Immigrant Stories: 18 years to realize who she is, where she belongs
Intro: Angeles (not her real name) came to the U.S. from Mexico. She came with her parents, and her older brother, and they eventually settled in the Roaring Fork Valley. For the next 18 years, the family did what so many other immigrant families have done: work hard, go to school, and hope for residency status.
That day came for Angeles about a year ago as she graduated from college. Other members of her family are still waiting.
Angeles: We had traveled back and forth, my parents, and my brother and I. We had tourist visas. So my parents would come and work for a few months, and then we would go back before the permit would expire. So I have memories of being in the valley since I was probably 4 years old.
The first time we came we stayed in Basalt with my aunt and uncle who were already here. And then we went back to Mexico. And, sometime after that, we got another permit to come, and we stayed in Carbondale, and never left.
Gallacher: You were coming when you were smaller, when the flow across the border wasn’t as restricted. Do you have childhood memories of that time?
Angeles: It was pretty traumatic for me because we had been moving around so much I ended up missing school a lot. I remember, as a little kid, just being really isolated, and just not wanting to talk to anyone because I felt that I was going to leave anyway. So it felt very unstable.
When I try to remember those first few months, it’s literally like a dream where everything is hazy. I am hearing all these muffled sounds and voices, and I can’t make anything out. My memories are blurry because I couldn’t understand anything that was going on. I remember crying and just wanting to go home.
Gallacher: So it was dreamlike, but more on the nightmare side in some ways. That must have been really unsettling. Was that something that followed you for a while?
Angeles: Yes, I got into survival mode immediately. Because you go from being understood, and having people know what your needs are, and being able to communicate what your needs are to not being able to express anything.
I wrote about it a few years ago. I felt like a mime because I couldn’t use my words to communicate. I had to use my hands, and different methods of communication because people didn’t understand what I was saying. I experienced bullying for the first time because I didn’t know how to speak English, and it was really hard to make friends.
Gallacher: Wow. That’s a lot for a little kid.
Angeles: Yeah, not only was I having to communicate for myself, I had to communicate for my parents. I had to be a guide and translator for my parents in territory that was unknown to me, that was stressful. It caused a lot of anxiety, and it made me feel very dumb as a little kid.
We Latinos kids would always get pulled out of class for English as a Second Language classes. Unfortunately, when ESL was going on, it was during math or science. So, yes, I was getting caught up on the language part, but I was losing the math and the science. So my goal was to learn English as fast as I could and perfect my accent so that others didn’t realize that I wasn’t supposed to be here, that I didn’t belong.
There were a lot of obstacles, and a lot of insecurity in different subjects, in school, that I had to overcome. And it was hard because you’re advancing on one thing, and getting left behind on something else. Not having control of that was difficult.
I have this high school memory of our English teacher getting really upset because most of the detention slips were for Latino kids who had skipped class. She said, “Aren’t you guys interested in going to college and making something of yourselves?” And I just told her, “Most of us aren’t going to get to go to college anyway.”
I don’t consider myself defiant, but it was just one of those moments when I got fed up. There are so many challenges over the years. I saw my schoolmates getting the scholarships and college acceptance letters, and I’m here with the Latino kids, thinking, “I can’t even apply to a university without registering with Homeland Security. College just isn’t happening for me.” I doubted my self-worth and my intelligence. I felt like I was trying to climb out of a hole and sinking even deeper.
Gallacher: You mentioned earlier that you were translating for your parents. They were also feeling like strangers in a strange land, and looked to you to help decipher some of that. What was that like?
Angeles: It made me feel angry at times, even though I didn’t want to feel angry. I remember thinking, “It’s supposed to be the other way. You’re supposed to be holding my hand, guiding me through this, making me feel better. Not me making you feel better.”
But now I am very grateful for that experience. It made me mature a lot faster and appreciate things that most people would never even imagine to appreciate because they didn’t have to go through it. It’s like the phases of grief. I felt really angry at first, and then I felt fear. I wasn’t sure of how I was supposed to act, so I was trying to blend in as much as I possibly could. The blending-in part lasted for several years.
I thought it was such a compliment when somebody would say, “Oh, I can’t even tell that Spanish is your first language,” or, “You don’t even look Mexican.” And then I would feel ashamed because I was born in Mexico and there are so many things that I held very dear to my heart that were Mexican. It was a clash of cultures. But I also didn’t want to feel like I didn’t have a home.
And, interestingly enough, last summer I was able to go back to Mexico for the first time and visit my hometown. It was like having double vision — my memories and reality. I got to visit my old house, which has been abandoned. It was surreal walking in there because I almost expected things to be the same way that we had left them, and, obviously, they weren’t. Things had been moved around. The couches weren’t there and everything was stored in one room.
The curtains that my mom had in the kitchen were still there. And I got to walk into my parents’ room where all the stuff is now, and there was a little suitcase. And when I opened it, there was a bunch of Barbies. And it didn’t seem familiar at first, but I had this distant memory of my cousins and I playing with these dolls. And they were still there. And for a moment I was that little girl that had to pack up her dolls and leave everything.
I remember my mom saying, “You can’t take any toys.” I brought two changes of clothes and an audiobook of “The Little Mermaid.” Growing up, I always dreamed about coming back and getting my stuff. But when I was there, I realized, “These aren’t my things, and this isn’t my house anymore.”
Gallacher: When you walked into that house and opened that suitcase what emotions were you feeling?
Angeles: I felt a big loss because I had always daydreamed about it so much, and everything that I thought belonged to me didn’t belong to me anymore. But I was so grateful to go back. I was so thankful that I had been raised in such a loving environment. I got to experience my culture all over again.
I was staying with my aunt and she told me, “Whatever you want, we’ll get it for you.” Every single day, she would serve me a feast. And then, she would say, “You better go over to your grandma’s because she’s waiting for you for dinner.” So, it was a loss, but it was a big, big gain, and I’m glad I got to experience it.
You know, before, when someone would ask, “Where are you from?” I’d say, “I’m from Carbondale.” They would say, “No, no, no, where are you really from?” That question used to send a shot of adrenaline though me and I would think, “Oh my God. They’re going to realize where I’m from, and I’m going to be in trouble.”
And now, it’s just easier to answer, “I’m from Mexico. I was born in Mexico.” I feel proud to be Mexican because I just got to be with my family and see the good in the people of Mexico, and I got to see some beautiful places in Mexico. But when I came back to Colorado, I realized, “Yeah. I’m a Colorado girl. This is my home.”
Gallacher: So, that was the first time you said, “This is who I am, and this is where I belong?”
Angeles: Yes, it has taken me 18 years.
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