We’re All From Somewhere Else

I have a colleague who once told someone, “Unless you’re and Indian or a gopher, your family hasn’t lived in Montana longer than mine.” As you can imagine, how long a person has lived in this beautiful but harsh country is a source of great pride for some.

Montana has a long history of new arrivals and an equally long history of those who are already here wanting to shut the door on everybody else. Crowds are an anathema and good paying jobs are scarce.

These days a lot of the new arrivals are coming from other countries and most of them are at least related to someone who is undocumented. Often one parent and some of the kids are legal while the rest of the family is not. They could be one speeding ticket away from being split up, some being sent to a place they have no memory of, no means of support, no familiarity. My friend Al Kesselheim and I found some of the real people living these stories. Some of the names have been changed.

Victoria had a rough childhood in Mexico and took a chance when relatives visiting from Texas offered to take her to America. She got married in 2003. Her husband had successfully applied for citizenship before 9/11, but Victoria was told she would have to return to Mexico for at least 10 years to start the process of citizenship. She lives illegally in Bozeman, cleaning houses.

“Sometimes I am very afraid,” she says. “My girls ask me what we would do if I had to go back. I have spent many lonely nights thinking about my future, missing my home and friends. But I believe something will change. It has to. Everyone has the right to look for a better life, don’t they?”

Hector, 34, lives legally in western Montana where he works as a ranch laborer on a visa that requires him to spend a couple of months each year back in Mexico. He smuggled his wife and young son north soon after he got his visa about 15 years ago. His wife and oldest son remain undocumented, but the two children born since the move are both legal citizens. His wife is afraid to go out, but the kids go to local schools and are involved in the community.

“We’re planting now,” Hector says. “We go two to three months without a day off. I don’t see the kids for days at a time becasue I leave before they get up and get home after they’re in bed. I do work, like irrigating, that other people don’t want to do. My boss puts notices up at the local Job Service for workers, but nobody shows up.”

Carmela is 19,  a candidate for prom queen. She was born a U.S. citizen in California but spent much of her childhood in Mexico. Her parents moved to Montana illegally when Carmela was in the eighth grade. She didn’t speak English. A few years later, she gets As and Bs in school, volunteers on an aquatic water study, is a member of the International Club, holds down a part time job, will soon graduate high school, wants to go to college… and has survived thyroid cancer.

“People don’t understand how hard it is to leave a country and come to a new place,” she says. “They don’t know about struggling to learn a new language, going to school, finding a job, and always worrying about that knock on the door.

“People ask why we came. We came to get better jobs, to get an education, to find better opportunities.”

Justice Pedro Hernandez is a Vietnam veteran and has been a justic court judge in Billings for nearly 40 years.

“My grandparents were revolutionaries,” he says. “They fought with Pancho Villa and Zapata in Mexico. They came to Del Rio, Texas, to escape tyranny and oppression. In 1948 my father came north to Hardin, Montana, to work for a Japanese farmer. We all moved up for good in ’49.

“We never knew fear. We didn’t have any legal issues to overcome. We were part of the community. I was a star football player. We didn’t have to worry about deportation or any of that.

“This idea of illegal aliens. I think our representatives have forgotten where they came from. They have forgotten the Constitution. If we oppress people, it will come back to haunt us. Oppression is what brought people to America, what brought my parents and grandparents to America.

“Our duty is to put these stereotypes and assumptions aside.”

8 thoughts on “We’re All From Somewhere Else

  1. I used to live on the Mexican border, it changed my thinking forever. Spend some time with an immigrant family and you’ll hear your own family stories retold. My people came from Scotland, Ireland and Germany to escape war, conflict and poverty and build a new lives for themselves. The people who come here today are looking for the exact same thing. It made this country great and will continue to make it great for a long time to come. Thanks Thomas.

  2. I’m so glad you took the trouble to meet these people and get to know them enough to share their stories with you. It’s important to remember that every undocumented worker is a person with hopes and dreams, loves and losses not so different from our own…Yet their lives are much more difficult than most of ours. Every one of them has a story and is worthy of compassion. Thanks for this reminder of that in words and images.

  3. Beautifully done, Thomas. I think Carmela’s comment is the key–most native-born Americans have no clue what it is like to try to move to another country. It’s scary and it’s hard. When we moved abroad, we had all the privileges associated with our American passports and it was still difficult.

    When people start talking about “illegals”, I always want to ask them what they did to “earn” their American citizenship. Most of us can’t claim to have done a thing other than being born to the right parents in the right place. Our citizenship is a happy accident, and yet there are millions of Americans out there who would have you believe that they are Americans because they somehow “deserve” it.

    This lack of empathy for the situations of others, this unwillingness to admit that any one of us could be in the same situation…it’s a big part of what’s gone wrong in our country.

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