“We always had food but, sometimes not enough.”
Felipe was barely 18 in 2006 when he came to the United States from his home in central Mexico. “I only knew that it was an opportunity to help my family and to escape from the scarcities, poverty and insecurities.”
He speaks softly about his childhood memories, seemingly a different young man from the smiling, outgoing persona his friends and neighbors and other community members see each day. The memories are clear, but they are hard to talk about. Painful to explain.
“We lived on a large rancho in a town so small that it had no post office. There were seven of us — my mother and father and their five children. My grandparents lived next door. Our house was made up of separate structures — bedrooms, a bathroom/shower area, and a kitchen that was not fully enclosed to accommodate the smoke from the cooking fire. Some of the rooms had a cement floor; some were packed dirt.”
“The only improved street was about three or four blocks long and was paid for and paved by citizens of the rancho My family helped with that. The rancho is surrounded by large towering cactus, dirt, milpa (corn stalks), and dry land. The average daily temperature is around 80 degrees but at night it is very cold — the temperature drops like any desert. To feel warmth, you must bundle up with blankets and to not get bitten by bugs you have to sleep with a bed canopy.”
Felipes father did farm work for many years and then became a police officer in a nearby town. “We had no police on the rancho,” he says. “Almost all the men went to the United States to work and send money back home to sustain their families. My dad was one of the only ones who never went.” His expression is hard to read — perhaps somewhere between proud and pensive.
“I would see my friends receive gifts from their parents in the U.S. whether it be new shoes, clothes, or something else. I would be wearing my brother’s old clothes and shoes with very little life left but then I’d realize that some had no shoes at all. It seemed I was always conflicted between imagining what it would be like to hold a new pair of shoes yet feeling grateful for having any at all.”
Felipe describes the school in the small town nearby as “a K-8 school. Very basic. Before and after school my brother and I would fetch water from the presa — a dam that diverts water from a river into an irrigation canal, an acequia, and my sister would tend the house. No running water meant washing dishes in tubs and washing clothes by hand. It meant heating water for a shower. Little kids were tied with a rope to keep them close by while the women cooked on the fire with cast iron skillets. When the kids were old enough, they chopped wood for the fires.”
“So that was what our life was like. I quit going to school at 15 and went to work to help put food on the table. We always had food, but sometimes not enough. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were beans, rice, maybe eggs and tortillas. We would only have meat when one of the animals was ready to be butchered — a cow or a chicken. Milk was available if the cows were generous,” he smiles.
“I left there in order to come to the United States in search of work and security and I’ve achieved it. When I decided to come I never thought there would be so many complications. First, I had to learn English and get along in a very different culture that I didn’t know. I’ve learned to speak enough English to get a job where I communicate with the public in English every day, and thanks to that, I learn more every day. I still struggle to write well but that’s because of my lack of studies in Mexico. My wife strives to teach me and I’m proud of the strides I’ve made.”
In the years since he’s been here, Felipe has continued to provide assistance to family members still in Mexico and was successful in helping his parents and sister in the long, tedious process toward becoming lawful U.S. residents. “I have good feelings about Mexico, despite all my memories of hardship. But I’m glad that I have the opportunities now to provide a better life for my own family. I am headed toward United States citizenship and I am very happy about that.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Increasing immigration enforcement since the inauguration of President Donald Trump is an important story in Pacific County and elsewhere in the nation. But it’s a difficult story to tell, because the people most affected — undocumented immigrants — are often afraid to speak to authorities, including the news media. Chinook Observer columnist and retired teacher Sydney Stevens is writing this series, “Stories from the heart,” in an unconventional way that mostly avoids specifically identifying the people she is reporting about. Their quotes are real, their stories are real. We hope it will help illuminate this issue that is having profound impacts on Pacific County’s families, culture and economy.
A Historian Speaks
There is a long history of border crossings between the United States and Mexico and, for most of that history, crossing from one country into the other has not constituted a crime. The unauthorized movement of people is an American tradition, one that goes all the way back to the country’s founding and which originally fueled our nation’s settlement. Millions of our citizens — not only those of Mexican origin but also those whose ancestry is European, Slavic, Jewish, and Chinese — have forebears who, by today’s standards, broke some law as they arrived in this country and became Americans. John F. Kennedy was correct when he famously called our country “A Nation of Immigrants.”
It was not until 1882 that the first significant immigration law was passed by Congress. The Chinese Exclusion Act specifically prohibited an ethnic group from immigrating to the United States on the premise that their entry endangered “the good order” of certain localities. The law was intended to stop the influx of Chinese workers from coming here in search of jobs as miners, as railroad workers, and as farm laborers. Instead, illegal immigration became one of its most significant legacies. Ironically, the primary route into the United States for illegal Chinese immigrants was through Mexico and across the very same border over which undocumented workers are still making their way.
Though the insecure nature of our border with Mexico has long been treated as unusual, or even as abnormal and correctable, history suggests otherwise. Even our lawmakers seem to assume that our southern border was once a genuine barrier, and could easily (if expensively) become one again. However, for better or for worse, all of our borders, including the one with Mexico, have always been highly porous. To imagine a secure line around the country or any part of it is to yearn for a past that never existed.
The immigration debate of recent years is one deeply tainted by historical amnesia. When politicians call for us to “regain control” of the border, they evoke the false notion that the border was ever “under control” in the first place. To look at our country today is to see a nation that grew up and developed because of — not despite — leaky borders.
As 20th century Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”