By Damaris Chanza
My family often forgets to cook something for dinner so one night, we decide to enjoy some Chinese take-out from a place near my house. My little sister, Wilmaris and I are in the living room, sitting on the couch, eating our food, while watching a movie when our mom quietly takes a seat beside me. Eventually, something happens on the screen that pushes my mother to do something that neither Wilmaris nor I can stand, talk during a movie. Only this time, it wasn't completely annoying because it was in fact one of the funniest rants my mom has ever gone on.
Slightly annoyed, Wilmaris quickly pauses the movie as soon as she starts talking knowing that we would not be able to watch it in silence until our mom said whatever she needed to say. My mom began to tell a story about one of her experiences while crossing the border when she was only twelve years old. She explained how she was forced to wear many layers of dark clothing so that she could make it through Texas at night. Confused, she did as she was told and anytime someone yelled ‘la migra’ no matter where she was, she had to drop to the ground and lay still “pretending to be the street” (Chanza) until it was safe.
My sister and I sit silenced for a split second until we burst into a roaring laughter. The two of us break into a frenzy of questions.
‘What if a car was coming?’
‘What if the people from immigration stepped on you?’
‘How many people were with you?’
All of which prompted very obvious answers.
‘Crawl out of the way or die.’
‘If you got stepped on you got caught’
‘It was at least twenty to thirty people.’
Of all the old migration stories we had heard, the image of almost thirty people lying still on the ground wearing all black hoping not to get run over or stepped on was absolutely the most bizarre.
My mom is always telling stories about her migration from Ecuador to New Jersey at the most random moments. She was one of the people who helped the Latin American migrant population in America grow from 37% in the 1950’s to 44% within the last decade (CADEI, 23). Although there are things she would love to forget, overall, she claims “it was fun” (Chanza).
Back in Ecuador, my mother was the middle child and only girl of five. As the woman of the family, she was expected to act as a caretaker, where she did all the cooking and cleaning. To add on to this, she lived on a farm that was miles away from the nearest town. On a daily basis, she would wake up, do her chores, both in the house and on the farm, before even beginning the fifteen-minute walk through dirt trails on a mountain to get to school. With only a four-hour school day, she had more than enough time to walk an hour to deliver one gallon of milk to the nearest town every day, only to return home to a completely new set of chores. She did this every day from the ages of five to twelve.
All her life, she had been told that in Ecuador her family was poor. This was easy to believe because her family lived in one the smallest and poorest towns in all of Ecuador, Llavazhi. It wasn’t until she was older that she realized her family owned multiple houses and farms that had acres of land and plenty of different animals. They would cultivate the land for profit and sell the animals for meat. Apparently, her parents decided to live that way, not only because it was cheaper but simply because they liked it. They saved so much money that now, they own an entire car wash and hire a home aide that helps my grandmother when she visits.
My grandparents even came to New Jersey in an attempt to make enough money to buy a house and land for each one of their five children so that they would also be able to make money off a farm. Of course, after my grandmother had three more kids in America, they realized that was a pretty unrealistic plan. Those three new siblings were the whole reason my mom came to America in the first place.
Left to right: Adan (oldest uncle), my mom, Armando (4th oldest uncle), family friend in Ecuador.
Originally, my grandfather travelled back to Ecuador to bring my oldest uncle to America so that he could work and help achieve the goal of buying five houses. Unfortunately, my uncle was already in college in Ecuador studying to be a veterinarian so he refused to leave. The next oldest declined because he would not be provided with the same freedom if he lived with his parents. Before even considering my mother the two youngest boys, who were nine and five at the time, were considered, but lack of a babysitter destroyed that idea. Eventually, my mom was asked if she wanted to come to New Jersey to take care of the three siblings she had never even met before. She quickly agreed after being told that she would never have to go to school again.
Before coming to America, my mom had a very obscure thought of what it would be like. Because both of her parents emigrated to America when she was only eight the only form of parental guidance she had was a woman that my grandparents paid to watch their kids. She was given absolutely no information on the community or specific area she was going to. All she knew was that she was to arrive and be a babysitter, so everything else had to be filled in by her twelve-year-old imagination. One of the more ridiculous assumptions that she made was that living in America would make her taller. She reasoned that since everyone here was white with blue eyes and tall, that she would eventually be tall as well. To this day she’s only 4ft 5’ so, obviously that didn’t happen.
Because she was a little girl during her travels, my mom wasn’t aware of everything that was going on around her. To this day, she’s not sure what paperwork was provided so that she could take a plane from Ecuador to Colombia and from Colombia to Guatemala. Considering that my grandmother, her mother, somehow managed to illegally enter America through commercial airplane despite the “530 million annual inspections conducted by the INS” (Ragavan), it must not have been very hard to fake a passport through South America. From Guatemala to Mexico my mom and her father took a boat. She hated the boat ride because she had never been on one before and was scared of sharks. Most of the adults around her were scared for the very same reasons and because they got word that the boat that left before theirs had sank.
