Monday, February 4, 2013

President Barrack Obama: "Most of Us Used to be Them"

When I was little, my grandmother Zenaida used to tell me stories of her working in the Southern United States cotton fields when she was only a child. "I would put my money in sacks that I used as pillows," she used to tell me. "They would come to our village (Vaqueros, Cadereyta, Nuevo León, a couple of hours from the Texas border) to pick us up, and months later they would bring us back." Those were good times, she would tell me.

I never knew where my grandmother exactly went to work. She died in a car accident involving a drunk driver in 1990, and I couldn't continue that conversation. But her stories fueled my imagination, and these, together with movies such as "Back to the Future", shows, cartoons, and toys all made in USA, seemed to be preparing me for an inevitable departure from my loved country at some point in my life.

I tried to make it in México. I started working at a liquor store at age 11, and went to high school and trade school. At 17 I got a job with the Mexican government. It didn't pay much, but I was able to support my mother and brothers, and I loved my coworkers. We were truly a family. But in 1994 México experienced one of its last great economic crisis, and I wasn't able to support my family anymore. It was then that I decided to go to "el otro lado" (the other side).

Twenty years later, I have to say that I love it here. I live in Uptown, Chicago, a port of entry for newcomers for over a century already, and I have met wonderful people from all over the world: China, India, Pakistan, South America, Palestine, etcetera. But I've also found myself in the middle of an economic crisis that can only be compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. I'm also not just an immigrant. I'm an "alien," a disgusting term coined by extremists who think that all of us are a "burden" for the United States society.

See, for most of my family and many people from my native town, Montemorelos, Nuevo León, migrating has been our only option to improve our impoverished lives. My grandfather worked in Illinois in the 1970s, my father lived in Texas, and even my other grandmother lived in California for sometime, using her sister's green card. Five of my mom's brothers are United States citizens, and have been in California since the 1950s. If you ask any family in my town, I bet you that each one of them has relatives in the United States, legal or illegal.

I was very happy to see President Obama's speech at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, last week, about our immigration system. Just a week after being sworn in as president for a second time, he visited this school to make his point that immigration is one of the "defining challenges of our times. It's time to fix a system that's been broken for too long," he told the students, who vigorously chanted "¡sí se puede!" (yes, we can!) in front of top labor, business and political leaders. "We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants," said the President. "That's who we are, in our bones." And they, he added "help us build the best economic engine the world has ever known."

It was a beautiful speech, delivered 12 years into this new millennium, and 100 years after the last great wave of immigrants arrived in the United States. It is estimated that around 20 million people came to the United States between 1880 and 1920. They came mainly from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Some were Jews fleeing religious persecution. "And when each new wave of immigrants arrived, President Obama said, "they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced ridicule."

Unlike that wave of immigrants 100 years ago, most of us did not come from Europe, and I believe that's the hardest fact to swallow for many individuals who are anti-immigrant. I know of many undocumented Europeans living in Chicago, but no one says anything about them. "Planes full of people come from Poland every night, a college professor used to say, and many don't leave. And no one says anything about them." It is always about the Mexicans. And the Mexicans, for many  in the United States, are not just the Mexicans. It is also the Guatalemanas and the Ecuatorians, and the South Americans. They are all Mexicans to them.

I admire President Obama for leading the effort to finally bring about 11 million immigrants out of the shadows. And if he is succesfully, he will change North America in a way that will help shape the beginning of this new milennium. 

The existence of immigrants, like me, living in an underground economy for decades, has been compared by many to the African American slavery. I really don't see it that way, but like the President said at Del Sol High School, we have to bring this shadow economy into the light. "Most of us used to be them," said the President, reminding everyone that all people in the United States, except Native Americans, are descendants of immigrants. "It's really important to remember our history."

Link to Spanish version/Enlace a version en español.