The America I Know and Love

Multiethnic Multicultural Multiracial America I spent several years of my childhood in a dichotomous United States: one, “black,” communitarian, and forward thinking, the other, “white,” competitively individuating, and conservative. Raised by Mexican immigrants, Spanish came first from my mouth. Enrolled in a majority African-American “Head Start,” Pre-School, and Day Care, English came first from my hand.

It would be hyperbole to argue that my identity was solidified before I finished elementary school. But it wouldn’t be fiction.

My first real memories are of immigration offices and hearing rooms. I learned my family was scheduled to be deported before I learned to read. My parents were fighting like hell to find a way to stay in the US. But they ran out of appeals, extensions, and money. (Anything and everything of value that could be sold, was sold). Because I had no immediate or extended family nearby with status, my parents had to prove to the US government that they could provide for my well being once I arrived in Mexico. If they couldn’t I’d be placed in foster care.

I was born in the US. I had citizenship. But at six years old my only understanding of citizenship was that it meant potential separation from my family.

By today’s standards, my family’s deportation was extremely civilized. This was back in the days before ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and quotas mandating that 400,000+ people a year be forcibly removed from US soil annually.

That said, the INS did everything in its power to get us out of the US, and make sure we would never come back. My grandfather grew very ill and eventually died during the time my parents were fighting their deportation. The INS would not allow my mother to travel to say goodbye to her father, unless she agreed not to return to the US. (Again, this was back in the days when one could appeal an order of deportation). Once we arrived in Mexico, the US government lost all interest in my well being. Despite my young age, I remember distinctly asking my parents why the people who wanted to place me with another family in the US didn’t seem to care that I was sometimes hungry and didn’t have a regular home.

Getting Schooled

I went from being a non-black kid in an African American community, to being a white-skinned, US-born, child in a Mexican public school system where the key thing you learn in 1st grade is that the Spanish ruined Mesoamerica. And in 2nd grade, the key thing you learn is that the US stole half of Mexico, and then had the audacity to invade the remaining half during the Mexican Revolution. In 1st grade, mobs of angry kids would yell, “Gachupín,” and beat me up. In 2nd grade, mobs of angry kids would yell, “Gabacho,” and beat me up. By 3rd grade, I just assumed that every trip to and from school, and recess period during the school day would involve conflict, so I became a punk.

Whatever difficulties I went through adjusting to life in Mexico City, my parents had it far worse. After all, they hadn’t just traveled to the US on vacation and decided they should stay because they weren’t done shopping. They were activists in the high school and college-age student movement. The Mexican government turned its tanks and soldiers on them. They fled Mexico City for Xalapa because of the massacre in Tlatelolco. From Xalapa they sought a new future in the US. They looked at the social changes taking place, and saw progress in this country. The Civil Rights movement was their fountain of inspiration. They believed the people of the US possessed the power to be about a More Perfect Union. (And they did believe Mexican democracy could or would be transformed in the same way in just a few years time.)

Deportation completely devastated my parents. My father, to this day, lacks the optimism and idealism he possessed in my early life. My mother, despite her tremendous resilience, saw the sadness she felt over the loss of her father magnified upon falling ill. My mom got very sick right after we arrived in Mexico. My parents had planned to have more than one child. Another child was expected, but never came to be. Medical complications abounded and by the end, my mother was not able to have another child.

My parents deportation made them ineligible for IRCA — the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted legal status to about three million undocumented immigrants. In today’s debates over immigration reform legislation, it is rarely mentioned that 30% of the people who applied for IRCA did not receive it. And many more, like my parents, were told explicitly to not even bother applying. Nevertheless, there was a time when an employer could sponsor a visa for a foreign national willing to perform work no American citizen wanted to do because it would mean relocating to a highly undesirable location for a wage too low to justify that relocation.

My mother applied for jobs that no American citizen wanted to do, because they were in places no American citizen wanted to go for the low wages these jobs were offering. And eventually my mom got one of those jobs and with the help of an employer sponsored visa, my family returned to the US.

I went from living in the largest city in the world — a metropolis of 24 million people in Latin America — to a town of not quite 500 people in the Midwest. There were two roads: Rural Route 1, and White Deer Run. Everyone was white and Baptist. There were no people of color. (Apparently, because it was a sundown town) And during Civil War recreation battles, folks rooted for the South to win.

