[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]
Janise Hurtig, Coordinator, Community Writing Project
The three stories that follow were written by Karina Cardenas, Rebeca Nieto, and Abel Angeles, Mexican immigrant women who have participated in and led writing workshops facilitated by the Community Writing Project in their children’s schools. The Community Writing Project (CWP) offers adult writing and publishing workshops to residents of poor and immigrant neighborhoods in the Chicago area. We believe that every person is a thinker and an artist, that the stories people tell about their lives contain important insights for themselves and their neighbors, and that the seeds for change can be found in the artistic and intellectual renderings of ordinary people. Our goal is to provide a forum for creative expression in which people can share their experiences, examine their lives, and become recognized within their communities as writers and leaders.
The CWP publishes workshop participants’ writings in the magazine Real Conditions which is distributed to writers, their families, friends and neighbors, and beyond. When magazines are released, the CWP works with partnering community groups to hold public readings. Writers from immigrant communities have shared stories about their experiences in numerous public settings within and beyond their neighborhood. In these stories, Karina, Rebeca, and Abel share experiences that are uniquely theirs, but resonate deeply with themes that emerge regularly in workshop writings and discussion about immigration: border crossings, adjustments to life in the US, the challenges and indignities of paid labor, and the assaults on the immigrant community by government officials.
My First Job Here (2003)
The road was long and silent. The night was only beginning. In another time I would have been warm in my bed next to my husband and my little daughter who slept with us since she didn’t have a crib. I thought of her huddled next to me, sleeping peacefully, feeling safe at my side. A tear rolled down my cheek. What would she feel or say when she woke up and noticed she was in another bed with her grandparents?
My husband noticed my pain and hugged me harder to give me strength. We kept on going on the highway. I could see the lights of the cars on the road and the billboards. To the sides there was only snow. What would my little girl, barely two years old, feel when she did not see her parents, when she realized she had fallen asleep with them but they were no longer there when she woke up in the morning?
Finally we arrived at the parking lot of a bag factory. We had gotten this job thanks to a cousin. We got out of the car one by one. I didn’t know who we had been sitting next to. When we walked in I noticed we were seven in all. We were a little numb after an hour of traveling without changing position. But no one complained about the discomfort; on the contrary, we were grateful to have someone take us to work.
There was a lot of noise and the machines were impressive. Suddenly something happened and they all ran to one machine. There were shouts, and everything happened quickly. The strips of plastic had torn and they had to pull them out so they would not tangle up in the back roller. They had to continue pulling until they fixed the machine in front from where the bags would come out, cut to size. After that it was calm again.
Our job was to pack the bags in boxes, verifying the weight and measurements. Sometimes the bags did not fit well and had to be pushed in with our elbows while we closed and taped the box with our hands. The work itself was not hard. The problem was that we didn’t speak English and the supervisor was Irish, so we didn’t understand when he would shout at us to pull the strip. Since we didn’t understand him he would get frustrated and mad. Then another worker who knew what to do in these cases would arrive.
As I found out later, the supervisor didn’t know much about his work and the strip would constantly tear. The supervisor would get furious. He told me if it tore again I would have to leave and he would point toward the door with his hand. I thought it was my fault and when it tore again I didn’t wait for him to scold me again but just left the machine. I knew I was fired.
We go through a lot of suffering and adversities when we first arrive in this country, but our desire to work and get ahead keeps us struggling hard to better lives economically for our families and children. After ten years in this country, my reality is that I am at home taking care of my daughters, but without having fulfilled myself professionally. My husband was able to bear everything. But I left, perhaps due to a lack of determination or because I was not used to being mistreated at work. Now he is a supervisor and has the benefits that come with having worked there a long time. ◊
Cactus Needles (2007)
This past May 1 I was sad because I couldn’t attend the march in favor of fair immigration reform. While that was going on I was in the house taking care of my obligations as a housewife. I had the television turned on to be able to stay informed about everything that was happening at the march. Seeing so many people at the march reminded me of how difficult it was for me to be in this country by my husband’s side.
