Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Guest Essayist: Reyna Grande


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.


Anonymous said...

Hola La Bloga,

Tiene una historia sin duda tan conmovedora!

I too have a similar history, entering the country originally as a young "illegal" immigrant. I was too young to recall many of the things we had to endure in Chihuahua state before we moved, and mis padres han estado reluctante de explicarlos. It was so hard there, we had no running water, poor schools, few prospects back in Mexico. Ultimately there were dozens of us in my extended family who left and came northward. We were eventually amnestied in 1986, and that changed everything for us, which is why it almost brings tears to my eyes to see so much of the anti-Latino hatred of today.

I'm a proud American while I also proudly retain links to my culture, language and Chicano heritage, and all my kids, grandkids and great-grandkids will be taking the same attitude. My parents went maybe a bit too far at trying to have us fit in, they not only wanted us to learn English but wanted us to *basically forget Spanish* and essentially cast off our links to our heritage. This was a terrible idea, since we still suffered discrimination in the US at the hands of Anglos who saw us as inferior and undeserving, yet without our linguistic and cultural roots, we were also unable to communicate with our own Latino brethren effectively, which deprived us of their support in many times of need.

All of us, all my brothers, sisters and cousins, have rectified the situation and stricken the right balance today. We insist on our kids learning English but Spanish as well, we insist on them being bilingual and biliterate, as members of the great salad bowl. They attend bilingual two-way immersion schools and will stay in them indefinitely, even into the university years, as some colleges have recently been pioneering such dual medium instruction. This was a marvelous move that has made our kids learn faster and be better at their subjects in general, with all the occupational advantages that go with being bilingual, and in fact many Anglo parents are trying to enroll kids in these schools! I myself have been teaching advanced conversational classes to Anglos, and our classes are crammed to the gills, with long waiting lists of Anglos who want to sign up for it.

We ourselves of course, have all made sure to learn Spanish and speak it fluently. En las cenas grandes con mis hermanas y hermanos, siempre comunicarnos solamente en espanol.

Truthfully, even in the US things were often extremely difficult. I spent many years in Missouri growing up, and I hated it there. I don't want to generalize, there were variations in my experience, but most of the Anglos there treated us as though we were unwelcome, as though we were dragging them down. Again, my family's attempt to "Anglicize" us did absolutely nothing to help remedy this. My relatives have said similar things about New Hampshire, Georgia, Montana, Wyoming, Arkansas and South Dakota. Maybe it varies from case to case, but we've found those states in particular to be quite hostile to Latinos.

Almost all of us in those states have left them and relocated, mostly to California or to New Mexico, a few of us to Arizona, the Miami area or even to Rhode Island and Connecticut, and it's much better here. People are friendly and tolerant in these places, everyone's happy to speak Spanish as well as English, people are happy to take part in and learn from our Latino heritage.

Me gusta que su libre pronto sera publicado! Yo mismo tambien he considerado escribir un libro yo mismos de las experiencias de mi familia tambien. Espero que tambien tendra una version en espanol, para que mis primos podrian leerlo. De todos modos, yo de hecho voy a buscar su libro en los librerios aqui y comprar una copia. Que tenga mucha buena suerte, Reyna, Ud. la ha ganada y espero que tenga mucho exito!

C.M. Mayo said...

Thanks, Reyna. A very moving essay. Best of luck to you with your new novel.