The Journey North
I knew we were close once we reached the magazine stands. As we waited in our car, in a serpentine line that stretched back at least a mile, my parents liked to buy the latest Mexican tabloids, you know, to stay hip to celebrity gossip. For me, once the magazines were purchased, I had to start practicing my lines.
“U.S. citizen, sir.” “U.S. citizen, sir.”
I’d repeat this over and over until it sounded convincing. My mother taught me this phrase to say once we’d reach the border crossing at Ciudad Juarez’ Bridge of the Americas. Robotically, I’d say the lines to the customs officer and he would ask my parents if we were bringing anything back with us. We’d say no, he’d nod his head and let us through. Voila! We were back in Texas. Living in El Paso, I did this dozens of times. I was so good at it that I convinced myself that I was American.
But I wasn't a U.S. citizen. Or even a resident. I had no business in the United States, except that my parents decided to make it our home when I was five. How was I to know that what I was doing was illegal? My parents told me to, so I did. It’s amazing to think back and recall just how fluid the border once was.
I always wished I had a better story of how we came here. To America. I wanted to tell people that my father carried me in his arms while my mother held my sister’s hand as we crossed the Rio Grande together, brutal waves splashing us, but the reality is that my family’s migration North was as painless as most car rides are. So painless in fact, that I don’t even remember the trip. The line between Mexican and American was as murky as the trickle of water in the river.
I only wish I had a better story to honor those who die coming here. For those brave enough to leave everything they had, everything they knew behind at a chance at a better life. I had it cozy. It was easy. It’s unfair to those, like a student at my school (I work at a public charter school in D.C.), that go through hell and back, in this case to reconnect with a parent.
She’s only 16. She shared her story with me on a short metro ride after a school-wide community service trip. She had left Honduras two years ago, following her mother who was already in Washington. She bothered her mom to the point where her mother convinced her aunt to take her. She crossed through Guatemala into Tapachula, Mexico, a town in the southern state of Chiapas and main crossing point for most Central American immigrants.
She rode La Bestia, the famous train known for its roof top sitting and splendid countryside views. She reached Acapulco only to be detained and forced to stay in a holding center for two days. She was deported. Back to Honduras, but not deterred. She tried again, this time reaching Sonora, a northern state that borders Arizona. The coyote led them into America. She recalls him being mean.
The coyote promised the trip would last several hours, but reports of Border Patrol sightings set them on a detour. The trip would last three days, traversing the unforgiving desert with little supplies. She wanted to quit. Told her aunt that she could take no more. But they’d made it this far. So she kept going and they finally reached Phoenix.
She’d stay there for two days, in a house packed with other immigrants before heading to Los Angeles. A family she didn’t know welcomed her, fed her, gave her clean clothes and a place to sleep. But her mother was still thousands of miles away.
Unfortunately, I was reaching my stop on the metro as she shared this story, so the abridged version she shared would have to do. She obviously reached D.C. and now she’s back with her mom. A simple Internet search shows that Tegucigalpa is 2500 miles from Phoenix. To Los Angeles is another 372 miles. From L.A. to D.C. 2668 miles. More than 5000 miles to reach a city you’ve never been to, because you wanted to see your mom again.
She’s the reason my story just doesn’t compare. She’s an immigrant just like I once was, but while she risked her life to get here; all I had to do was practice such a simple line.
“U.S. citizen, sir.” “U.S. citizen, sir.”