Embracing My Undocumented
Immigrant Identity

One Latino reflects on how he overcame his fears to find that the best use of his citizenship today is to speak against anti-immigrant attacks.

By Alberto Ledesma Feb 05, 2010

February 5, 2010

We’ll call him Jim—Jim Garcia. Before this night in late May 2009, I had never met him. He stood about five foot seven in his Crocs—my height, but he was about 40 pounds heavier. He wore rimless glasses, but unlike me he sported a scruffy beard and a buzz haircut. We were assembled at a Holiday Inn bar in Albuquerque, where we were all attending a Latino writers’ conference. I’d been told that he was a children’s book writer, that he had just won some award in Texas for his first picture book and that he was funny. All I noticed at first was that I liked how he giggled.

The other two writers sitting at our table I knew from a past conference. To protect their privacy I’ve changed their names in this essay, but suffice it to say that all of us, it seemed, identified as Latino writers: Rafael the Nicaraguan, Andrew the Puerto Rican, and I the Mexican immigrant. As for Jim? I didn’t know but assumed he was Latino. I would soon find out differently.

After a long day of seminars on how to write marketable fiction and the like, the four of us had sat down to unwind over a few drinks. By half past midnight, we had the bar to ourselves and were sitting at the far corner of the tiny place, while behind us, on a flat screen above our heads, analysts discussed again the Lakers’ lopsided win over Orlando and the bartender cleaned glasses.

We crowded around a table no larger than a Little Caesar’s pizza box, its surface a cityscape of nacho platters, half-full schooners with remnant arcs of salt on their rims, a nearly empty third pitcher of margaritas, and four of those ridiculously small plates that make you realize just how impossible it is to scoop guacamole and Monterey Jack when someone offers a corn chip—at least not without dripping it on your shirt.

I held my lemonade on my lap, grasping the cool glass with the fingertips of my right hand, taking sips as the minutes of conversation passed and the voices of my new friends began to slur. Having long ago made a commitment to avoid drinking, I smiled, still painfully sober in spite of the hour. I laughed when they laughed, happy to be in a community of writers like me. I listened as they spoke of their work and the places they’d been. After ten years of living there, Rafael still missed Spain. Andrew was happy that his new novel was getting so many positive reviews. Jim was thinking of a new idea for his second children’s book. Some day soon, I thought, that would be me—recently published and still ambitious.

Someone raised a glass. “Here’s to the writer’s life!” And I, too, raised my lemonade. Then it happened. Jim sighed, downed the last of his margarita and leaned forward on his chair.

“Don’t get me started with these damned illegals,” he said with a giggle. “I just think we ought to deport them all.”

The rest of us froze, then gazed at each other, as if each of us was waiting for the other to say something. Even the bartender stopped the flurry of his towel.

That pause, that moment while we waited to continue the conversation seemed to last forever. Now, the fatigue our eyes had betrayed just seconds before transformed to something different: anger, confusion, fascination.

My heartbeat quickened. I drank the rest of my lemonade in one gulp and placed the empty glass at the edge of the table. I took in a deep breath, slowly seeking to calm the beginning of convulsions in my asthmatic lungs. And I spoke.

“Excuse me. What exactly did you mean by that comment?”

His smile dissolved until his mouth was left agape. He looked at me, seemingly puzzled at first, and then he tilted his head, pensive as he weighed his approach to my question. He pushed his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose with his index finger.

“Look,” he said, his once nasal, high-pitched voice now deeper and more serious. “I’ve spent my whole life living in Eastern Texas. My family has been there for generations. I am sick and tired of all these illegals coming over the border and making a mess of things for the rest of us. It’s about time we do something about it.”  

There was no hesitation in his remarks, not even a hint of discomfort or of the irony of what he was saying and where. Here we all were, at a writers’ conference by and for Latinos, most of us feeling optimistic about our growing demographic of readers, and even here there was an immigration debate.

I crossed my arms and massaged the stubble on my chin as he continued. He was not backing down. Instead, he looked at Rafael and Andrew and nodded as he commented about how much undocumented immigrants were costing our country. “Isn’t that right?” he asked rhetorically.

