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.