More than anything, I'd like to share Maria's story.
Maria was my nanny, and today she is like a second mother to me. I spent the first five years of my life with Maria, as both of my parents worked 90-hour weeks in their respective high-flung careers. During the sunny Southern California days before I went to pre-school, Maria and I would roam the back yard in search of new budding flowers to pick, all the while watching new BMWs and Audis buzz up the hill beside my house. We'd sit on vinyl patio furniture after delivering lemonade to the gardener--Maria's husband--and sing songs in Spanish to pass the time. Without siblings, I bonded with Maria as both a mother and perhaps a sister: she was all I had those first five years, and everything we did and said was in Spanish. So, the Spanish language-the language of immigrants-was the language through which I saw and perceived my most formative years. And we spoke Spanish because, that's all Maria knew how to speak. Maria did not and still doesn't speak English. Maria also cannot read in any language, for she had to quit school at the age of seven to work to support her single mother and family. Her rearing, as well as her life, differed greatly from my own.
Maria immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 1970. She used her life's savings to pay a coyote (someone who passes you through the border illegally) to help her cross the border. The coyote asked her for a large sum of American dollars and, in return, guaranteed her safety as she passed. This guarantee was fleeting, however, as Maria suffered robbery, rape, abortion, and exploitation in the process of journeying toward a "better" life in the United States.
Why did Maria immigrate, you might ask? Because if she didn't, she would have starved. Maria literally would have starved to death in Mexico if she had stayed. She was one of thirteen siblings, two of whom had passed away. A single mother raised her, and for an uneducated mother to find a job well paying enough to support a family in Mexico during that time was unheard of.
If someone told you that tomorrow you'd wake up with $0 to your name and no parents to support you and no one else to whom you could run for help, what would you do? Would you allow the time to pass until you became so emaciated that you curled up into a ball and resigned to drift away into the darkness? To die? Because that's what a two of Maria's siblings did. Or, would you fight for your life, as Maria did? Would you pour your family's life savings into this fight, too? I challenge you to think about this. Think about this critically. Because this is the hypothetical situation we of the more privileged and educated classes often forget, or neglect, to consider.
For conservatives, Maria's anecdote may sound hard to believe. It may sound exaggerated or over-the-top, but that's because, chances are, many conservatives have never talked to someone who has survived blatant violations of basic human rights in pursuit of a better life. But does suffering lead to a better life? Or does enduring suffering lead to a life where you can simply make more money to in order to buy food in order survive? Because there's a difference. There's a big difference.
For many wealthier conservatives who scoff at immigrants, who call them racists, and who, likely, have never talked to, met, or taken the time to really sit down and listen to an immigrant's story of entering a country where (false) "hope" pervades, Maria's story may sound far-fetched. But it's not. It's real. And it belongs to so many other Marias and JosŽs of our nation--so many people who may not even have had the opportunity to gain the language skills necessary to articulate their own stories in writing.
Maria doesn't have these language skills to write her own story, because she had to quit school in the third grade to work. Working never stopped for Maria, and when she arrived in the U.S. she spent her first dozen years working on the Goya bean factory's production line in Los Angeles, CA. She canned beans for a measly hourly wage and shared a two-bedroom apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood with six other women. When, several years after coming to the U.S., she got into a car accident with her husband, which totaled their vehicle, she refused to go to the hospital, despite having been concussed, for fear of being deported. This accident left Maria's husband deaf in one ear, an accident for which neither people ever received emergency treatment.
In 1986, before I was even born, Maria was granted amnesty, and therefore citizenship, under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law. When she came to work for my family, Maria was a citizen, but at heart still an immigrant.
It wasn't until later in my life that Maria shared the intricate details of her immigration experience with me. When this last election season rolled around, I'd call Maria constantly and ask for her thoughts. She remained consistently hopeful that the democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, who stood for the very social democratic values that allowed Maria to recover and live in this country, would be elected. But when Hillary was not elected, both Maria and I were crushed.
Maria was the first person I called the morning after the winner was announced. In Spanish, she relayed over the phone to me that, "I guess there's no place for [my husband and I] in this country anymore, Valerie. I guess we're going to have to figure out where to go next, because we're not wanted here."
To hear these utterances from the mouth of the woman who not only raised me, but who emulated for me ALL of the characteristics of a model, hard-working, and moral citizen killed my spirits. To hear Maria tell me how Donald Trump's slurs against Mexican people plagued her further demoralized me to the point of immobilization. The day after the election, I could not move. I wanted to curl up into a ball and let the darkness pervade me. I felt like I had no other choice.
But today, I share Maria's story so that we do not remain immobile and so that we do not yield to the darkness that lies within the xenophobic heart. Instead, let us rise up and mobilize, let us rally against hateful speech and xenophobic rhetoric, and let us remember that all people are human, deserving of human rights, dignity and respect.
Issue No. 18 • Spring 2017