Rafael and Andrew shrugged, their faces mirroring one another like identical Rorschach blots. Rafael took a drink from his nearly full margarita. Andrew looked away, towards one of the empty tables of the restaurant adjacent to the bar. Then Jim spoke again.

“Hispanics are never going to be accepted as true Americans so long as we condone the flood of illegals coming to this country. They have absolutely no respect for our laws.”    

*        *        *

In that moment, I felt the urge to tell Jim about my past—that for a decade my family and I had lived in the heart of East Oakland’s African American ghetto as undocumented Mexican immigrants. That even now, 25 years after normalizing our status, I held my breath whenever a police cruiser pulled close. But my undocumented immigrant past is not something I can easily talk about. In fact, years after becoming a citizen, I avoided talking about it altogether, even when I felt the urge to do so. The more I suppressed the urge, the greater it grew.

For a while, I thought I could appease that restless desire to confess my undocumented immigrant past by pursuing an academic degree. I wrote a dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley that focused on the ways undocumented immigrants have been represented in Mexican American novels and stories. I was proud of my achievement, of documenting, as it were, the silences of undocumented immigrants who have been part of the Mexican American community for most of the last 100 years. I discovered that even in stories where authors did not intend to focus on undocumented immigrants, indocumentado experiences were chronicled as part of the setting. They were the aunts and uncles, the long-lost cousins, the nameless faces of passersby that have appeared here and there in many Chicano classics.

When I worked as a faculty member, I taught courses that compared Mexican undocumented immigrant experiences to those of previous immigrant generations from Asia and Europe. I also looked at the parallels between the exploitation of undocumented immigrant and African American labor. “Mexican undocumented immigration is another kind of American experience,” I argued.

Still, I was not satisfied. It was my story I wanted to tell. The problem, however, was that I was scared, that I am still afraid that any disclosure of my family’s undocumented immigrant past will come back to haunt me. Who in their right mind would embrace an illegal immigrant identity at a time of increased ICE raids and deportations? And, even if I were successful in publishing a memoir about my life as an undocumented immigrant, what would happen to my family? Would they be okay with it? Would they be okay that I wanted to confess what I thought was an unforgivable sin—that I actually resented my parents for bringing our family to the United States to suffer one humiliation after another?

But, there are so few trained writers, scholars with doctoral degrees or educational activists who have actually experienced life in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Is it not my responsibility to represent?

The dirty little secret is that regardless of all the credentials I have accumulated, of all the books on law and argumentation that I’ve read, of all the impassioned speeches I have recorded and reviewed, talking about or writing stories about my undocumented immigrant past has not gotten easier.

In truth, it’s only been a few years since I gave in and started calling myself a writer. Even now, I writhe in my seat whenever I have to confess to an old friend or new acquaintance that I’ve yet to publish something more than the poetry and critical essays I produced decades ago. Yes, I have a lot of material that I’ve sketched out in journals. What I lack is the courage to follow through, to finish editing my work so publishers seriously consider it.

Because I’m that afraid.

So I recognize the fear that compelled Jim’s comments—a fear that, like mine, probably comes from shame. A fear that, similar to mine, is likely born out of the pain of being associated with what society tells us is repugnant. A fear that reminds us that others, particularly those who possess power over our lives, will see us solely as illegal and nothing else.

*        *        *

Maybe it was the lateness of the day. Maybe it was the thought that unless I spoke up I could never honestly belong to this or any community of writers. The fact is that there, in that tiny hotel bar in Albuquerque, I heard myself verbalizing a sequence of words with a speed, precision and volume I had never experienced before.

“I don’t understand how you can say these things when you are attending a Latino writers’ conference. Do you seriously think that Mexican immigrant experiences have no business being included in this conference?”

