My Path to U.S. Citizenship
Part I. The Departure
To wipe the slate clean is almost impossible in Mexico, social mobility is only a dream. There is no right to pursue happiness, no liberty and life is conditioned to your class and color of your skin.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Mexico City. We had some years of traveling, good food, great education and other things that later would be considered little luxuries. 1994 changed Mexico forever, it left social scars and wounds difficult to treat. EZLN declared war and the government militarized Chiapas for a decade, NAFTA goes into effect, a presidential candidate is assassinated live on primetime, the official party since 1929 wins the election again and “December mistake crisis” crushes the economy, many people lost their homes, businesses closed in matter of weeks, wages fell by 30%, more political assassinations, and Mexico lost against Bulgaria and is eliminated from world cup. I can probably think of more stuff, but at that point I was just focused on my studies and avoiding reality at all cost.
We lost our home. April 30th 1994 on our way back from school we saw all of our belongings outside, a big truck waiting, police and curious neighbors but the most heartbreaking moment was seeing my mom holding a pot with mole she was preparing for my dad for days. My dad didn’t stop, we drove by slowly and in shock, he kept driving and left my brother and I with one of his friends, he pick us up later that night and we learned that we lost our home and that we were going to live with my grandmother.
I was still traumatized by all of the social unrests but specifically by the assassination of the presidential candidate Colosio, I couldn’t stop thinking of the gun on his head and the music playing in the background, and now this. My closet was now reduced to a box, in the bottom I kept my precious possessions such as soccer cards, coins and all that childish treasures, on top my perfectly folded clothes, I’m proud to say that my box was the most organized of the family. So, repeat this phenomena with millions of other people. Rural areas got the worst part. Entire towns in Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guanajuato and you name it shut down, it’s one of mankind’s biggest diasporas, they all crossed the border to the US after they lost their fields and farms, farms their families owned for generations. That was the first wave since the bracero program during WWII, only this time without any documentation, plan or agenda.
It was a lost decade as now historians refer to this crisis. My generation grew up with parents in shock, they were still trying to figure out how to get out of the hole while teens (me) were looking for solutions, fictional solutions because what did we know? we created groups, underground groups, you know, the kind of groups Kissinger fears and attacked in the 70s all over Latin America, we grew up hating our military because of what they did to our people in Chiapas, we grew up, I have to admit and I’m very sorry but I have to say this, we really grew up disliking U.S. foreign policy after NAFTA, and that’s on top our historical rivalry since the 1840s. My grandparents lived in Guanajuato, so this crisis hit me on every direction. Our generation resuscitated the fight for clean and democratic elections, something not seen in almost 80 years, and we almost won. To us it was not a lost decade, we opened our eyes and stayed awake, there’s always a stick in the mud trying to blame the poor for being poor while being poor, but that’s everywhere.
I started working and dropped off from school, it was too difficult to balance life and you’ll think I have a lot of excuses for leaving my studies, I was actually a good student, but I wanted to be a chef one day, and I told my dad just to apparently crush his heart. He knew I was politically active and kind of made fun of my leftist ideology since he saw the same thing happened in the 60’s but nothing flourished off that bloody epoch, so he wanted me to study something related to politics or laws, that would be a nightmare.
My parent’s relationship ended for a second and last time and my mom was sick of her job, we bought a house in Mazatlan and we left Mexico City for good, we really thought we were going to make it, a fresh new beginning.
Mazatlan makes me incredibly happy, to me it is the most beautiful place on earth, and it’s probably because of my limited horizons and trips overseas, but maybe because there’s real magic in that place. It’s still Mexico, same shenanigans and crisis, but you don’t feel as bad. Food is always fresh, seafood is no doubt its highlight, sand is soft and golden and sunsets are spectacular almost every day. Poverty is a different kind of poverty compared to Mexico City and the south, the caste system in the capital and racism is overwhelming, you can breathe a little bit better in Sinaloa.
My mom started her own business and we were waiting for our new home to be constructed, things were moving slow but we were hopeful, money was still short so I looked for a second job, prep cook just one block away from my mom’s restaurant, so I was almost all day on the same street, few steps from the ocean. The wage was miserable US$150 per month plus tips, servers usually tip the kitchen, so that was like 5% or so, fresh cash every night, and that money went right into my mom’s wallet when I got home every night. I was sort of happy, I had great friends, and we enjoyed ceviches and cold Pacificos after work, which by the way, that trendy beer comes from Mazatlan #YoureWelcome. I thought one day we would get our budget balanced, have our home and our business would get more recognition. But we lost our home, or even worst, the house was never built and we lost that money. Corruption is Mexico’s biggest cancer. It was time to move on, we worked harder, we looked for solutions and we decided not to be depressed this time, just take it as it is. Election time started and we organized a youth group to get the left motivated again and get people to vote, and be observant during election night, that distracted me a little bit, some of the organizers disappeared and activists around the country got killed. I gave up, I was exhausted, I had to do something, something different in order to help myself and my family. So I asked for help, a friend of mine lived in Milwaukee and she hooked me up with an employer, I didn’t tell my mom just yet but I made a decision.
