LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM
By Reyna Grande
As the debate on illegal immigration continues, I’ve been thinking more and more about my own journey from Mexico to the United States 21 years ago. My parents left me in Mexico for five years while they worked in the U.S. The experience of being left behind scarred me for life. This is why, in 1998, I began to write about it, for as I was growing up in the U.S. I never read any books that dealt with the experiences of children who were left behind, even though it is not uncommon for parents to leave their children when they come to America.
This June my first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, will be released by Atria Books. It is the story of a young girl in Mexico whose father leaves for the U.S. and is never heard from again. This story is fictional, but it is based on some of my experiences. The young girl’s fear of never seeing her father again is real. Her fear of being forgotten is real. Her struggle to maintain her hope alive is real. I lived it.
In 1979, my father became one of the many illegal immigrants entering the United States. He left his family behind in Guerrero, Mexico in order to give them a better life. We lived in a little shack made of bamboo sticks and cardboard. Our bellies were full of parasites; our hair was infested with lice. We went around barefooted and had no money for school. We had no running water. We bathed in a canal littered with trash and with horse dung floating by. We went around gathering cow dung to burn in order to keep warm and scare the mosquitoes away. My father left because he had two choices: 1) stay in Mexico and see his children suffer, with no possibility of a better future or 2) leave for the United States and give them a chance to succeed in life. By choosing to leave my father gave me the greatest gift a parent can give a child—the possibility to succeed.
My father brought me and my siblings to the United States five years after his arrival, when I was almost ten. Crossing the border was a trial. On our first attempt I became sick and suffered from fever most of the way. My father had to carry me on his back, up until we were caught. In one of our three attempts we discovered the body of a man who had been killed by a blow to the head. His body was partly hidden under some bushes. My father said the smuggler must have killed him. On our third and final attempt we ran across the border under the cover of darkness, trying to hide from the helicopter flying above our heads. Life in the United States was not easy. I was enrolled in the fifth grade, although in Mexico I was just finishing third grade. I was put in a little corner to be taught by the teacher’s assistant. My teacher didn’t speak Spanish, so for the rest of the year I was not able to communicate with her. My father taught us to value education. He drilled into our heads that we were lucky to be living in America. He often threatened to send us back to Mexico if we didn’t get good grades and learn English. He talked about the importance of having a stable job, a retirement account, owning a house.
Now I am thirty, living the American dream. By leaving Mexico and taking his chances in the United States my father changed the course of my life completely. Because I live in the United States, I am a college graduate, I am a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, I have my own house, I have a car, and best of all, I am an author who is being published by Simon & Schuster. Only in America can a person go from being an illegal immigrant to a published author.
I teach English as a Second Language to adults, most of which are illegal immigrants. I see my parents in them, for some of them have children in other countries, and they, like my parents before them, struggle daily to find a way to be reunited with their sons and daughters. In my classroom I see hardworking people who came to this country to flee the miserable poverty they had to endure in their countries. I don’t see criminals. I see human beings who want what’s best for themselves and their children.
People in the United States are divided about what to do with illegal immigration. Even I find myself confused as well. There are many sides to the issue, but the one thing I am certain of is that both the Senate and the House of Representatives are not addressing the root of the immigration problem—poverty. The fact is that as long as there’s a choice between making $5 a day or $5 an hour, people are going to keep coming to the U.S. Increasing foreign aid should be a crucial component of the immigration debate, yet it has sadly been neglected. The debate between the Senate and the House of Representatives makes no mention of how the U.S. can assist other countries to better their economies.
People who are opposed to immigration keep saying that illegal immigrants should go back where they came from. Go back to what? Extreme poverty? Under education? Environmental degradation? Over-population? Disease? Civil Disorder?
Up to now, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on the war in Iraq. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the Pentagon spends $6 billion a month on the war. That money could have gone to improve education, health services, and social security here in the U.S., and it could have also gone to assist impoverished countries to help improve their economic opportunities, health care, and education as well.
The response of the House of Representatives to the plight of the people of disadvantaged countries has been to simply erect a wall and keep those people out. In short, what they are proposing is for the United States to turn a blind eye to all the poverty that exists south of the border-- as if by building a wall Americans can ignore the plight of those who have nothing.
Immigration is a complicated issue, but this is what it boils down to—when faced with watching their children suffer or giving them a chance at a better future, people will do whatever it takes to come to the United States. If my father hadn’t come to the U.S., I don’t know what my life would have been like, and honestly, I don’t even want to think about it.
Reyna Grande is the author of the forthcoming novel, Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria Books), coming June 2006. Readers can visit her at www.reynagrande.com.