The state had mandatory English as a Second Language laws. But they’d never had an ESL student. Someone from upstate would travel periodically, and I’d be unceremoniously pulled out of class and placed with this strange person whose Spanish was atrocious. We’d sit at a table in the janitor’s closet under a bare light bulb hanging from a long wire. I was lucky because it didn’t take me long to remember the breadth of English I knew when I was six. My classmates’ insistence that everything about me was wrong — my name, my enunciation, my religion, my father’s brown skin, my mother’s thick accent, etc. — gave me plenty of incentive to cram several years of English language learning into a small time frame.

But I digress.

I spent several years of my childhood in a dichotomous United States: one, “black,” communitarian, and forward thinking, the other, “white,” competitively individuating, and conservative. Before I moved to Southern California, and I found my home in a place where every race/ethnicity, religion, culture, language, and hyphenated American identity coincide convivially, I knew far less diverse spaces. But I still met amazing people.

The African American community I knew cared for me, fed me, taught me, fought to keep my parents in the US; to make sure I was not separated from my family. The white community I knew did not welcome me or my family, writ large. But I didn’t live years without friends. I had a few. Instead of outright rejection, some teachers were dismissive of my efforts to find acceptance. But Mrs. Swope cut me a break and cast me in a play about a bunny named Billy, with a long flat tail, instead of a fluffy round one. Thus allowing me to publicly exercise the demons I felt after having been othered for so long.

Celebrating the Fourth

Every 4th of July I remember how much I love the people of the United States of America. I say this precisely because I love the people of the world, not because I am trying to cross the line from patriotism to chauvinism. As I mentioned, my parents were born in Mexico, and I lived there for several years as a child. My extended family still lives there, and I visit often. I love Mexico and to me being Mexican is a magical gift.

But when I’m in Mexico, I miss the the sheer volume of diversity I experience on a daily basis at home in Los Angeles, or when I go to visit friends in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, etc. It is powerful and inspiring to live in a country comprised of West Africans, West Indians, African Americans, Afro-Latinos, East Asians, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, Middle Easterners, Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, Caribbeans, Native Americans, and yes, whites.

I have a friend named Case. His dad’s family got here on the tail end of the Ellis Island period of Italian migration. His mom’s family literally came over on the Mayflower. By this last standard he is as white and as American as anyone can be. But in college he lived in the residence hall for African American Studies majors. And upon graduation he embarked on a series of never-ending journeys around the world. He belongs to the America I know and love.

I have a friend named Melanie. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, and on the roads leading to New York City where she often found herself en route to Yankees’ games. After attending an Historically Black College or Univeristy (HBCU), she could’ve easily settled into Washington D.C. life. After all, work was abundant, and DC’s vibrant East African and African American communities were accessible. But she became fascinated with the arts of African Diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean. And this led to the discovery of multiple artists of color in the US drawing inspiration from the most intricate and complex elements of identity. She gave up everything she knew and moved west. She now seeks to help emerging artists in places like L.A. She belongs to the America I know and love.

I have a friend whose name I won’t share because she’s undocumented. She’s in the second half of her twenties. She came to the US at 7. In other words, she’s lived two decades in the US, and less than one decade outside of it. Her career plans involved going to college, then graduate school. When she turned 16 she wanted to get a driver’s license. But because of her status, she obviously couldn’t. She grew up here, so she never applied for a Mexican passport. Right before she had to take her Electronic Testing Service standardized exam, she obtained a Matricula Consular to serve as her photo ID. When she got to the ETS facility they informed her that they would not accept the Matricula as a photo ID. She was unable to take the test she paid for, and never got a refund — despite the fact that she called ETS before the day of her appointment just to make sure that she could present the Matricula as proof of identification. And they said, yes.

Needless to say, my friend’s plans of a seamless transition into college followed by graduate school did not come to pass. At one point, she had the opportunity to adjust her status through marriage. But she ultimately refused this option. She told me that she didn’t want anyone to give her citizenship. She wanted to earn it on her own. If she had gone through with it, she probably would have felt a tremendous amount of guilt — as though she were betraying every undocumented US resident hoping for reform.

unai montes-iruesteEven the most conservative members of the tiny Midwestern town I once called home would be willing to acknowledge how determined, hard-working, and principled my friend has been. She is the breadwinner who keeps the lights on, a roof over everyone’s head, and food on the table for her mom and siblings. And she’s never taken the easy way out — even when it’s been offered to her on a silver platter. She’s carving out her own way. All while caring for, teaching, and fighting on behalf of friends and strangers alike.

She belongs to the America I know and love. And it’s time for her, and 11 million undocumented Americans to get some love in return.

Unai Montes-Irueste

Photo: BigStockPhoto

Thursday, 4 July 2013

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