“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.”
“First I found a coyote; then I called a relative.”
In 2008, Javier made the difficult decision to come to the United States. “I was a 30-year-old single dad with four children. I had been working in the city but circumstances caused me to return to my childhood home so my mother could look after my kids. Leaving them was not a decision I made lightly. My own childhood had been hard and I wanted better for my kids. Far better,” he said. He was willing to share his story, but the telling was not easy.
“My eight siblings and I grew up in the heartland of Mexico, a few hours from Mexico City. We lived in a two-room house that my father built from stones cleared from the property. No bathroom, just an outhouse,” he says matter-of-factly.
“We had a cattle ranch — sold the calves and also the milk. I was six when I began working with my dad and grandfather. I got up at four in the morning, worked until time for school, and then worked after school, too. No playing for us. I hauled water; I rode a horse in the fields; when I was nine, I was given a pistol to protect the cattle from predators and also from rustlers. Everyone had a pistol. It was like the Wild West!” Javier said seriously.
“Times were very hard and it was expensive for my dad to keep nine kids in school. We had milk and cheese to eat and, sometimes, beef. I finally quit when I was 10 so I could work full-time to help out, but things were tough. Eventually, we had to sell the cattle and the land. When I was 12, my father went to the U.S. and I became the main provider for the family.”
Javier describes his own decision to come to the U.S. years later as an “economic necessity” much like his father’s before him. “In order for kids to go to school, you have to have money. Uniforms, books, shoes, backpacks, supplies and then you need to buy costumes for all the festivals! Just to start the year was $150! It’s not too much here, but there it’s a couple of months’ wages at a good-paying job. So, I guess you could say I followed in my father’s footsteps by coming north.”
Once his decision was made, he first found a “coyote.” (Coyotaje is a colloquial Mexican-Spanish term referring to the practice of smuggling people across the U.S.-Mexico border.) Next, he made a call to a relative in the U.S. “My relative did what we call juntar dinero or ‘gather money’. He went to the Mexican community here and people put in money — usually $1,000 each. Once the money is gathered, it’s given to someone here in the U.S. to pay the coyote after you have safely arrived. In my case, it was $7,000 but nowadays it’s more like $11,000.”
Javier traveled by foot for three days. He was with one other family member along with seven other people they didn’t know — men and women of all different ages. They slept in rock formations under the trees during the day and traveled by night. “No, I was never afraid,” he tells me. “It was a lot like when I was a small boy, out caring for the cattle all by myself. It felt like familiar territory.
“When we reached the border, we waited where we could see the guards. It was the middle of the night when their shifts change. During that change, there is a window of time — just seconds — to make a run for it. On the other side, a car was waiting to take us to a safe house.”
“But still, you aren’t safe. Not yet. You lay low while the coyote goes out and collects his fee. Once he has it, you go with whoever your ride is, through another checkpoint, and hold your breath in hopes you aren’t stopped. Once I was in the United States, I started working to pay back the people, one at a time. It’s always the first priority to pay the money back right away. You never know when you may need to juntar dinero again — like maybe for bail money at the ICE detention center!”
At first, he lived in California, working in the fields. “I came here to work. Family members here in Pacific County who worked in the oysters told him to come north. “The pay was better and I needed to send money home to my mom who was caring for my four kids. They were living in those same two rooms I grew up in.” His eyes sparkle as he tells how he’s managed to send money enough to fix up her house and put in a full bathroom — also to build a house for his kids and to support all 14 family members who are still in Mexico.
When asked about the most difficult part, there is no hesitation. “Being apart from my kids,” Javier says. “Even though I know I am giving them more than I ever could if I were living in Mexico. But it is easier for me than it was for my father. Through video-chat, I see them and talk to them every day. I can still be a dad, even though it’s from far away.”
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.
The border separating Mexico and the United States is the most frequently crossed international boundary in the world, with approximately 350 million legal crossings taking place annually. It is 1,989 miles in length and spans six Mexican states and four U.S. states.
But it was not always so. In the mid-16th century, the area was technically part of the Kingdom of New Spain. Due to its sparse population and diverse citizenry, it did not seem to belong to any country. That was the case for some 250 years — until the early 19th century when the U.S. bought the lands known as the Louisiana Purchase from France and began to expand westward.
The border, itself, was not clearly defined until the Mexican colony became independent from Spain. Mexico then attempted to create a buffer zone at the border that would prevent possible invasion from the North. The Mexican government encouraged thousands of their own citizens to settle in the region that is now known as Texas and even offered inexpensive land to settlers from the U.S. in exchange for populating the area. The influx of people did not provide the defense that Mexico had hoped for and, instead, Texas declared its independence in 1836, which lasted until 1845 when the U.S. annexed it.
Constant conflicts in the Texas region led to the Mexican-American War, which begin in 1846, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the terms of the peace treaty, Mexico lost more than 960,000 square miles of land and 55 percent of its territory, including what are today California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. In addition, all disputes over Texas and the territory between Rio Grande and Rio Nueces were abandoned.
Five years later, the Gadsden Purchase completed the creation of the current U.S.–Mexico border. The purchase was initially to accommodate a planned railway right-of-way. These purchases left approximately 300,000 people living in the once disputed lands, many of whom were Mexican nationals. Following the establishment of the current border a number of towns sprang up along this boundary and many of the Mexican citizens were given free land in the northern regions of Mexico in exchange for returning and repopulating the area.