The Burden Of Visibility For Immigrant Women

By Olivia Olivia

flickr/Esparta Palma

Let’s say it’s Redwood City, California, in the year 1995. One woman, like many women who track invisibly through this life and the next, is carrying the tools of her trade in a car she’s driven across international and state lines. She’s an accountant, sometimes, other times a child-minder, sometimes a house cleaner. She’s also my mom. And she and I are both two of the most invisible women in America: We are refugees.

We come from El Salvador. We have the blood of slaves, natives, and the colonizers who raped and killed us in our veins, and it’s hot and angry and wild. And yet, we are the gargoyles of the modern world — waiting at a bus stop, sweeping a small corner of a grocery store, unloading dishes at the back of a Japanese restaurant, consoling a blonde woman’s baby behind the garden of a church or a park, eternally charged with immobility and grayness. The world of a foreign woman in the United States is the world of anonymity. To the unknown American passing by, we blend together, from one Maria to the next. But inside, we are screaming to have our names remembered, to have any form of individualization or mobility, to raise our own children instead of someone else’s, to steal the strawberries and eat them ourselves. It may be shocking to some, but for over 20 years, this has been my reality, and the life of my mother before me.

Being an immigrant, of course, comes in stages. When you come here as a child you don’t have the words. You don’t know when people refer to “illegals” they mean you. It doesn’t matter if your parents were heavily educated in their own countries or not, or if they actually have some documentation anyway. It only matters to others that your mother is large and dark and fat, that she’s listening to Spanish radio, that her face is torn and bulbous with sadness and it doesn’t look pointed and fragile, it looks wide and flat like the sun. It matters to them that you’re there, at first. That’s the first thing you notice as an immigrant child. And then it matters to them that you’re speaking a language they don’t understand.

Invisibility was being afraid to introduce myself by my government name to white children at school. Going to school in a different district several miles away from home, just so I could get a better education, my mom reminded me to be careful who I introduced myself to. “You never know when you’ll have a fight and they’ll do something horrible like tell people where you live,” she warned. I thought about the gifted school I attended, with no one that looked like me there, with no one to speak Spanish to. “You don’t know what those girls really think about people like us,” she warned. I was angry she would say that. But it was a very hard lesson I would have to learn, whether I liked it or not.

Invisibility didn’t end at never bringing up who we were or where we came from. It expanded over time. Immigrants move. They are forced to change homes and cities and schools frequently. I remember the words rolling off some white teacher’s tongue, though now I can’t remember the context, only the sting: “Hopelessly itinerant,” she said, shaking her head. Whether it was my poor grades, my restless behavior in class, or constant crying with my head down in homeroom, I knew what the words meant. I knew they meant she had given up on me, and probably on others before and after me. The worse part of being invisible is that we’re all the same.

As we passed through new towns and apartment buildings, invisibility was the empty life behind us. When there’s no old friends, neighbors, or classmates to remind you who you are, you start to lose a core feeling of who you are too. I imagine some people’s lives are like a map: they have people who have known them, new and old, who remind them of their first communion or that time they chipped their tooth as a toddler or what you wore last Halloween. When you’re an immigrant, it’s like a big Etch-a-sketch that someone keeps shaking up. There’s no lines or people or events in the past — just a big dusty blur. You start to forget who you were last year or last city, too.

And the people or little pets you do remember are always disappearing in a way that you struggle to make sense of as a kid and later again as an adult. I remember a spotted kitten I had for a few months before it ran away from one house, or a middle-aged white woman who, for some reason I still don’t totally understand, sat with me for several hours some afternoons in our Belmont apartment complex, teaching me about sand dollars. She brought me shells and dried up starfish in jars full of sand and told me I lived in California now, about an hour south of San Francisco. I can’t remember now who she was or why we moved away when we did, or how I even met her, but I remember holding onto her dried up starfish and hiding it in the bathroom with some potpourri until I was a teenager, and one day it was just gone and I never saw her or heard from her again.

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Credit: matt/Flickr

Somehow, being invisible for so long means you don’t really remember who you are aside from the things you do or where you live that year. I remember, too, my sister died when I was five. She was 20, and it was 1993, and my mom got a phone call that this young woman the world hardly knew had been killed in a car accident. I don’t remember the sorrow or the funeral or the mourning. I barely even remember my sister. I only remember being introduced to this young woman in her new form — a golden box filled with her ashes. It had a little cross on it, and we packed it into my mother’s car, and we did the thing we had to do when the world crossed us: we moved. “We loved her so much,” my mom used to say, shaking her head, trudging endlessly on, be it to work or school or to another part of the state. “There is no reason she should be dead right now.”

For decades, my mom was forced to watch other children grow up, knowing her own daughter was dead. She rocked white babies with blonde heads to sleep, or drove them to ballet practice, or cooked them warm meals, while I waited at home or at a public library for someone to pick me up. She blended in seamlessly to their households and gardens, quietly living a life few people understood or cared to.

Years later, I naturalized as a college student at an elite liberal arts school, hiding my past and my citizenship woes from even my closest friends. I didn’t want them to know I had spent the first 17 years of my life as an un-person, a dot in the back of everyone else’s narrative or neighborhood, some passerby. I wanted to finally be a permanent fixture of someone else’s life. I wanted people to remember me and know who I was. I wanted to decide who I was going to be. I shook hands firmly and dyed my hair bright blue so no one would forget what I looked like or mistake me for someone else. I started writing so people would know what I thought and what I sounded like.

“Why did your parents come here,” one rich white girl me asked in college after a reading. “Aren’t there apples to pick in Mexico?”

“My parents didn’t come here to pick apples, and we are not from Mexico,” I said. “I am from El Salvador,” I explained, suddenly realizing I had never publicly claimed my own background or history to a white woman before on purpose. To name a place, to suddenly know we had a home no matter how remote it seemed, felt confrontational. She didn’t know where it was, or why people were leaving that country, or what America did there in the 1980s. She couldn’t even pronounce it. This woman who consumed our sugar and coffee and bananas so readily had likely no idea who we even were.

“Your president backed a dictatorship there in the 1980s, and my parents condemned it and organized against it,” I explained. “And they won.”

And at what a cost — these people who finally left, my people, my parents — had survived something I barely understood. They spoke of greed, of workers, of the poisonous demand for tobacco, of the people fleeing to the jungle and arming themselves. They spoke of liberation theology, of churches backing the poor, and of millions of people dying in hopes of being free. They spoke of “the disappeared” — the people the government took away and never returned, dead or alive. Many of our loved ones disappeared, including my father, who somehow survived to tell the tale. They fled the country, they said, and disappeared into a darker invisibility — surviving in the United States.

And I understood then that for them, it had all been washed away, they were used to having the lights dimmed over their heads. They were used to living in the shadows of a harshly visible, painful world. “We chose to be invisible here, than visible there,” my mom said. “Back then they just killed you like that in the streets. They killed the Archbishop in front of the entire country. Of course we left.”

And maybe it’s well we live in a dark place in between our cultures, struggling to remember who we knew and where we lived. That’s the crux of invisible women — sometimes the pain of being known is simply too heavy a burden to carry in a world that would try to kill us for it. And sometimes, our daughters carry that burden on into the next life, trying to shine a light onto the women that crossed borders and broke the ocean in half just to give their daughter a name the world could pronounce, and a voice to translate their story with.

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