ALIANZA

I had the pleasure of meeting the students of ALIANZA at the International High School in New York last week.  ALIANZA is a group of 16 recently arrived immigrant students from Mexico, Central and South America, 9-12th grade. Some of of the students crossed as unaccompanied minors, while others came to the U.S to reunite with family after decades of separation. They all share a common goal: to graduate and conquer their dreams.

Many of these students, especially the male students, are financially responsible for their families in the U.S and often send remittances to their home countries as well.  Can you imagine being 16 years old and being financially responsible for your family?  I cannot, it breaks my heart.  When their teacher shared with me some of the circumstances these children have endured, I expected to meet very different students. 

What I encountered where children full of hope and energy.  These sixteen students reminded me of how much the human spirit is able to endure, conquer and overcome.  

I thank them for allowing me to sit in their circle of trust, for their honest and tough questions and for giving me sixteen more reasons to keep fighting for equality and dignity for all immigrants.  

I must also express my gratitude to their teacher, who reached out to me to come speak with them, and to all teachers who make a huge difference in young people's lives. 

ALIANZA students holding the 'The Pledge' for immigration fairness.  

ALIANZA students holding the 'The Pledge' for immigration fairness.  



 

The thing about coming out.

As someone who was undocumented for over a decade, I know a thing or two about keeping secrets.  I was afraid of letting people fully into my life, even my closest friends.  I had to compartmentalize every area of my life, and as much as I wanted to be myself with my friends, I was afraid.  I was afraid they would look at me differently, I was afraid they would reject me, I was afraid they would feel sorry for me.  

There were vacations I couldn’t take with them, not even to Puerto Rico, I was too afraid.  I would show up late or early to outings since I used my Mexican passport as I.D., and that always raised questions- why didn’t I just use my license?  I could only make up losing my license so many times.  Slowly, but surely all those secrets, all those slight modifications to daily life starting taking a toll.  It was as much an emotional toll as a physical one.  I had chronic back pain, such awful pain that I would lay on the floor for hours at a time.   I tried to live a normal life, but I had lived so many years with tiny little lies, that I didn’t even know what was really normal anymore.  I didn’t really know who ‘myself’ was.  

Slowly, I started letting people, I would have broken otherwise.  If I regret anything, is not letting my friends in sooner.  I had dinner with a dear friend, who was also my roommate in New York, last night and it felt so good to finally be able to tell her everything.  I am sure so many of my ‘quirks’ finally made sense!  I wanted to say sorry for taking so long, but she understood— real friends always do.  

I have come to realize that the most beautiful thing in life is for someone to know you, to really know you.  But before others could know me, I had to figure out who I was.  Beyond the papers I didn’t have, beyond the things I had to do to survive, beyond what I had, and what I didn’t have.  

I’ll continue to discover me, but I am so thankful that this crazy journey has taken me this far— to a place where I know me and others know me too.  

When?

I just finished updating my status with the Social Security Administration as that of a U.S citizen. Next Tuesday when I travel to my homeland, Mexico, I’ll be using my U.S passport for the first time. I didn’t think these things would make a difference in how I felt, I already felt American for a long time. But these documents, these pieces of paper, do make me feel different, they make me feel legitimate, they make me feel like I belong. At least today, that’s my feeling. I also see the unfair and arbitrary nature of our immigration system. There are still 11.5 million undocumented Americans who wait for a path to citizenship, I am not any more deserving than any of them. The President’s executive action is a step in the right direction, it protects families from being separated, it offers people a dignified way to work, to be seen, to come out of the shadows. But it is not enough. Undocumented Americans have called the U.S their home for an average of 10yrs (I waited 20yrs), when will we recognize them as our own?

My Vote. My Voice.

I was an undocumented American when I turned 18 in 2001.  I didn’t elect George Bush as our President in 2001 or 2009.   I couldn’t vote in the historical election that gave us our first Black President, or in any of the mid-term elections that gave us our Congress.

But all that changed yesterday, for the first time, as a proud new American, I voted. I became a citizen of the United States on August 8, 2014 and I never felt so officially American as when I casted my ballot.  I felt a deep privilege as I filled in the bubbles that elected our New York Governor, Senator, and other officials.  

Casting a ballot meant having my voice be heard—it said, I am here, and regardless of where I came from, where I work, what color my skin is- you have to count my vote.

There are 11.5 million undocumented Americans who are still waiting for their voice to be heard, and in this critical time for our country, I wonder how long it will take to give them a voice?

Corn and our Beef with Immigration.

I recently watched the film, Food, Inc., as self-encouragement to complete a 25-day food and fitness challenge.  I knew the film would expose me to how bad processed food is for my body, but I didn’t expect to be exposed to root causes of illegal immigration.

