In the time it took to write this paragraph, three people have been detained for illegal entry on the border between Mexico and the U.S. Once, two of these people were my parents.
Nicolas Hernandez left Mexico and his family of 11 when he was only 15, the current age of his second son. As the oldest son, Nicolas was expected to help his father tend the livestock they raised and carry out other farm tasks. Thus, he could not focus on his education-Nicolas never made it past the third grade, even after his third attempt. When he wasn’t out in the field, Nicolas took on jobs such as painting doors and delivering groceries in order to support his family’s needs, which were too demanding for his father to support alone.
As a result, Nicolas was forced to mature at a young age. In the U.S., 15-year-olds are traditionally sophomores in high school, planning their sweet 16, and taken care of by some guardian. Nicolas, however, was not as privileged as many teens in the country to which he immigrated-he shared a two-bedroom apartment with almost 10 people, including his uncle, during the first few years after arriving to the U.S. He was overworked and underpaid as a dishwasher and lived in constant fear that he would be reported to Immigration Services. He was 2,691 miles away from his family, his community, and the only language he spoke. Nevertheless, the difficulties Nicolas had experienced living in New York City were nothing compared to traveling through the desert and avoiding border patrol. Being a foreigner did not prevent Nicolas from being a decent human being and conforming to certain expectations in his new home, as is oftentimes thought about immigrants by mainstream America.
Julia Lucero, the youngest of nine, left Mexico at the age of 20. Unlike Nicolas, Julia made it past the third grade, but she did not continue her education after finishing the sixth grade. Seeing that opportunities were scarce within her village in Puebla, Mexico, Julia had aspirations to join her two siblings in the U.S., but first she traveled to Mexico City-four hours away from Puebla-in order to work as a housekeeper while staying with her oldest sister. Though Julia was making enough money to eat at least two daily meals, she was not making enough to help support her parents, so she decided to journey to the U.S. with the hope of sending money back once settled.
Similar to Nicolas, Julia was unauthorized to enter the U.S. and was caught by border patrol twice before rejoining her sister and brother in New York. Upon arriving in “The Big Apple,” Julia, too, shared a three-bedroom apartment with five families, sleeping in the same room as her brother, sister, sister’s husband, and newborn niece. Julia, like her sister, began working in factories where the working conditions were dangerous, lunch breaks were rare, and the pay was below minimum wage. Still, Julia was making more money in a week working in factories in New York than she would have been making in a month cleaning houses in Mexico City. Knowing the struggle of earning a dollar, Julia led a humble life, sporting secondhand clothing and eating tortillas and rice more often than she’d like, all while putting some money aside for herself and some to send back home to her parents, similar to Nicolas.
Although both had siblings and other family members in the U.S., Julia and Nicolas wanted to start a family of their own. Because of the many responsibilities of both of my parents, such as sending money back to Mexico, a relative or family friend babysat me while my parents worked, so when it came time for parent-teacher conferences, my parents were not always able to attend. If one of them did, it was my mother and only after taking a day off from work, which meant losing out on money. The common misconception is that immigrants such as my mother do not care about their children’s education because they rarely show up to school functions-plays, recitals, and parent-teacher association meetings-but those who make these claims fail to realize that there are outside factors impeding immigrants from being as engaged as they’d like in their children’s educational lives. Both of my parents have been in this country for over 20 years and they still are not fluent in English-some might perceive their inability to speak the dominant language of the U.S. as personal defiance towards their new home, but the reality is that learning a new language is difficult as an adult. My mother has taken English courses, which she’s paid for out of pocket, but she struggles to balance school and the other motherly duties that she has. Regardless of their lack of academic accomplishments, the importance of education was always emphasized in my household-my mother has always told me that she isn’t able to give me much, but that she’d do her best to give me an education because no one could take it away from me. Although my father never expressed these sentiments verbally, his commitment to working more than 40 hours a week as an underpaid cook in order to get me through a Catholic high school is evidence that he values my education. Many immigrants do not have the opportunity to become educated, but a lack of opportunity does not stop them from encouraging their children to work toward a better life than their own. If immigrants did not have families to support in their native countries, fear of being deported, and get scrutinized for being foreigners but instead were embraced, they’d invest in their own education.
In case you were wondering, 10 more people have been detained for illegal entry into the U.S. since you started reading. Like my parents, many of these people are only searching for better financial and educational lives than those they’d lead in their native countries not only for themselves, but more importantly for their loved ones.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.