Here to Stay

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When I was in third grade, I went on a class field trip to Corpus Christi that required us to pass a border patrol checkpoint. The days leading up to the field trip, our teachers reminded us that we would need our documents when the bus was inspected by the immigration officers. None of this was unusual because we lived in McAllen, a border town often referred to as The Valley due to the fact that it’s part of a string of big cities in the Rio Grande Valley area in South Texas. My dad worked in Mexico and it only took him 40 minutes to get to his office, which has always seemed remarkable to me considering it was literally in another country. Many of my classmates lived in Mexico and had a similar commute to get to our small, bilingual Catholic school every day, so interacting with immigration officers was just a part of their daily routine.

I was a pretty shy kid. Everything made me nervous, I often felt out of place among my peers, and in school I always got my work done on time because it was an easy way to avoid unwanted attention. I blushed any time a teacher called on me, even if I had the right answer to the question they were asking. I blushed when older kids talked to me, I blushed at the mention of anyone I liked (which made it impossible to keep my crushes a secret), and I blushed when the class clown tried to joke with me in a completely harmless way. Simply put, I didn’t like being in the spotlight. This meant that teachers loved me; I was an unintentional teacher’s pet. None of this inhibited me from making friends, though. I always had someone to sit with at lunch or team up with for a group project, I had plenty of play dates, and was often invited to sleepovers.

True to form, I triple checked with my mom that I had everything I needed for the field trip. Signed permission slip, check. Money for souvenirs, check. Hat that I didn’t actually want to bring, but my mom insisted I bring to avoid a sunburn, check. And most importantly, my visa, check.

Shortly before we approached the checkpoint, one of the school priests who was our chaperone for the day asked if anyone had a visa they needed to show to the immigration officers so that he could collect them. Even though a good amount of my classmates commuted from Mexico every day, most of them were born in the states which meant that unlike me, dealing with visas was foreign to them. I looked around and saw that nobody was raising their hand. That familiar, unforgiving heat settled on my cheeks as a feeling of shame crept over me. Even though what our chaperone was asking for was totally reasonable, I felt like I was being singled out. I felt like I was different. I shifted uncomfortably in my itchy bus seat and remained silent. I was too embarrassed to raise my hand.

The officer came in and asked our chaperone if there was anyone with a visa on board. The priest said no. The officer walked up and down the aisle of the bus eyeing us and nobody made a sound as the Texas heat swirled in the air around us. I knew I had to say something soon because if there was one thing that my parents had instilled in me at eight years old, it was to always have the utmost respect for immigration officers. “Take your headphones off and make eye contact,” my dad would say anytime we were crossing the border or going through immigration at an airport. “Always be polite and show them that you’re taking them seriously.” I felt myself blush a deep shade of red as I raised my hand. The officer came over and I handed him my visa with one hand as I tugged on my navy school uniform shorts with the other. Everything suddenly felt too hot and too tight. “I thought you said nobody had a visa,” he said turning to the priest. Our chaperone glared at me. I felt the eyes of some of my classmates on me. Deeper shade of red. The officer looked at my papers, ok’d them and let us go. The priest walked over to me as agitated as I’d ever seen him and said through tight lips, “Why didn’t you say anything when I asked?”

This is the earliest memory I have of feeling like the odd one out because I’m an immigrant. That’s not to say that feeling of embarrassment bogged me down every day. In fact, it was very subtle. I moved to Texas when I was five years old from Villahermosa, Tabasco, and while that was intimidating at first, I adjusted quickly. I went to a bilingual school, all my friends had Mexican roots, many of them had family in Mexico, I had classes in Spanish and I spoke to a lot of my friends in Spanish. Most of the time, our little town in Texas felt like an extension of Mexico. The shame crept in when kids at school would make jokes about people crossing the river illegally, because I knew my aunt had done that to attend my first communion. It came when phrases like “pinche beaner” were used casually, because even though the people using them identified as Mexican, they didn’t actually have to worry about ever getting kicked out of the country if their visa didn’t get renewed. And it came when we got older and some of my classmates still didn’t realize I was born outside the U.S. They’d say things like, “Michelle you’re an illegal?!” whenever they found out. They were always joking, but I was never really laughing. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one at my school in this situation, but it often felt like I was.

In college, I was relieved to know that there were other students filling out tedious visa forms every semester. There was an entire office dedicated to us! That didn’t stop me from feeling out of place, though. Unlike in my elementary school and high school where almost everyone spoke Spanish or some form of Spanglish, most people at Southern Methodist University spoke English. For the most part, everyone was blonde and tan and gorgeous and wearing some form of a Sperry shoe. I’m well aware of why people can’t seem to remember that I wasn’t born in the states. My skin is fair, my eyes are light brown with specks of green, my accent is really nonexistent (thanks to my dad who was adamant that I learn English and learn it well), and my last name is Hammond. On the outside, I fit in perfectly. But more often than not, imposter-syndrome got the best of me. I would stare at my laptop before beginning a research paper and worry that I wouldn’t be able to get my point across the way I wanted to. What if my English isn’t actually good enough? I would listen to my professor ask a question about the assigned readings which I had read and dutifully taken notes on and remain silent. What if I misinterpreted the whole thing? In grade school, I could get away with saying something in Spanish when I didn’t know how to say it in English, but that was no longer an option. It was a challenge that ultimately made me a stronger, more confident writer and a better communicator in general, but at the time it brought on feelings of alienation.

