Hiding in Plain Sight: Inside the Life of an Undocumented Immigrant
"I like that Patrick Swayze," Carmen says idly, tugging down her Cancún cruise shirt. "So handsome."
"He's dead, Mom," Anna says coolly.
The two women bicker in the way only a mother and daughter can, the words about nothing and everything, the love buried deep under layers of mutual irritation and misunderstanding. Anna is grateful to be able to live with her mom, but it is not an ideal situation for either of them.
Carmen has ideas about what is best for the children. "She wants Ernie to be more of a man," Anna says. The notion crushes her. His is the only innocence left in the family. "Lucy is starting to question everything."
Lucy has mastered four instruments and is being recruited for math scholarships at Caltech and Berkeley. Ernie is flourishing creatively. He wants to go to a performing arts school and build robots when he grows up. Anna's children have dreams. She wonders for how much longer.
Anna pulls out photographs from Lucy's sweet 16 party. The whole family is in formal party wear, ball gowns and suits. They are smiling wide, the flash blanching their faces.
"I worked extra shifts for two years to pay for it," Anna says. "I made chimis and tamales. I decorated."
Seventeen kids attended. They all danced.
"I never told Lucy how hard it was to pull off," Anna says. "I wanted my daughter to see, just for one day, that she deserved good things."
That afternoon Anna drives to visit her friend Silvia. Silvia lives on the Southside, in Little Mexico. In her kitchen, women are making tamales, stacking them in gallon-size ziplock bags. The smell of corn and chilies hangs thick in the humid air. Steam trails from pots, across the glass cabinets, each door painted with a sprig of gladiolus. The women talk about Lost in Detention, a PBS documentary exploring abuse and repressive Border Patrol policies. They laugh mirthlessly.
"It is not news for us," says one. "We could have made 100 of those films," says another.
Silvia, a U.S. citizen by marriage, tells the women she just returned from Virginia. The state has considered its own version of SB 1070. She traveled to protest, to speak out. "I wanted to warn them, nothing will prepare you for what will happen if you pass it. It destroys the entire community."
Recent evidence shows that even citizens are being detained, some as long as a year. Teresa, a psychologist, says that she is seeing epidemic depression in her neighborhood.
"These are women who used to be outgoing, happy, full of hope," she says. Now they sit alone, "afraid to leave their homes."
Outside, an ice cream truck approaches, the unmistakable singsong jingle echoing off the streets. No one waves it down.
"Whenever I leave the house, I fill several extra bowls for the dog," says another woman, Sophia. "I don't want him to starve if..." She shrugs, doesn't finish.
"Papers or not, we are all suffering," Silvia says. "Especially the kids."
She talks of a friend who is a citizen, how her son wakes up in the middle of the night in a sweat, asking what to do when she is taken. No amount of reassurance seems to work. "He just wants to know what to do when they come."
In the rear or the derechos Humanos, rows of metal shelves are stacked high with extra-large, clear plastic storage bins. Inside the bins are 18-by-12-inch wooden crosses, pressed tight together like stems in a bouquet. The crosses, symbolic of a life lost in the desert, are painted white with names and ages written across the front in ink. The bins are labeled: ARIZONA—RECOVERED REMAINS. The year and total printed at the bottom: 205, 237, 253. A cross for each body found in the desert.
In all, there are thousands of crosses crammed into the bins, sitting on shelves amid piles of copy paper and staples and shipping envelopes. The women who work in the building clarify that those are only a portion of the casualties. The desert makes short work of remains. There is no way to know the actual death toll, only that the rate is growing every year despite fewer crossings. The more fence, the more migrants are funneled into inhospitable terrain, the barrier not so much a deterrent as a displacement.
Just below the shelves there is an altar holding a cross, a candle, salt (to clear the energy), flowers, and a jug of water.
"They are always thirsty," say the women who tend the shrine. "We need to refill the water often."
Occasionally, they add, the spirits get restless. Bells are rung. Papers scattered. When children visit, they claim to see the dead. The women have witnessed toddlers animatedly chatting with the air.
"Honestly," one office worker says as she removes fallen rose petals from the altar, "you feel at times like your head is going to explode in here."
Anna's friend Maria sits in a chair by the shrine, hands shaking. Last year her brother Mario was asked for his papers outside a Circle K convenience store. He had none. Border Patrol was summoned. Mario had three jobs and was a father of five. His wife was a stay-at-home mother. They had lived in Tucson for ten years. They were, Maria says, "a very happy family."
After processing, Mario was deported. Realizing his family would starve without the income from his jobs, he made the decision to walk back to Arizona.
Maria pauses, the shaking marked now. In her arms she cradles a photograph of a handsome young man in a black cowboy hat, dress shirt, and leather jacket. You can see the smile in his squint, as if he is both embarrassed and flattered at having his picture taken.
Thirteen days after Mario entered the desert, his body was found. He had died from heat stroke. At the morgue on the U.S. side of the border, the family was not allowed to view his body; he was too far gone. It is because of this, Maria says, that her mother sits at her window every day.
"She refuses to believe he is dead. She watches, believing eventually he will come home."
Maria has no such illusions.
"Some days I couldn't get out of bed. My kids would come in and say, 'Mama, live. Live, Mama!' But I couldn't find any will."
Her brother's children have no father now. The household earns no money. The church provides their only food and clothes. Maria tries, but she can't understand why this happened.
She looks at the photograph, traces her brother's face with her pinkie. "His smallest child?" she says quietly. "She screams when she sees the police."
Later that day, Anna is driving again, always driving, this time to retrieve Lucy from school. As she navigates the roads, eyes darting back and forth, she lists the reasons she came to America.
She begins with the obvious: Economic stability. Educational opportunities for her children. Safety. These reasons are valid and true, but aren't the whole story, aren't in fact even close to the soul of the matter, which is something more elemental—the pull of hope, the promise of the promise, the notion that it is here and only here that she and her family could experience infinite possibility and become, against all odds, the best version of themselves. It is the same dream shared by every immigrant from every country before them. The dream of all Americans.
"In college in Mexico I took French and German. But I was obsessed with the United States. I liked the possibility of becoming someone from scratch."
Anna tilts her head, gnaws for a moment on her bottom lip.
"You want to know what I really wanted?" she asks, eyebrows raised conspiratorially. She takes a deep breath.
"I wanted to live where the Gilmore Girls did!"
Anna begins to laugh, slapping her hand on the steering wheel.
I ask whether she and her kids will move back to Mexico if Manuel is forced to go.
"I suppose. Yes. Families have to stay together, don't they?"
Suddenly she remembers something. "You know I have a certificate of appreciation from Governor Brewer?" Anna was honored for her "significant contributions to the community." She has a photo of herself holding up the framed paper, smiling.
"I was so proud of that," she says.
As we roll past the strip malls, the streets dusty and long, Anna tells me about the best two days of her life in America.
"In November 2010, we rented a cabin in Mount Lemmon for Thanksgiving. It was snowing."
Anna had never seen snow. It was a lifelong wish.
"We built a fire. We had these giant cookies. My son loved that."
As she remembers, her face floods with joy. The white everywhere "was like heaven," she whispers.
"That is why we went," Anna explains as the joy evaporates, knowing this American holiday might no longer be theirs to celebrate. "There are these moments we reach for."
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