Tag Archives: mexican-american

Lost in Translation

28 Jan

I was 15 and missing class for the day as I walked along my dad to an immigration one stop shop to renew his green card. By then, our relationship was distant, making for awkward conversation as we waited, mostly in silence, for his number to be called.

He had walked into my room the previous evening, looking slightly nervous, to ask me if I could take the day off school and help him with paperwork and translating questions. He didn’t mention what kind of paperwork and I didn’t ask. I simply said, “Claro que si papi!” And he walked back out, his shoulders noticeably relaxed.

The following morning we got up early and briskly walked to the bus stop. As we waited, he asked if I would miss much school work. I shook my head and we rode in silence, using the noisy backdrop of multiple conversations, music, arguments, and laughter from our fellow bus riders as noise filler.

“Numero 143!” The loudspeaker was all base and garbled sound that you had to strain to hear it, followed by multiple questions of, “Que dijo? Cual numero?!” I looked down at our number, #257…

I looked around and saw the snaking line in front of us, and even longer mess of a wait behind us. I had the large manila folder close to my chest, its contents all neatly filled out and in the appropriate order. We went through the questions: Color of Hair -, “Negro no?”, Color of Eyes -, “Cafe”, Height -…and so on. What year did you enter the US? Have you ever illegally done this, that, and other idiotic questions that were meant to trick you into losing your green card.

“Numero 257!” We hurried up to the window, my father a step behind me, and I beamed brightly at the zombie-esque employee behind the window. I pushed the paperwork toward him and he rattled off a litany of questions, each to which my father would look to me before responding in the affirmative or negative. He looked so serious, that face that I came to know every time he was in front of a figure of authority, that face that thinly masked the knots of nervous terror that threatened to snake through his pores. His yellow pallor and slight suffle from his left to right foot reflected his fear, this precarious arrangement by the US government that allowed him to be in the North side of the Mexican/US border with his family – his wife and kids that is. I was standing next to him so I did the only thing I thought to do, I reached for his hand and held it in mine and gave it a slight squeeze. To my surprise, he squeezed back and released a pent up breath. Those long heavy breathes that you release when you forget to breathe.

Thump. The stamp of approval came down on my father’s paperwork and the zombie gave me the proof of renewal as well as intructions of things to watch out for in the mail.

As we stepped away I saw hundred of people just like my dad, a yellow tint betraying their fear, their unsteady stance on slippery ice of the INS.

As we left that dimly lit and dingy building and walked out into the bright sunshine of Olympic/Soto, he cheerfully asked me if I wanted to grab a bite. “Quieres una Hamburguesa?” I didn’t. I wanted to go home and rid myself of the depressing images of hope and broken dreams that the building had left behind in my mind. I wanted to stop the awkward company of my father and lock myself up in my room to listen to music and read a book. But his smile was so rare, it seemed out of place in his usual solemn face, and I remembered how he had returned the squeeze when we held hands that I nodded my head and smiled so he could remember his five year old Chuchi that had always quickly done anything he requested.

Instead of hopping on the bus we walked to Tom’s Burgers on 4th/Soto and ordered burgers, fries, and a shake for me. I told him about how my swimming was going, about my history class, about all of the subjects that I enjoyed. That afternoon I had my father back; the one that used to help me with homework art projects, read to me and protect me when I was in pre-school.

It dawned on me then how hard and embarassing it must have been for him to ask me for help for a matter that I would never have to face since I won the lottery at birth and was born in this country.

My mother always came to me when she needed translating, documents filled out, appointments for me to attend with her, but my father… He had never asked for my help before then and I was happy that I had quickly assented, that I had agreed energetically to having lunch with him.

He told me about his adventures as a young man; stories about crossing the border, the comedy he peppered in didn’t quite hide the perils and unfortunate events that crossing illegally with a pollero invited. The fry scratched my throat as I chewed and tried to swallow the mouthful along with my sense of shame of not having wanted to prolong my stay with my dad. But the shame was nothing compared to the ache that I felt for the millions of unfortunate undocumented fathers out there whose standing on the North side of the border was even more precarious than my father’s.