On December 8, 1993, Mexico, Canada and the U.S., signed the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The goal of NAFTA was to eliminate barriers to investment and trade (wiki) between the three countries, and in theory it would help bring economic growth to all three countries.  There have been dozens of reports on the effectiveness of NAFTA and the agreement has been faced with many controversies. 

One very well documented truth is the increased demand of meat from Mexico (as of 2000, Mexico is the #2 importer of U.S. meat, wiki), which has in turn increased production in the U.S., which has led to U.S. corporations’ need  for more laborers.  In theory, the U.S. corporations would hire U.S. laborers, but instead the corporations go to Mexico and recruit, yes they go into Mexico to recruit, peanut-cheap labor.  Many of the undocumented workers who come work in meat processing plants are former Mexican corn farmers. 

In 2010, the U.S. government’s subsidies of corn totaled north of $10.1 billion and chargers of dumping (into Mexico) have ensued.  So when Mexican farmers are out of work, potentially due to extra-cheap corn that puts them out of business, and big U.S. corporations come to their home and offer them work and (illegal) entrance into the U.S., their choices are few.

The worst tragedy is that when immigration raids happen, it is the workers that get criminalized not the U.S. corporations that hired them in the first place.  Undocumented immigrants are hated and abused while we enjoy our cheap meat and corn.  Personally, I am also guilty of benefiting from owning Monsato’s stock (and other food companies), that’s going to change ASAP.

"Food Inc," has me furious.  Our tax dollars get used for the corn subsidies.  We get heart attacks, diabetes and fat from the terrible food we consume.  My people get criminalized, hated on, and once they’ve built a home in America they get deported and separated from their families. 

I wish we could all go on a 25-day Food and Hate Challenge— and lose the fat and lose the hate, increase our muscle mass and our knowledge.

"When did you realize you were Black?"

When did you realize you were black? That’s a question in a new book I am reading, “How to be Black.” It got me thinking, when did I realize I am Mexican?

I spent the first ten years of my life in Mexico, where everyone is Mexican. Mexico has a significant Lebanese population, and a growing Asian one, but we never called them Lebanese-Mexicans, or Asian-Mexicans they were just Mexicans. I never thought of myself as Mexican, I just was. My parents never told me I was Mexican, when they moved me to San Antonio, or that other kids were White, or Black or Indian, or Asian. I introduced myself as being from Mexico not as a personal identity statement, but as a geographical one.

My parents did no explicitly teach me Mexican pride or culture, their ways were more subtle. We never missed a Mexican National Team soccer game, ever. My dad told me stories, told to him by his indigenous mother, of the exploitation of our people by the Spanish (Spanish people are those born in Spain, not those who are Hispanic, or speak Spanish). My mother values family more than anything else in the world. Both my mom and dad were incredibly welcoming and hard-working, and yes, they fed me really spicy food. They never said, “You are Mexican, therefore: eat the spicy food, love your aunts and uncles, work hard, enjoy yourself at parties, throw a party for any occasion, invite a lot of people, enjoy yourself at weddings that last all night—all because you are Mexican”.

The height of my Mexican pride came when I was nine years old and before I moved to the United States full time. My parents took my sisters and I to visit the Texas Capitol and I made a huge declaration. I had just learned in History class how Mexico lost Texas (told from the Mexico side of things) and I was mad. How could we lose half our land, how could we just give it up? Hadn’t we just gotten back our land from the Spain? So, as a nine-year old, facing the Texas Capitol and my arms raised in my best political stance, I told my parents that one day I would be the President of Mexico and take back our land. My dad said I scared him, and gave me a hug. Then my parents brought me to live in the USA, and my dreams of being the Mexican President and my dad’s fears faded.

In middle school, when White kids asked me where I was from, I too would wonder where are they from? When they said they were from the U.S. I thought, are they Native American? But I could barely speak English and I had a hard time making new friends so I just smiled and kept those thoughts to myself. But I always wondered, if I am Mexican, what were they? White and Black are blanco y negro and those words meant colors to me.

Recently, I was told to go back to my country of origin, over twitter, and I wondered what’s their country of origin? And why are they telling me to go back? I am an American Citizen and this is my country. Someone else asked me if I am illegal based on a picture of my good friend, Jose Antonio Vargas, and me.

It’s only in the last two months, since leaving Corporate America, that I have realized just how Mexican I really am. That’s saying a whole lot, because Corporate America also let me know I was Mexican many times.

I love being Mexican and I love being able to express myself in a different language, some things don’t translate. The Mexican culture is beautiful and rich and colorful. I’ve learned that Mexican in America means something different for some people.

Pictured: Not all things Mexican.