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November 16, 2010 / Megan Taros

Column: Illegal immigration and the need to act “legal”

My mother standing next to a fallen tree

My mother standing next to a fallen tree at the botanical gardens during our trip to Cuernavaca, Morelos, not far from her place of birth. Once an illegal immigrant, she has learned to gracefully handle life in the United States.

Yesterday, I made a trip to the Alemany Farmers’ Market in the Bernal Heights area of San Francisco. After searching row upon row of tables filled with antiques, old jewelry, junk, toys and clothes in the unusually warm weather, I found a table filled with treasures from Mexico. There, I found a special edition coin from the XIX Olympics in Mexico City. For those who are not familiar with Mexico and its currency, it certainly is a country that really likes to add a new aspect of celebration to special occasions by means of limited edition currency. Anyway, I decided to buy it because my mother was about 7 years old at the time and has barely any recollection of it, aside from the memories of my abuelita hollering at the television at my bistia’s house during the Games.

“¿Cuanto, señor?” I asked.

“Five bucks each,” he says. No luck at achieving a cultural bond. He continued speaking Spanish to a friend who was trying to stifle his bloody nose as he fumbled with tissue paper. I figured to myself that $5 was a steal considering what currency that old and special could be worth in Mexico, so I bought it. “Thank you,” he said.

“Gracias a usted,” I answered. He paused, shocked. He probably gets so many English-speakers in a day that he grows accustomed to answering everyone in English, but as I expected, a Spanish-speaker was a well-deserved break for him. So we got into talking about Oaxaca, where he was from, and how I visited it over the summer. This went on for a good 20 minutes before we started concluding the conversation. What he was about to say would sadden me: “Somos legales aqui. Hemos vivido en California por mucho tiempo” which translates to, “We’re legal here. We’ve lived in California for a long time.” To me, it showed an ingrained idea in the heads of Latinos that one must prove their legality in order to be treated with respect, or, if respect has already be shown, to maintain respect.

This fun, heart-warming moment wasn’t the only thing that happened at the market, however. A friend of mine, who is white, but speaks Spanish, overheard this conversation while she was looking at a table belonging to two Latinas:

“No entiendo ¿Donde esta la buena gente? Mira, otra guera.” Translation: “Don’t understand. Where are all the good people? Look at that, another white woman.” (Note: In Spanish, guera/o can be a term of endearment or a polite way to say someone is white. Depending on the voice implications and/or context of the word, however, it can be a spiteful term for whites) This contrast showed a whole other negative sentiment about United States, with its predominantly white communities.

At that point, I did what any Latina (that I know of, anyway) would do. I called my mother.

After she fell all over the fact that I found an Olympic coin for her for such a low price, we began talking about her experiences as an illegal and legal immigrant. My mother immigrated from Mexico when she was about 22 on a student visa with the intention of going back after she had finished studying English. After meeting my father, a white born-and-raised U.S. citizen, however, that changed. Her visa expired and in order to keep her here, my parents got married. They made one crucial mistake: They married in Mexico first. On their way back to the U.S. after the wedding, my mother was stopped at the airport, where it was discovered that her visa was expired. She was out of there on the next flight back to Mexico City. She later snuck back across the border on a plane. She landed in Tijuana and prepared to walk over the border, with her plane ticket being her saving grace, at which point she was almost returned again because of how suspicious she looked trying to cross without a suitcase.

“You have to be a certain type of person to be here, stay here and survive here,” she told me. “It feels like you have to prove who you are when you talk to people. I know sometimes people treat me like nothing because they can tell I’m not from here and they wonder if I’m illegal.”

This is a statement I want to disprove, but it gets difficult when I can easily name three instances where my mother was told to “Go back to Mexico.” I am not quite as hardened and strong when it comes to these petty insults, which I am reminded of when my lips quiver in public when these things happen and my mom snaps at me in Spanish: “Calmate. No hay que llorar sobre esos estupideces. Si lloras, ellos ganan.” In English, that’s: “Calm down. There’s no need to cry over those stupidities. If you cry, they win.”

In a way, my mother’s view is the combination of the two I encountered at the market. It is part pride, with a need and want for respect, along with bitterness and a cold outlook on one’s surrounding environment. This is a distressingly grim conclusion–to think members of a certain race feel the need to live up to an invisible, unwritten set of “standards” simply because they seemingly get a naturally cold reception from the people they WANT to be coexisting with. Then, as I’ve seen, if these standards are not met, one becomes sour and unforgiving of others, which would only perpetuate the stereotype that Latinos are “invaders” who do not care about this country, rather, they are only here to cause problems and do things for their own gain. I dream of a world without rigid beliefs, where a good heart is good enough if you can make it here legally. I was once told by a friend of the family who was at one point an illegal immigrant herself: “Si no trabajas aqui, vas a quedar peor que en Mexico” – “If you don’t work here, you’ll be worse of than you were in Mexico.”

It’s a shame that those who immigrate here have to feel so depreciated, to the point where their legal status is come to be the definition of their character and where “good people” are only ones who come from the same beaten path. If the U.S. isn’t careful, the dreaded “angry, uncaring Latino” will become a vicious reality, because no one wants to act “legal” to survive, considering how obscure the term is already.

So next time, upon greeting an immigrant, don’t ask yourself “are they legal?” Ask yourself: “Who is this person, really?” You might be surprised.

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