The fire that had lighted Jim’s eyes seemed to cool. He sat back, his glasses now perched near the tip of his nose. He held the padded armrests of his chair tightly, as if at any moment he would need to jump to his feet and walk away. Now, the lines across his forehead grew deeper, and tiny beads of sweat condensed everywhere on his brown skin, reflecting the bar’s green-hued lamp lights in a nervous glow.

“It, it, it’s just that where I grew up near Waco…well, you know, everybody’s a redneck, and illegals are really screwing things up.”

The more he leaned back, the more I leaned forward. The fainter his voice became, the more I felt my nostrils flaring and my top lip quivering. And the fainter his voice became, the louder my words sounded in the empty bar, until all that I could hear was the echo of an unknown voice emanating from my lips.  

“But why do you even call the undocumented illegals?” I heard myself asking. “Are you an immigration judge? How many deportation trials have you adjudicated to determine if any of these immigrants is worthy of residency? Aren’t people in the United States supposed to be innocent until proven guilty? If there is even one person who can convince a judge that she should not be deported, how can you deny any undocumented immigrant the opportunity to appeal their status?”

He said nothing. He looked at me as if he were the illegal and I the agent deporting him. Rafael and Andrew said nothing.

The bartender walked to our table to tell us he was closing for the night. In unison, we turned to look up at him. In turn, he focused on Jim and me, apparently disgusted with one or both of us.

That night, as we walked across the pastel pink and turquoise carpet of the empty hotel lobby and headed towards the elevators, I realized Jim wasn’t the person with whom I had been arguing most. It had been towards myself that I felt the most anger.

I thought back to a summer morning in 1974, when I was 8, in our little blue house in East Oakland. It was a few weeks after papá had arranged for mamá, me and the rest of our family to be smuggled across the border at Tijuana. It was early—maybe six or so—and my parents were sitting at the kitchen table sharing a cup of coffee. That’s when I overheard papá asking mamá why I was so miedoso.

“He’s not scared,” mamá had answered matter-of-factly. “It’s just that this place is too new for him.”

But I had been scared. Very scared. And because of it I grew up to become a man who was overly cautious, nauseatingly polite, always worried about offending others. I was the perpetually smiling, self-effacing immigrant Cantinflas, who deflected insults as if they were the most natural and innocent wisps of autumn air.

But that fear, that approach had failed me. Silence would not protect me from being caught.   

Oddly enough, Jim stayed close to me that night. We waited several minutes for the elevator to come down, all of us staring at the flashing lights above the elevator doors until one of us remembered that no one had pushed the button. It was then that Jim pushed his glasses back up his nose and turned to me.

“Look man, maybe I was wrong to have said that stuff. It’s just that when you said you wrote stories about undocumented immigrants, well, I just snapped.”

Earlier that night, long before Jim had blurted his comment, Andrew had asked me about my work. I had told him what I do, that I write stories about how a family of undocumented immigrants struggles to adjust to life in East Oakland and ends up having all of the kids graduating from UC Berkeley, two of them with doctorates.

It’s my family’s story.    

When Rafael had asked if the agents at the conference had been interested in my work, I’d told him they had, especially if I wrote the work as non-fiction.

“So, are you?” he asked. I didn’t respond.

*       *        *

Psychologists say that fear is an emotional response to real or imagined dangers. Humans react to threats by confronting, evading or becoming paralyzed by them. The truth is that I don’t really know what will happen to my family or me if I publish the details of my undocumented immigrant past.

What my confrontation with Jim made clear is that unless Americans of undocumented immigrant heritage break our silence about what it feels like to live undocumented, unless I publish this and other work, the notion that undocumented immigrants are brain-dead parasites incapable of intellectual and ethical reflections regarding their social, political, and historical condition in American society will persist. And, unless these ideas are challenged, undocumented immigrants will continue to be regarded solely as cheap rental equipment, machinery devoid of spiritual or intellectual worth.  

But I know what I am worth. I am more than a label or my citizenship status. My parents are more than their third-grade education. And my Berkeley Ph.D. means nothing if I remain quiet in the face of anti-immigrant attacks.