President Obama will release his immigration reform plan tomorrow and I have a seed of hope hesitantly sprouting that his plan includes a major upheaval of our class system: the third class that suffers in silence and moves noiselessly from unwanted job to job without any right to vote or voice their injustice, the second class that holds green cards but are not yet citizens and do not have the right to vote, and the rest of us – US Citizens (via birth or naturalization) that are free to enjoy 100 % of our rights, as disparate in education and economic mobility opportunity as they may be, there is still a door for us that grants us 100% of the right to seek those opportunities. And with shame I acknowledge that I have often forgotten how fortunate I am for having a US birth certificate, that sacred paper that allows me to live the life I have led…

I hope that President Obama pushes his immigration plan forward and doesn’t allow for the stories of suffering undocumented millions to be lost in translation.

When I see you dance

18 Oct

I was tempted to write this in Spanish as it seems to flow out of me more in my native language.  Funny how whenever I think of my happy childhood memories, I think of them in Spanish.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
When I see the two of you dance, I feel suspended into an ageless bubble of warmth and comfort.  I am a little girl of 5, a teenager of 13, and a woman of 28.

At family parties, after tiring myself out from dancing, chasing my cousins at “tag”, breaking the pinata, and happily having my fill of carne asada and soda, I would sit down exhausted on a metal fold out chair.  Heaving and puffing from my latest bout of running, I could catch small snippets of my own perfume of sweat, happiness, and birthday cake icing wafting up my nose.  I wiped my bangs off my face and rested my bright red cheeks on my shoulders as I caught sight of the two of you.
The strange sadness of Ramon Ayala’s “Mi Piquito De Oro” would pierce the night and your heart with its sad low crooning of his voice and accordion maneuvers.  It would unfailingly prompt some deeply hidden feeling in my fathers chest to push itself forward and lift him off his seat and set his beer aside to walk towards you and ask you to dance.  Your entire demeanor would soften and you would revert into that young woman being courted.  You would elegantly offer your outstretched hand with nothing but the out most regal grace, and comply to his request.  I knew of the eagerness that filled your chest, of the hope and love sparked anew, but you hid it as you walked with him towards the dance floor.  Only when you were in his arms, your face and expression veiled from his eyes, did you allow yourself to relax into a young girl in love.
That sweet smile that curled your lips into a perky pout became more charming by the softness in your eyes.  Your head resting so lovingly on his chest and the swaying of your hips to his rhythm captivated my imagination.
I sighed and my eyes danced alongside the two of you.  Everyone else would disappear into edges of a dream as the two of your would waltz your way around the room.  Faster and faster until the music would reinvigorate his limbs and inspire his two left feet to keep up with you as he spun you around until you giggled in his ear.  You held him tightly and he leaned over you protectively and I stared, unblinking, to tattoo this image into memory.
I remember the times when I would inevitably fall asleep curled up on a chair and Mi Papi would come over to carry me to the car.  The cold air would pierce my dreams as he scooped me up but I would pretend to keep sleeping so the two of you would remain sweet to each other say sweet loving remarks about your Chuchi.
In the car, the steady hum and bouncing on the road made it difficult for me to keep pretending at sleeping but I shut my eyes tightly and listened in reverie at your calm conversation, peeking every now and then to spy the two of you holding hands, kissing each others neck, and erasing the anger and tension that usually prevailed.
I would lay in bed in my party dress and white stockings, blackened at the feet from running on the grass and ground, and fall into a deep sleep of hope and peace.

La Migra

1 Sep

We went out to the Geffen MOCA and dinner with AM and her boys on Thursday evening.  As we settled down with our sushi and rambunctious kiddos, we started talking shop, as AM fondly refers to it.

A year had passed since I changed careers, a career that she so generously recommended me for and positioned me perfectly for.  In a year I had learned that this was the perfect vehicle for my ambition, hard worth ethic, and all around personality of a control freak. :)  I had just received a promotion and she wondered how I came to possess the professionalism, poise, and ability to navigate and distinguish myself while working at a high-powered law firm and coming from Boyle Heights with my highest education being at Roosevelt HS  no less (a school whose distinction includes being featured in the documentary Waiting for Superman as an educational fail factory).

As far as my work ethic, that’s easy I told her, I get it from my mother.  She taught me that you can reach whatever you want as long as you are willing to work hard enough for it.  And she certainly lead by example, always holding two jobs when we were growing up so she could achieve her dream of being a homeowner.

But as far as poise and the “intuitive knowledge required in marketing” that she kindly stated I possessed, in a way that came from my mother as well…

When I was a kid I had a neighbor who for lack of a nicer term was a bona fide pocha.  Her ancestors were of Latino descent but the Spanish, customs, and any semblance of pride or relatable qualities to them had long ago been stomped out.  She had learned a strong dislike towards anyone with an accent, anyone who ate carne asada and tortillas, anyone who spent summers in Mexico, anyone like me.

