I came to the United States when I was 3 years old. I was born in Gomez Palacio, Durango, which is a state in the northern part of Mexico.
I can’t recall much of my first home. I do however remember the scent of fresh-made tortillas and the sound of my grandfather plucking away at his old Spanish guitar.
Honestly, I don’t remember anything about coming to the United States. I know what I’ve been told because I asked my parents. I know that we flew in whenever I was 3, and that was it.
We don’t really like talking about it. It is slightly shameful, and it’s like opening up a closed wound.
My mom knew how to read and write in English. She started teaching me little words here and there in Mexico.
After arriving in the United States, we moved to Bentonville. One of my uncles had already established a home here.
My parents really liked the calm atmosphere that was in Bentonville. They decided to stay there also because of the schools.
I had a cousin here who spoke English and Spanish, and we would play together, and he would speak to me in English, and I would speak to him in Spanish. By the time I was 5, I was fully bilingual.
I was the only Hispanic child in my kindergarten class. No one looked like me and no one spoke like me. My skin tone was different. My hair was very different. My mom would braid my hair and try to make sure it was very slick and very clean and very proper.
In schools in Mexico, if you went to school and didn’t look clean and proper, they would return you to your home until you were proper, and then you would return to school. That was the mentality.
Just speaking another language, that was something that made me very different. There was one student who slightly looked like me, and I went up to her and started speaking, in Spanish, saying “Hi, How are you? My name is Leticia*. Where are you from?” I was really excited because I finally saw someone who looked like me. She stopped for a second, gave me a really weird look, said, “I speak English” and ran off. I later found out she was Cherokee.
Because I was the only one, and I grew up with the same kids, it was never an issue. All through first through fifth grade, they would take me out of recess and have me translate for new parents that were putting their kids in school. Talk about a huge responsibility for a 10-year-old.
There were hints of being undocumented, when I was younger. Everyone would talk about going to Mexico. Elementary kids talking about trips they’d gone on with their parents.
They would ask me if I had been there, and I would say, “ I haven’t. “
I knew something was going on because we couldn’t leave.
I knew that I wasn’t born here. I knew that I had limitations. I knew that it wasn’t something that should be talked about with people who were not close to us. My status was never discussed with anyone outside the family because I knew that it didn’t need to be talked about with anyone who didn’t already know.
In the early ’90s there were a lot of immigration roundups at the factories and plants where immigration officers would go in and ask people about their documentation. If things didn’t match up, they would take them and they would get deported. This was something that was very much talked about in our community because it was where almost everyone I knew was working. My parents, my uncles, my aunts — everyone we associated with. This was where everyone went to work for the first couple of years when you moved to Arkansas.
I was very well aware, even then, that at any point in time, if any of our statuses were revealed, we could get picked up and we could be deported.
Whenever we would have family dinners or any kind of family gathering, I would hear, “Did you hear about so-and-so?” There are many cases where one parent is deported and the other stayed in the states because the children were in school.
These are adult problems, but these are things you can’t help but hear in passing conversation.
It wasn’t until you get to high school and everyone is getting their driver’s licenses and their college applications. It wasn’t until then that I saw my limitations. Growing up, I led a very content life. I didn’t have to worry about my status until high school, and that’s a big turning point for a lot of undocumented students.
It finally hits you.
I can’t apply for a job.
I can’t drive.
I can’t go on these school trips because it’s potentially dangerous.
I can’t fly.
I can’t take out a state-issued ID.
s s s
Students in my position, we’re kind of like Generation 1.5 — because we’re caught in between. We’re not first or second, we’re in the middle. We’ve seen what our parents go through, which are first generation issues. But we ourselves go through the assimilation process as the second generation would be doing — losing the accent, losing the history and really accommodating to what your new country has to offer for you, and you slowly lose your identity as an immigrant from X country and begin becoming an American. We’re caught in the middle because we don’t qualify as citizens.
I feel like I am Mexican because I was born there, but I also feel American because I grew up here. All I know is this American culture. I get glimpses of the Mexican culture through what my parents say and celebrations that we have, but I don’t have a full grasp like they do. We really are caught in the middle of both identities.
My favorite Mexican celebration, is Dia de los Muertos. We don’t do it as much here. I wish we would though. I’ve only seen it in books, but we always send money to my grandmother so they can decorate the house and send flowers to those who have passed on. It’s not a celebration, but it’s not a time to be sad. It’s a celebration of their life and carrying on their memory.
My grandfather lived with us for a few years when we first moved to the United States. He would sing me to sleep and tell me about our home back in Mexico.
He had been in a trio band when he was younger. When he wasn’t working as a seasonal worker, he would go back and play in his band. He would serenade people or go play at a club. On top of being a hardcore worker he was a hardcore musician. He would play old bolero songs, Spanish finger picking on the guitar, just beautiful, beautiful songs.
He talked about the dirt roads by our home in Mexico and how nice it smelled after the rain. The food he missed — chile rellenos and homemade tortillas and black Mexican coffee. He drank it black and scalding hot. He was big and strong. He was a very tall man. Very tan. He had a reddish brown tan, very strong Native American features and broad shoulders from working in the fields. His hair was black.
One of the songs he would always sing to me — because I would always throw temper tantrums — because both of my parents would be working, and I barely ever saw them.
And he would sing this song called “What’s wrong with the little girl?”
¼La niÖa triste que tiene la niÖa?
The girl is sad, what is wrong with this girl?
QuÎ puedo yo hacer para que sonrÒa?
What can I do to make her smile?
No puedo reÒrme me dijo la niÖa.
I cannot smile said the little girl.
Mi amor ha muertoy muerto mi vida.
My love has passed on and so my life has ended.
SeÖor, ayÜdala dios mÒo por que a ella
Lord … help her my Lord because
Yo la quiero con todo mi coraz×n.
I love her with all my heart.
SeÖor…te pido que la ayudes es mi niÖa
Lord … I ask you to help her she is too young
y en su alma no tiene que haber dolor.
and in her soul she should never have such pain.
No quisiera nunca verte triste niÖa.
I don’t ever want to see you sad little girl.
Nunca verte triste amor de mi vida.
I never want to see you sad, love of my life.
Coro se repite
Repeat the chorus
¼La niÖa triste, que tiene la niÖa?
The girl is sad, what is wrong with this girl?
¼QuÎ puedo yo hacer para que sonrÒa?
What can I do to make her smile?
It’s an old song.
s s s
He moved back to Mexico so my grandmother wouldn’t be alone.
We talked a lot throughout the years, only by phone.
He passed away from old age. He lived a very good life, but I remember him one way, and he was not that way the last time I saw a picture of him. His voice changed drastically from what I remembered it to be. It used to be really strong and very manly, a booming, low bass voice. And then it started slowly deteriorating.
We never talked about my status. We always talked about how all of this was going to pass, and I was going to be able to come back home, and we were going to be able to see each other, and it would be OK.
I think out of everyone, my mom and I took it the worst. My siblings, because they were born here, they were able to travel back and forth; so they got to see him and enjoy him for a couple of summers.
I last saw him when I was 10 years old. I am now 23.
One night my dad was talking to a family member in Mexico, and he said we live in a giant prison. I had never thought of it that way.
We can roam around the grounds and work the land but we cannot escape the borders that separate us from the outside world.