When I told my mom she ignored me for a whole day, then got really mad, she said to me “what about all that b.s. of transforming Mexico and all of that? are you giving up?” and she’s right, some days I feel like I failed and I failed my country for not finding other solutions or being more solidary, I did what I could, but I had to put my family first. Just like the people in 1994 my generation started to abandon Mexico, once again.
Mexico is more than just a country, it is a compendium of cultures fusioned into one rich and beautiful clan. We’re proud of our roots, despite all the negative stuff. We’re like a good mole, a sauce with dozens of ingredients from sweet to spicy and difficult to explain, complex and it takes time to cook. We dance to sad music, laugh at funerals and play soccer with anything you can kick, and that’s never enough to win a world cup. We are more optimistic than we should, we duct tape life.
My last day in Mazatlan was incredibly difficult to me, I had a knot in my throat the entire time. I went to the beach in the morning, got some fresh seafood and cooked brunch for my family. I went home and procrastinated until it was time to go. Mom and brother took me to the bus station, I was wearing jeans, a shirt and a black sweater, I knew it was going to be cold in Wisconsin but fashion goes first. I only had one winter jacket, a ridiculous one with a huge Dallas Cowboys star in the back, my mom made sure I took that with me. So the bus left and I cried a little bit, my mom and I don’t cry in public or when each other is present but that day we broke that awful rule forever, and I’m actually glad.
I arrived in Guadalajara for my next day flight and my dad and my grandmother were waiting for me at the airport, we stayed in a hotel close by. First time I saw my dad in almost 2 years since he lives in Mexico City, so that was very special that they drove to Guadalajara to say goodbye. It was also the last time I saw my grandmother before she got Alzheimer. He made sure I didn’t forget traditional Mexican food because that’s all we ate until my departure. When I said goodbye to them my grandmother gave me a tiny bible.
I only had $50 with me, that’s a lot in Mexico, or was even more 10 years ago, so I was constantly making sure I had my wallet in my pants and that the money was still there. My plane landed in Houston, TX and I was so confused, lost, terrified and paranoid. Getting lost is one of the things I do best anyhow, but that airport is a nightmare, knowing only 25% of English didn’t help, and I was for the first time in my life experiencing a kind of discrimination I wasn’t prepared for.
I abandoned my Dallas Cowboys jacket in Houston, there was no way I was going to wear that monstrosity in Wisconsin, plus I was a fan of Brett Favre since little. I was confident that I could survive the last few weeks of winter with only a sweater, it was March after all, and nobody told me Winter ends in June in Wisconsin sometimes. Plane took off. You can tell when you’re entering the upper Midwest during winter from above, and it is terrifying when it’s your first time when you come from a tropical city. The snow, the thick gray cloud that seems to get its dark energy from absorbing vitamin D off every living being and that mothership-cloud seems to have its anchor in Milwaukee. Landing was fun, right on top of snow and dense fog.
My friend and his brother were waiting for me at the airport, she had to go back to work so her brother took me to my new home, but not before stopping at IHop, because I was seriously hungry. I didn’t know what to order and I still don’t know why he took me there, I seriously don’t know, I ordered fish fry because I knew it was famous in Milwaukee, let me tell you something, and I don’t care if people get mad at me, but that was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had, that’s before I had some nasty “Asian” nachos at Bastille Days 7 years later, but that’s another story, in conclusion, don’t eat their fish sticks. So again, I only had $50 and I spent $15, with the tip, I don’t know what scared me the most, the flavor or losing a quarter of my money with it. I also ordered tortillas and the server thought I was trolling her. I also said gracias by mistake and she got all offended. Worst experience ever. I do like their pancakes, even when I rather avoid that place altogether.
He finally took me to their place, a very nice family, they welcomed me in such an incredible way, I will always be thankful. That apartment was above a mechanic shop in the south side, across the street from Forest Home cemetery. My new bedroom was great, bed was comfortable, I had a chair and an alarm clock that two days later disappeared. So I carefully unpacked, I didn’t have much and I wished I had that stupid Cowboy’s jacket with me. My journey was just about to begin.
I was finally able to wipe the slate clean. For the first time I thought that the pursuit of happiness was a real thing, in a selfish way because I abandoned my homeland and my family, it was a bittersweet emotion but I started to feel free.