*       *        *

The day I confessed to my parents my intention of attending college they were rightfully afraid, especially my dad, concerned that such an action would reveal my status to school officials and jeopardize any chance our family would have at legalization under the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill. That bill became The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and with it my family and I gained amnesty and I a legitimated role as a college student.

In an effort to do the right thing, to make sure we all kept clean, my parents were willing to see me reject the acceptance letter Berkeley had sent me.

It was only when I argued that I would enroll in the Army if I was not permitted to attend college that mamá and papá agreed to let me go to Cal. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have been able to volunteer for military service without also revealing my undocumented status. That did not stop me from thinking about it, from hoping that such a gesture would earn me points as a potential patriot that I could use if I were ever caught.

“I’ll help you as much as I can, but you have to pay for most of your education yourself,” papá said the morning my confirmation of acceptance letter was due. As I sped through the rain-slicked streets of East Oakland up 82nd Avenue and down East 14th to the post office on 90th Avenue, I played George Benson’s “On Broadway” on my father’s car stereo at least five times. And yet, the terror I saw in mamá’s and papá’s eyes as I left, and every day that I attended Berkeley after that, told me that boot camp might have been an easier road to take.

I saw that same terror in mamá’s eyes 15 years later when I told her I was leaving my academic position to pursue the life of a writer. She looked at me from where she had been standing in front of the kitchen sink. She turned off the faucet, straightened up after wringing her towel and wiped her hands on her apron.

Pero mi’jo, why would anyone ever want to read stories about our lives? We are little people just struggling to make it from one day to the next.” She smiled when she sat on the chair next to mine.

We spoke for almost an hour; she asked questions and nodded as I tried to explain. She never asked me not to write about what we had been through—the dozens of times we had almost gotten caught—she didn’t have to. I could see it on her face, in the subtlety of her frown and the way she crossed her arms, as if that self-embrace was the only thing keeping her from collapsing mere inches in front of her first-born son. She seemed anxious about what I had in mind, worried about the kinds of secrets I might expose in my stories. Still, she said nothing and merely sat tense, quiet, looking at me as if I were a  puzzle she would never learn how to solve.

It reminded me of the way she had sat in the passenger seat of papá’s green station wagon in the summer of 1976 as we rode home after a hot day at the San Jose Flea Market. Papá had bought a box full of strawberries—big, luscious, perfectly ripe fruit. On the way home, as we moved slowly through the Sunday afternoon traffic on the Nimitz Freeway, papá, really all of us, had one of those moments where we forgot about our status. A coworker had told him about a park not far from the highway we were now stuck on. It had a lake, dozens of pine trees and a picnic area where we could enjoy our strawberries. As soon as he saw an off-ramp, papá exited the freeway and headed towards the area his friend had told him about. As we looked for a place to park, papá found himself driving the opposite way into the City of Fremont Police Department’s parking lot, just as a police cruiser was exiting.

“It is a common mistake,” the officer said to my sister Silvia as he pointed towards the right entrance to the park. Mamá remained quiet in the passenger seat, her eyes towards the front, a subtle frown on her face and her arms wound tightly across her torso. That’s the way she stayed all the way home. And, that’s the way she sat as I told her I would no longer be a college professor, that I would instead write our family stories.

Maybe I learned my own fear from mamá. More precisely, the main lesson I learned from her was to protect family at all costs, that the needs of the many must always outweigh the wishes of the few. This, after all, is the way she has always led her life, the reason that she ventured to the United States with her children in tow to find her husband. This also seemed to be the reason for her concern about my writing and why she silenced her terror so many years ago in that Fremont Police Department parking lot.

Today, the family needs have changed. I am no longer hunted. Today, I am a Mexican American citizen of the United States. Safety is no longer contingent on remaining silent and invisible. And every endangered community eventually learns that silence equals death. If I want my citizenship to matter I must learn how to speak to the Jim Garcias of the world. If I want my people to know their worth, I must learn how to speak for the immigrants in the United States who cannot yet speak for themselves.

Alberto Ledesma is a writer in Northern California. The author can be contacted at albertoledesma@comcast.net.