Crossing the Border

My interest in immigration began long before I decided on a career in academia. I was a registered nurse (well, I still am, but I don’t practice any longer) working in Washington, DC. To brush up on my Spanish, I volunteered at women’s health clinic in Adams Morgan. Most of the women seeking healthcare were from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They were young, had either brought their young children with them or given birth shortly after they arrived in the U.S., and were adjusting to their new lives in the U.S. beautifully.

I often wondered what it was like to be a new immigrant in the U.S. My own Italian grandparents had died when I was very young, although my parents told me many things, like my grandmother always spoke English with a bit of an accent, and she never became a U.S. citizen. My grandfather was a coal miner and survived at least one mine collapse; they had five children during the depression. My father never complained about being poor, but I know that his early life had to have been difficult.

Given my curiosity about the immigrant experience, it makes sense that when I stumbled into the Mexican community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, I wanted to learn more about settlement and adjustment to life in the U.S. One thing that most of my informants would rarely talk about, however, was their journey north. My friend Ernesto (a pseudonym) and I spent hours talking about everything: his first job in the U.S., how he and his buddies got separated after the crossed the border into San Diego the first time, that he married an American woman (and later divorced her) in the early 1980s so he could get his papers, and much more. But he would never talk about the journey north. “All I can say,” he recalled, “is that it was hard, very hard, and I’m happy I’ll never have to do that again.”

Getting at border crossing experiences is not easy. Journalist Tim Conover wrote the book Coyotes in 1987, chronicling his experiences traveling & working with a group of Mexican men as the crossed the border and sought employment in the U.S. The border was a different place than it is today, however. Getting across was not as difficult, expensive, or deadly.*

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article about Central American men and women and their most difficult journey: getting through Mexico. My friends in Mexico have always told me that anyone crossing from the countries south of Mexico will say that traveling through Mexico is by far the most difficult part of getting to the U.S. Getting access to these stories, to the real, lived experiences of immigrants is even more of a challenge. Once they get to the other side, most immigrants have told me that recalling the story of going north is in effect re-living it, something they don’t want to do. With time and distance some are ready to reflect and talk, but usually not for years. Nevertheless, knowing what has happened to that nice Latino man who cuts your grass or the Mexican woman who works at the McDonald’s drive-thru window is important. These men and women have sacrificed a lot to get to the U.S., and knowing their individual stories should be part of the larger debate on immigration to the U.S. We like to think about immigration in terms of numbers: the 6 million illegal Mexicans living in the U.S., the number of illegal crossings at the border in a given month. It’s easy to overlook the humanity of those “illegals.” Each has a story to tell, and those stories help us remember that they are real people.

As I move forward into my work in San Miguel, I have the same impulse to collect the stories of the men and women who have settled there. They issues are much different (e.g., no Americans die crossing the Mexico border), but getting to the stories and how these retirees shape their local community is nevertheless important.

*There are other books of note on this subject as well, such as Ruben Martinez’s Crossing Over. If you would like to see a bibliography on U.S.-Latin American migration, please e-mail me via the address in my profile.

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