A combination of niceness, ability to forgive, and low self-esteem kept making me forgive her and be subject to her constant pranks.

My parents would not allow us to play outside of the chain link fence that surrounded the perimeter of our home so we would play with our Barbies through the holes of this wall that separated us.  Joanna would excuse herself and go off to get her Barbie Malibu car and I would keep combing the hair on my dolls.  Then a shreeking siren with a piercing pitch would fill my eyes with terror and send me sprinting to the backyard.  I would deftly pull all of the dirty linen from  the laundry bin and jump inside, pulling the musty smelling sheets on top of me.  I would lay there huddled in a fetal position immobilized with fear until it dawned on me that she had done it again.  I would break out in a cold sweat as relief and anger would hit me and spread throughout my body in a glistening sheen, the anxiety oozing out of my pores.

I would take a deep breath and walk back to my side of the fence where the cackle of Joanna’s laughter would be ringing in my ears long after it had died down.  I would pick up my toys without a word and stand up to walk away.  “You’re not mad are you?  I was just joking, you should have seen how scared you were!!! Hahahaha!”  I couldn’t utter a word or the tears welling in my eyes would come crashing down stripping me of any dignity that I had left.

My mother was smuggled into the U.S. as a child using someone else’s identity.  She remembers these poignant events in her mind as if they were yesterday.  She still laments having to cut her beautiful waist length hair up to her ears so she could match the passport’s picture of the girl she was usurping.  And when she recalls working in the factories that were the constant target of immigration raids in the 70’s, her eyes glaze over and I have to shake her to bring her back and out of her painful past.

She was 14 and worked at a curtain manufacturing factory as a seamstress’ assistant in downtown Los Angeles.  She would work two shifts, from five in the morning to nine or ten in the evening.

The terrible sound of the siren broke through the monotony of their work and the constant humming of the sowing machines and hissing of the steamer were replaced with frantic cries of “La Migra!!”

Chaos everywhere as people ran into each other, running up and down the stairs, crawling out the windows, but bodies everywhere being slammed against the wall my ICE, the immigration agents thugs that swept throughout the halls with snarling excited dogs ready to attack.

Someone pushed her into an armoire and piled curtains on top of her and she lay there immobile, waiting for the wails to die down into a whimper and the silence that followed.  Her heart thumping sounded so loud and ominous that she thought there were heavy footsteps heading towards her.  Her heart stopped and absolute silence filled her body as she heard the dog barking at the door, clawing to get in and claim its prize.  The doors were swung open and light fell on her face as she stared right into a snapping dog, the breath sour in her face.  As sudden as it was there it was gone and the ICE agent looked straight into her eyes, deep down into her soul, and he must have seen a skinny bony kid who stood at 4’11” terrified out of her mind.  She heard someone call out “All Clear?!” and she closed her eyes, ready to be yanked out with the hundred others that were detained outside.  But she was enclosed in darkness instead and thought, Am I dead?  She lay there for what seemed like hours before her bones and limbs ached so badly that she had to move before she would be unable to.

She walked out, through the eerily quiet hallways and out into the evening light where everyone went about their business as usual.  Somehow she found herself home and surrounded by her siblings and worried parents.  They had been calling around the neighborhood, fearing her in Tijuana, MX, wandering along with the other lost living ghosts that walk up and down the border.

My mother had many stories like these, and I took them on as warning to never trust the siren, to fear it, for it meant that it would break me away from my loved ones and turn me into the walking dead along the border.

When I was old enough to realize that this siren could no longer harm me (my parents eventually became U.S. residents through the Bush administration’s amnesty), I realized that the simple fact that I had been born in U.S. soil exempted me from this fear of being flicked away from this country.  By then I had learned to adapt so that I would appear to belong.  I spent hours memorizing the pages of the dictionary, practicing the sentences, trying to decipher the pronunciation, so that no one could identify me as not belonging to U.S. soil.

As I became a teenager, I learned that the more I assimilated, both in posture and confidence, the easier it was to camouflage my brown skin and blend into the background.  What AM thought was intuitive poise and the confidence to succeed was pure survival skills bourne from the need to adapt and go unnoticed.

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Zack Hunter is the pseudonym of a Californian poet, author, artist, musician, and researcher. He lives on a farm and spends his free time reading and writing about whatever it is he is passionate about at the time.

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