This is the last picture taken of my mom before she left for America.
Mexico was where the most issues with immigration arose because it was directly next to America where people believed the border was an “easy and free conduit for terrorists, drug smugglers and millions of undocumented workers” (Scalzo). My mom was caught a minimum of four times. There were plenty of more times, but it was easy to bribe the police to allow them to continue rather than be deported back. In Mexico, however, my mom and grandpa were both put in jail for two weeks before they could buy the plane tickets to go back to Ecuador. According to my mom, jail was scary, mainly because of the real criminals that were there, but the majority were just immigrants trying to get to America. They went back to Ecuador and tried again.
While in Guatemala for the second time, my mom met a woman who decided to take care of her since my grandfather would constantly leave my mother alone surrounded by drunk men. Although she was explicitly informed to never do anything alone, my mom went to get something in a separate room all on her own. There, a man grabbed her and tried to sexually abuse her all while my grandfather and about fifteen other men watched. My mom’s new caretaker had barged in and with the metal end of a belt, she beat that man unconscious. With that same belt she whipped every person in that room especially my grandfather for not stopping it.
After two tries, some time in jail, getting caught dozens of times, and only two months, they finally arrived. When she got here, my mom was under the assumption that she would never go to school again. This was one of the main reasons she gladly made the journey over to the U.S. To her dismay, a year after she arrived, it was realized that not going to school was a suspicious act so she started 6th grade as an ESL student. At the time, my mother went to a school that had majority of African American students. Back in Ecuador, the only black people she had ever encountered sold chocolate so she assumed that all she would learn at her new school was to make chocolate. She spent weeks annoying her mother by complaining that she didn’t want to make chocolate for a living.
When my mom finally realized that school wasn’t for making chocolate, she took it very seriously. She realized that her parents were always getting taken advantage of or mistreated because they didn’t speak English so she was determined to learn. Later on in life, her immigrant status still prompted people to mistreat her, but the sole fact that she spoke English made it so that she was treated better than most. At one of her factory jobs she was even offered a promotion to become a manager. Of course, this only meant that the pay was only $1 below minimum wage rather than $2, despite having to work ‘off the books’ doing extremely long work hours putting her at “high risk for injuries, illnesses and fatalities” (Smith).
Eventually, she met my dad in high school and gave birth to me the summer before her senior year.
left to right: my mom, Sandra (2nd yongest aunt), me, Jose (2nd oldest uncle), Angel (first uncle born in the U.S), Judith (youngest aunt), grandma at my mom’s high school graduation in 1998
A few months later they were married. After graduating, she didn’t go to college right away and instead worked wherever she could to help support us. By the age of twenty-three, she had three kids (including myself) and worked as department coordinator at Marshalls. Not once did she allow her immigrant status to stop her from what she wanted despite being in constant fear of being deported.
Soon, that fear of being one of the “175,000 deportations” (Ragavan) that happen every year, grew into the fear of getting separated from her kids, so she started the process to gain her citizenship. Because my parents decided to go through the whole process without a lawyer and filing for citizenship is so expensive, it took about three years to make enough money for* everything. After seventeen years of living in fear of deportation, my mom finally became a citizen.
Always believing that knowledge and hard work were the only ways to get ahead in life, my mom went to trade school to become a dental assistant, a job she still does to this day. She briefly went to community college and dropped out to go to beauty school, because she believed “I have to do what I like the most” (Chanza).
To her surprise, people born here who are blatantly provided with amazing opportunities don’t work as hard as they could. In her opinion, the people born here are so privileged that they don’t even take advantage of their privilege. When she became a citizen, she encountered a woman at work who told her ‘now that you are legal, you don’t have to work as hard. The government will do everything for you’. Not too long afterwards, no one was shocked when my mom got a raise because that woman got fired for not doing her job.
It’s insulting when people have the audacity to say that immigrants take things from them. Immigrants are not taking jobs or houses or anything away, it is being handed to them by people too privileged to work hard for anything. My mother worked hard for everything she has ever earned despite being a small, Ecuadorian, female immigrant.
CADEI, EMILY. "Hey! Who Left The Border Open?." Newsweek Global 165.11 (2015): 20-23. MasterFILE Elite. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Chanza, Judith E. "Judith's Life Story." Personal interview. 7 Dec. 2016.
Ragavan, Chitra, Douglas Pasternak, and Edward T. Pound. "Coming To America." U.S. News & World Report 132.5 (2002): 16. Middle Search Plus. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Scalzo, Jim Lo. "A Line In The Sand." U.S. News & World Report 140.10 (2006): 40. Middle Search Plus. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Smith, Sandy. "Protecting Vulnerable Workers." Occupational Hazards 66.4 (2004): 25-28. Small Business Reference Center. Web. 13 Dec. 2016.
My mom holding my little brother, Carlos, while at Benihana with my dad, me, and my sister, Wilmaris.