It’s been a longstanding theme in my life—at college, at parties, at work as an adult—that people don’t believe me when I say I’m Mexican because of the way I look or the way I sound when I speak English. I went to parties with my Spanish speaking friends who were greeted in Spanish and I would always be greeted in English. I had someone at work ask me to prove that I was Mexican by saying something in Spanish because he couldn’t believe that I wasn’t American. “No way, no way!” he exclaimed. I smiled and swallowed my uneasiness. I didn’t speak in Spanish to him. Questioning the validity of my heritage because of the way I look feels degrading in a way I can’t quite put into words. However, it isn’t lost on me that in this day and age, one might say I’m fortunate that I blend in. While I’ve never experienced discrimination because of the color of my skin, I think that this narrow-minded, cultural prejudice that seems to exist in the minds of so many can be just as hurtful.

I feel lucky that I got my green card before graduating college. After 9/11, immigration officers started being especially picky with student visas because that’s how one of the hijackers got into the country. Once while traveling back to college after visiting family in Mexico City, an immigration officer looking at my visa asked me to follow him. He didn’t tell me where we were going or why I had to follow him, and I was too nervous to ask.

He took me to a room crowded with people and told me to take a seat. Then he left and went back to his station. I sat there in the stiff, cold plastic chair trying to be as still as possible thinking, maybe If I’m quiet and I don’t move, they’ll know that I’m taking them seriously. I took in the “no cell phone” signs around me, the harsh and universally unflattering fluorescent lights, and watched as a woman speaking in broken English asked one of the officers behind the desk how much longer she would be there. She had a connecting flight that she didn’t want to miss. It seemed a reasonable enough request to me but the officer yelled at her to sit down. The woman struggled to put more words together only to be yelled at again and get threatened for her lack of cooperation. Defeated, she finally sat down. I wanted to get up and help her, maybe offer to translate what she wanted to say, or at the very least console her. But I was too scared. She tried to take out her phone (to call her family, I assume) and got yelled at a third time. I stopped trying to sneak a text to my parents, who were waiting for me outside the airport.

Every twenty minutes or so, an officer would come out, call some names and announce that those people were free to go. While I sat there nervously waiting (hoping) for my name to be called, I thought about the irony of the posters that decorated the walls of the crowded, bright room. They spoke of the core values of immigration officers (hospitality, fair treatment, a desire to aid those around them), and were full of stock photo faces wearing big smiles. I wouldn’t say we were treated unfairly, but I certainly would never want to be treated the way that woman was. The disgust and condescension was palpable.

Our simple questions and concerns weren’t valid because we weren’t born in this country, so we didn’t have a right to ask. I also thought about how lucky I am to speak English fluently. I didn’t know much more than anyone else in terms of why we were all there (aside from the obvious reason: we’re immigrants), but at least I spoke the language.

The more time passed, the more frustrated I felt. The situation I found myself in just didn’t feel right. I’m human, not a foreign alien species, though common terminology suggests otherwise. On my green card I’ve been assigned an alien registration number, which I can only imagine is used to identify me in a database full of other aliens. Legally, I’m a resident alien. Finally, they called my name, gave me my visa back and I was free to go. That wasn’t the only time I’ve been led into a room where nobody would tell me what was going on, but it stands out as the time I felt most unnerved. The arrival of my green card before graduation meant I wouldn’t have to deal with that again and I could not have been more thankful. It also meant that I would have trouble finding a job for the same reason everyone else did: because I was underqualified for everything, not because I needed a company to sponsor me for citizenship.

This year, I’m eligible for citizenship. I’ve begun working on my application and just like everything else in this process, it’s long and tedious and it feels overdue. I’ve always been proud to be Mexican, but I no longer feel out of place amongst my peers. I don’t question my capabilities because I wasn’t born in the country I live in.  I’m not ashamed to say that I’m an immigrant. If you put me back in that bus on the way to Corpus Christi, I would raise my hand proudly again and again. There are so many negative connotations that come with the word immigrant. People act as if being an immigrant makes you less somehow, as if you’re crowding the country and taking other people’s opportunities. They act as if you don’t belong. Well, I’m an immigrant who graduated with a double major and a minor, who is hard at work developing a career, and is a financially-stable, contributing member of society. And I’m not the only one. There are plenty of others like me, and we’re here to stay.

 

 

Contributor

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Michelle Weiss

Michelle Weiss is a fairly new Seattle resident who loves adventure. When she's not at work doing social media marketing, you can find her reading a book, cuddling with her pup, booking her next trip, or on the hunt for the city's best matcha latte.

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