Two years ago, I came to your country looking for a new life. It was my desire to make things better for my family, for my children. In these two years, I have learned many things about people, yours and mine, and about living, or trying to live, in your country. These things have not been easy for me, but I have learned them, and I will not forget them. You see, I have read your newspapers and I know that some of you despise me and my people. I know that you do not want us here, in your country. I know that you are angry, for I can feel your hateful stares; and while I respect your feelings, I must ignore them. I must look beyond your intimidating glances and keep my mind’s eye on what my dreams hold for me and my family.
My name is Isabel María Hernandez and I came here from a river-town outside of Juchipila, which is near the middle of the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, roughly six hundred miles south of your Texas border. I was born into a very poor family, one that had nothing. My father was a farmer of corn, but the land was not his, so he had to give most of the money from the corn to the dueño. After my father paid the landowner, he would give the remaining money to my mother. She would then go to the mercado and buy what food and supplies we would need for the next several months. If you saw her walking, every time she went there, you would see my mother’s lips moving; nothing could be heard from her mouth, but you would see her lips moving, silently praying with each step that there would be enough money to buy what we needed; but there never was, and somehow, that did not keep her from praying the same prayer each time she went there. So, we had nothing.
We were only four children with my mother and father. I had learned from my tia, my mother’s sister, that there used to be three more children, but they had died before I was born. A fever had gone through our village and had taken many children with it when it left. This made my mother very sad. It was said that she did not speak for almost one year after they were gone, and I think she was still sad, even when she had the rest of us. You know, my mother’s sadness, her despair and emptiness, it was like the fever. It spread from house to house in the village. It touched everyone’s hearts and lives. Echoes of her misery were heard everywhere, even across the river where the Ocotillo had made their forest. We thought that the land itself held my mother’s sorrow.
When I was seventeen, I met Juaquin Gutierrez, the man who would begin the change in my life. He came to town with the rest of his family, all of them crammed into an overloaded pickup truck. They were heading north, going to the United States, where, if they worked hard and proved themselves diligent to their task, they would find a new life. Juaquin said there was work for the asking, and supposedly, they paid well. Even if it was not well by their standards over there, it was probably much better than it was in my hometown.
I wanted to leave our valley. I wanted to leave because it was filled with the sadness. There was no life there, only sadness and the remaining shadows of death. Can you blame me for wanting to leave? Can you blame me for wanting to escape the history of nothingness, for trying to start anew, for desiring to forge a new shape to my life and the lives of the children I would someday bear? Do you blame me?
If you are a mother and you dream for your children, do you dream that they will become corn farmers who know only hard times and unhappiness – or do you dream of better things? If you see a chance to take hold of a possibility for a better life – do you not reach out and pluck the opportunity before it flees, not knowing when or if it will return? I think you would. Then you ask me, “What about your country, your history and traditions, why do you leave them behind; why do you forsake them?” And now I ask the same thing of you: ‘What about them?’ Do you want to go there? Do you want to take your children with you and try to live? Are you willing to give up your comfort, no matter how temporal or long lasting it is, to go live where I have lived – where I was born? I do not think you would go.
Some of your newspapers and opinion polls say that we do not work in your country. They say that we only come here to bite into your system and see what we can get out of it without putting anything back. You say that we are taking your benefits and public assistance dollars when your own people do not get them. Have you never taken time from your very busy and important lives to see that, yes, we do work? Have you never seen that my people do the jobs that your people do not want to do? Do you remember the men who built the wall around your yard, the men who built the walls around all of the yards in your neighborhood? What about the men who bent the metal bars that now hold your swimming pool together? They were of my people. Did they have to beat-up someone to get those jobs? No. You say that there are laws that make your companies hire some of my people – so their quotas can be met. Very well, maybe there are some laws like that. But, I can tell you, there were no long lines of your people trying to get a job when the companies hired us to plant your vegetables or to harvest them and deliver them to your markets for you. We did not have to shove people out of line to empty the garbage cans in your hospitals or office buildings. Maybe you are too good to pull the weeds from your beautiful hotel gardens. Maybe you are too proud to wash the dishes from which your own people eat. Can you not wash out your own toilets or vacuum your own office floors? Or what about that nice little restaurant where you eat lunch with your friends every other week, talking about your new car or pool while my brother, not yours, scrapes your half-eaten meal into a garbage can? What about all of this?
Can you remove your eyes from staring down your noses long enough to see that your own people abuse your system the same way that you accuse my people of doing it? Can you see that? They did not risk their lives on troubled, dangerous highways to get here; they did not spend many sleepless nights wandering the desert trying to find the right path to take them to their dreams. These people were born here. These people just decided to take a ride on your system of benefits – they have taken the benefits – when a better life is all around them for the making.
My people and I are not asking for very much, we only desire a little help. If we are allowed some assistance, you will see that we will end up helping you and your rich country. You will have our children, my children, when they are older. They will help your country grow – become richer. Our children will serve in your armies and help defend your right to live where you want to live.
What do you dream for your children, that they will go to college and become big lawyers or doctors; become presidents of corporations or mayors of your cities? These are wonderful dreams. You are comfortable in your houses, dreaming these dreams. I am trying to become comfortable too, living in my home, dreaming much simpler dreams for my children. I dream that they have enough food to eat every day, and that they will be able to wear clothes and shoes that fit. It is my hope that they will be able to have enough food for their children when they grow up. I want them to be happy. When they have these things, then maybe I will be able to share your dreams, maybe then I will be able to see our children together, becoming doctors and astronauts and such.
Years ago, your country was built by people who were not born here. Ships used to dock in your harbors, full of people whose nationalities and languages would reach the hundreds in diversity. You, yourself, are probably born from a family who came from one of those ships. Yes, you say, but that was a time when the industry and commerce needed the immigrants to work in the factories and peddle the goods in the streets. Those people, your ancestors, you say, were responsible; they learned the language and contributed to society. So, now, years later, you see the benefits of those people coming here. If you will but give them time, you will see the same of my people.
Things are different now. Your country may not need my people, but we have been coming here in recent years because things have gotten worse in our homeland. Your ‘high-tech’industry and inventions have allowed us to know what better lives we could have in your country, the place that is still the land of opportunity; the one nation that still offers a better life, where my children can grow, can better themselves and our people as a whole. Your own Declaration of Independence says that all people are created equal and all are blessed by their creator with certain rights that must not be denied them. These rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These things are available in your country – they are not so available in mine. When I was studying about your country, I read of your statue, The Statue of Liberty, and the poem that is written at its feet. The last verse of the poem says:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
I cried when I read those words because they so described me and my family…and I cried because I wondered where the people had gone who felt this way about my people. Are the words of this poem still true? Are we still welcome here, in your country, to breathe free, to find a home where dreams can be fulfilled, where our children can grow strong and live? Are we not welcome here? If you turn us away, where will we go, where will we make a better life? Where will my children be able to have a blessed life of opportunity…like your children?