He came first. After having been separated for a year and a half he had to go to go to Mexico for my daughter and me, even though none of us have legal documents to be in this country. The three of us traveled to the city of Tijuana to cross the frontier. It was a horrible experience. We spent 15 days in Tijuana trying to cross. First we tried walking across in order to not risk taking our daughter across the hills. Twice I tried to cross with false documents, holding her in my arms. The third time they held me for 24 hours. My husband ran with more luck because they didn’t detain him and he passed easily. But since from afar he saw that they were holding me, he had to head back again and wait for me. He spent the whole night in the street without sleeping, a meter away from where they would be letting us out.
Meanwhile, one of my brothers who lives in Los Angeles had already done me the favor of coming two days earlier for my daughter, who he was able to bring across as his daughter without any problem. Thank God, since at that time she was only two years old. After they let me go my husband and I decided to make an attempt through the hills. The first time the “coyotes” took 15 people, walking through the dark drainage pipes. We walked that way for several hours; sometimes we had to crawl on our knees. When we got out of there we fell into a pool of muddy water that was up to our waists. Thirty minutes later we were in the middle of thickets, walking and hiding from the migra. We were waiting a few minutes when suddenly the bushes opened and we saw the migra. Startled, we ran in every direction. My husband didn’t let go of my hand. He told me to run behind the coyotes since it was unlikely they would get caught. But I was crying and startled, and I told him that I couldn’ t keep going. A man from Immigration shouted at us to stop running. When the agent came towards us to handcuff us, with one push he knocked my husband over. Then he kicked him in the shoulder while he was on the ground. They put us in a truck headed toward prison to take photos and fingerprints. We stayed there four hours. I was alone in a room because they had taken my husband somewhere else. Finally sitting in a chair, I looked at my gym shoes. They had about five centimeters of mud stuck to the soles. That was when I realized how heavy I felt running—besides the fact that my pants were wet and full of mud. After that they took us to the exit and we were once again in Tijuana, Mexico. We waited three days before trying to cross again, but with a different coyote. He took us with 12 other people to a small village called Tecate. There we waited in a motel until dawn in order to try to cross. We jumped over the wall and took to the road. Suddenly you could hear the coyote telling us, “Stop, crouch down.” After many crouches I sat down on a cactus. All the needles got buried in my rear. But because I was so nervous I didn’t even realize it, until we had gotten to a house in San Diego, California. My husband took me to the bathroom and there he started removing them. When I saw them I asked myself how I could have not felt them. Now, years later, it makes me laugh. After that a man in a car came for my husband and me to pass the other garrison. I heard the man say, “You’re past the danger, relax.” In Anaheim they changed cars to take us to Los Angeles to my brother’s house, since that is where my daughter was. When I finally saw her after three days, I ran to hug her. She started to cry and went with my brother’s mother-in-law, who had been taking care of her during those days. With that I ran into my husband’s arms and cried like a little girl. I thought that all that I had been through was nothing compared to feeling my daughter’s rejection. Thanks to God, we have been here together for six years. My daughter will soon be nine and I have a four year old son who was born here. This is why I was sad when I couldn’t go to the march. ◊
Immigration in the Neighborhood (2007)
A few days ago Immigration came to the neighborhood of Little Village. It is a neighborhood where the majority of people are Mexicans. The people live tranquilly and survive with their children in daily life, struggling to give the best they can to their families and trying to get ahead in order to have a better life than in their country. They confront a thousand sorrows, but they work very hard with their chests held high.
One April afternoon I was very calmly picking my daughters up from school, when I heard some people saying that Immigration was in the 26th Street Mall, and that if you didn’t have papers you should stay away, because they were taking away everyone who didn’t have papers. The news spread like wildfire. Within a few minutes people had communicated with their families and bit by bit enormous fear and tension had developed. You could see worry and nervousness in people’s faces as they talked on their cell phones, while helicopters flew overhead like vultures looking for prey. The people became more nervous. I picked up my daughters and left quickly to see what was going on, because I couldn’t believe what they were saying. When you live so calmly you don’t expect this to happen. Some children, upset to see their mothers running to the house, asked, “What’s going on? Why is everyone running, Mommy?” After reaching my house, a bit calmer now, I sat in the doorway and watched as masses of people and organizations passed by to protest and have their voices heard.
I think that we are going through difficult times. We should unite to achieve amnesty, since we came here to work, not to rob.