. But I can’t really frown upon what I wrote and how I wrote it. It was the beginning of my writing adventure and the development of my thoughts through a keyboard. It was probably pertinent to my style and I was able to develop a distinct form of communication while I traveled and experienced college in the most stereotypical way.

Nonetheless, it was around the same time that I started closing up the door on personal expression and sticking to the objective, journalistic ideals along with forming opinions on fact for my blogs. It was difficult enough to open up about the fact that I have diabetes and it was part of my every day. I didn’t know how to rock that story until put in a position where I could with a factual standpoint.

MojadaHowever, last week, I had the opportunity to attend a sneak preview of Luis Alfaro’s new play, “Mojada” along with my friend Amor Montes de Oca, owner of Arte y Vida Chicago. The play is based on Euripides’ Medea; a story about immigration that takes place in Pilsen in Chicago. Present were Alfaro, the director Chay Yew, and a few of the actors.

For those of you who don’t know, I returned from Mexico last week, where I absorbed a lot of what was going on there and how it applied to our lives up here en “El Norte.” I was observing, listening and paying attention while on my trip. I learned about politics, I read the paper and I brought a lot of observations back with me.

During this preview, Socorro Santiago who plays “Tita” set the scene for the border crossing. The performance laid out a lot of what I had experienced and observed in Mexico. Mind you, I didn’t cross the border with a coyote or anything like that, but I have heard stories upon stories about crossing the border. From individuals who did it to stories from coyotes themselves.

So I decided to make a comment then ask a question. Alfaro claimed that it was more of a testimony than anything else, and after, told me that I should write it down. That’s when I realized that the issues that I had seen and my experiences have not made it on any blog that I have going right now—and I technically have three. My opinions have been confined to the spoken word, not the written and after my “testimony,” I remembered being in a dialogue with Stephanie Elizondo Griest, journalist and author, who told me that I could write the stories about what I’ve seen. She was also the first person to tell me that I was an artist, even as a journalist and that no one could ever tell me different.

***

As we stood in line at the immigration desk to come back into the United States, I could feel my nerves moving. I was antsy and ready to speak the best English of my life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a U.S. born citizen, raised in Chicago by parents born in Mexico who eventually became naturalized citizens. I was blessed to be born dark, as was my sister; Dark skin, dark hair, dark, demon-like eyes.  In kindergarten, my classmate told me that I couldn’t like certain boy because I was too dark and he was too light, although later on I found out that he was Puerto Rican.

In the doctor’s office bathroom as a child, a woman complimented me on my skin color and asked where I was from. I told her I was Mexican, though my parents didn’t see it that way. “You’re American,” they always told me. But since the beginning, I was tied to my Mexicanidad, whether I wanted to be or not.

As a college student, it boggled people’s minds to think that I was a fluent Spanish speaker without being born in Mexico. “Where are you from?” was a common question. Now that I look back on it, I ask myself, why was that important?

***

Back at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, there were three desks open as I stood in line with my sister and my father. All I could think was, I hope they don’t stop us; ask us too many questions; question our visit to Mexico. The thought of having a man question me was worse. I don’t fear a lot of things, and usually, when I’m alone, I’m more confident. This time, I was with my family. I didn’t want them harassing my sister or my father.

If I tell this story above, people will ask why that would happen. I know people can relate to me when I say this and by no means am I ashamed. If there’s anything I’m ashamed of, it’s my American paisanos who don’t know how to respect other people.

2013-06-16 12.45.39My father is amazing, but like many other fathers, he has an accent when he speaks English. He’s dark, which is where I get my year-round tan from, and he’s a badass. But when you have people who don’t know that, and hear the accent, and look in from the outside, making racist assumptions, the accent is the affirmative that “he’s not one of us.”

I saw it when I was younger. I saw my dad go through situations like that in front of me and I hated that I was a child. I hated that I couldn’t speak up and I couldn’t defend him and I couldn’t do anything. When my dad would tell me stories about being stopped at the airport and questioned even though he had proof of citizenship and everything else that comes along with that, I wished so hard that I was there to make it stop.

Coming in from Canada once a few years ago, my parents were in the front seat of the family van. The immigration officer wouldn’t let up on my dad and my mom, with no Spanish accent whatsoever, yelled from the passenger side window, getting heated and upset. Again, I was too young. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t say anything.

My aunt and uncle who were in front of us went through with no problem. My aunt, light skin with light brown eyes and my uncle who’s Cuban and Honduran, born in Chicago but looks Polish had no issues.

They pulled the van aside and made us go in to double-check my parents’ status. My mom pulled out her ID and said, “Look us up to make sure everything is kosher.” As strong and upset as she was in that office, she went home and cried to my uncle about the feelings she had during the whole ordeal.

The only thing I could tell my mother was that we were different and no matter how much you want to fit in, we’ll always be different and that’s OK.

Is it still considered assimilating even when you’re not accepted? If you reject your own heritage and aren’t accepted by the “new” one, where does that leave you?

