I remember the stress and anxiety as the police car switched from one lane to the next and was suddenly behind us. The tension in the car as we slowly ensured that the seatbelts were fastened, we were at the speed limit, and we were not making any sudden movements. Wide-eyed while holding our breath, the police car quickly moved past us and we were finally able to exhale. The feeling you just read about encompassed the greater formative years of my life and beyond.
I am the fourth born to my parents, as my eldest sibling tragically passed away back in Mexico. Shortly after his passing, my parents decided to go to “el otro lado” and pursue their version of the American Dream. In the 80’s, the border was not what it is today as people came and went as needed so when my parents decided to come to the US for better opportunities, they were able to easily drive across the border. Despite this, once on American soil, they were undocumented.
We are from a town called Maneadero which is just outside of Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. Let me explain, if you are looking at the map of Mexico, there is a little peninsula on the far left. Now that upper part of the peninsula is Baja California Norte where you find Ensenada and if you zoom a little more, you’ll see a small town called Maneadero and that is where you will find my family. Maneadero is also largely known for having one of the three blowholes in the world, called La Bufadora.
Now that we have the backstory, I’ll share why this is significant. See the thing is, I was born in the mid 80’s and by this time, my parents were unfortunately not getting along anymore. They decided to separate and my mother became a single mother of three children by the age of 23. She began working as a cleaning lady and unfortunately, due to little pay and supporting three children on her own, we began moving a lot. The moves were big and small, as it was challenging to set roots down when there was a constant worry about how we would keep a roof over our head or where our next meal would come from. My mother had applied for her green card during the Reagan era and unfortunately, paperwork was lost due to the moves and she did not obtain citizenship.
I didn’t understand stress and anxiety as a child. In fact, I don’t think anyone really did in my family but what I did understand at a very young age was fear. As we continued moving through our lives, I remember helping my mother practice words in English in case something were to happen. Since our extended family was so close to the border, we would go to Ensenada often. The border crossing was such a painful experience because in those hours of waiting to cross al otro lado, my mother and I would practice as she said “US Citizen” to be prepared when the immigration officer would ask her about her immigration status. We would practice this for hours. I would quiz her on the name of the president, the name of the governor, and where we were headed. This went on for years. Every time we would successfully cross the border, we would exit the freeway, park in the Chevron gas station, and my mother would finally be able to take a deep breath. This was the norm and at the time, I thought this was what everyone did, not realizing that what was happening was that she was crossing the border illegally.
As I continued growing through my teenage years and into adulthood, I remember often feeling fear that we were going to be “found out.” What is interesting about this is that I never feared that my mother would be taken. Instead, I feared that we all would be taken. Without realizing it, I was living vicariously through my mother as her experiences became my own. I would feel tension and stress if the police were around. I would avoid eye contact and keep to myself to stay under the radar as much as possible. I would mute myself to avoid questions about our immigration status. I was holding secrets and no one could know about it.
We lived this way for many many years. When I was 24 years old, I helped my mother finally become a citizen after being in this country for over 30 years. Thirty years of stress, anxiety, fear, tension, and tears. Thirty years of wondering if we were hiding enough or if we should hide more. Thirty years of missed opportunities because of the fear of deportation. Thirty years of living in the shadows.
Reflecting on my experience, I know that there is an advantage because of my citizenship however it did not feel that way. My mother was a go-getter and resilient through and through but it came with a price. Fear, stress, and anxiety was instilled in me at a very young age because of her immigration status which became my identity. She has taught me a lot throughout the years, one of the biggest lessons being to not take no for an answer and continuously push against the current. This is what she was doing throughout the years that she lived undocumented, throughout the years that it felt as though I was living undocumented as well.
We all have our own unique story. In sharing mine, my hope is that it allows you to reflect on your struggles and strength, allowing yourself to seek support. I’ve had to do a lot of unlearning and relearning to help me grow, learn, and heal. That healing part though, that’s a lifelong journey.