***

The immigration officer was a white woman. The fact that she was a woman made me feel about 10 times better. I spoke to her in clear English, being amiable, telling her about our cancelled flights. Hearing her say, “Welcome home, guys,” was almost ironic to me, since a tiny piece of me felt that one of us would be rejected from “our country.”

This made me think of the time that I was pigeonholed and questioned because I spoke English too well. It makes me laugh now, but just like the ignorant people don’t know how badass my father is, people don’t know anything about me.

Some of my friends find it arrogant that I talk about my experiences, but they don’t know just how many people I’ve come across who will easily make assumptions about me if I didn’t tell them about who I am and what I’ve done.

I’ve gone to school, I have an education, I’ve worked with multiple people and yet, there is still a sense of needing to prove myself. I feel that it’s almost something passed down, like the color of my skin. I love my skin. I love that when people look at me, they can tell that I’m some kind of Latina and that they even question my multi-cultural look. I love it.

I don’t regret, resent or feel any type of shame, but the heritage that my parents passed down to me came with much more.

***

Baggage, Alfaro called it. We all come with that cultural baggage. It’s true, isn’t it?

At the end of my comment to him, I said, I feel so tied to my Mexican culture. I feel so tied to the people, to the stories, to the prejudice and assumptions. I’m so tied that I feel the same way that my father and grandparents did when they crossed the border and started living in this country.

By the way, have you ever thought about the will power and strength it took to do such a thing?

***

My father overstayed his visa as a teenager and crossed the border back and forth. He became a permanent resident in 1981, when he married my mother who became a naturalized citizen that year.

2013-06-16 13.55.58
Dad and Mom on their wedding day.

As a lot of people might see it, I was born with some sort of privilege. My mother, who I call the half generation since she was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago, pushed my sister and me to get an education. That was what was going to make us intelligent and active members of society. In a way, it was supposed to make us more American. I totally get that. And she probably got a bit more than what she expected.

As my mom sees it, her parents were the immigrants. My mom got the light end of the stick, looking more Italian than anything else. Moving from Pilsen and what is now University Village, my grandparents along with eight kids eventually settled in Humboldt Park in the ‘60s. My mom knows the city like the back of her hand. Until that day trip to Canada, she had never felt harshly judged and I love my mother because of that. She’s always felt that she had just as much the right as anyone else to do what she wanted and no one was going to stop her. She was going to live the dream.

Growing up, my mom corrected my Spanish as well as my English, taught me about preparation and always pushed reading, learning and gaining experiences. My mother gave me the drive to learn, without a doubt. I’m lucky that my first teacher has always wanted to be a teacher.

My father, who was orphaned at 16 and crossed the border at 19 to join his cousins in Chicago, is our tie to history and who we are as Mexicans. With family in Mexico City, Oaxaca and El Narajno, a town that still knows who he is and has more stories than my dad can ever tell me, it’s this story that makes me appreciate what makes me unique, different and beautiful.

He taught me Spanish, for which I owe him, and is an avid supporter of my work in the bilingual community. He’s proud of my sister and I and you can see it all over his face and his hugs and his conversation. He kept us grounded to what kind of people we should be and told us that it was good that we spoke Spanish as often as possible. Without ever saying it, my dad and I probably feel the same way about language: It ties us to the centuries of history we carry in our blood.

In 1990 my parents bought a house, moving us out of a gang-infested neighborhood where gunshots were common and discussion of who had gotten shot over the weekend took place around the dinner table. My sister and I grew up with a backyard, going to Catholic school and surrounded by family. We had our ups and downs, like anyone else raising teenagers, but in the end we came out stronger for it. I went off to school, got a master’s degree and came back to a family that was well-off and never in need.

My parents, you can say, did it right. Yet, the anxiety of physical perception on those rare instances, like crossing the border, still brings out something in me that I can’t describe but know and feel very thoroughly.

***

That was a testimony to what we live, Alfaro said in so many words after I handed him the microphone back. He said that because of the work he was doing, he was opening up the doors for other writers to share their own stories.

I told him that someone had to start writing the “Next Generation’s” story. There are a lot of issues we, as children of immigrants, face that no one pays attention to. The majority feel that we are immigrants or undocumented, but neither is true. We have our bicultural ways of living and loving it with all of our hearts.

When Alfaro said that he probably wouldn’t dive in to the Next Generation story, he told me that I should. I have observed quite a few things over the past few weeks which has made me begin my own dialogue in my head and with other people who are in the same situation as I am.

Again, this will not hinder who I am or what I do, but I aim to start a conversation, above all else. There are certain realities that we live that we have to see from a different perspective and start talking about. Alfaro’s work does that. Although I’m not a playwright, sharing my stories can only put a dialogue into motion.

I have been told various times that I should write this down and so here’s to the beginning of that process. Here’s to telling my personal story based on my created fact and the fact that I lived through it. That’s all I have and that’s all you need to identify.

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3 thoughts on “My Testimony: The Daughter Of Immigrants

  1. As a fellow child of immigrants, I love that you’re capturing this. We do forget sometimes how special this is and how it has shaped us. If I had your gift of words, I would love to do more to record my memories and unique life experiences beings raised by parents new to this country. This will be a great collection of stories. I can’t wait to read them all!

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