An American Dream
I am currently living in a rural town in central Mexico, Atlacomulco, teaching English and researching immigration stories of reintegration for those who have returned from working in the United States. I live with a host family, consisting of my single host mother, Mine (short for Minerva). That is the context; my story begins now.
As a retirement gift from the Mexico State Teacher’s Union, Mine was given a trip for two to Acapulco. I was fortunate to receive Mine’s plus one. I spent the weekend in Acapulco with Mine and about 60 other retired teachers. We relaxed; ate fish, shrimp, octopus, mussels, and clams; and danced. I danced to old-school Mexican tunes of cumbia, salsa, and banda with retired teachers, and even learned some moves to La Iguana (a traditional dance specific to the state of Guerrero in which the man imitates an iguana, and the woman elegantly taps around the flopping lizard).
I was able to speak with the only other plus one that was not a spouse of a retired teacher: a fellow 24-year-old who had come on the trip with his mother. I learned a lot.
Meet David. He is originally from Michoacan, although he currently lives with his family in Atlacomulco. He left home when he was 16 years old – home consisting of his mother and three sisters, as his father abandoned the family when he was a kid. Tired of his family living in unbearable poverty and feeling the weight of responsibility as the only remaining male in the family, David decided to head North to see about earning some of the money he had heard so much about. So, at 16, David and his cousin, Abram, took a bus to a Northern border state, contracted a coyote (individuals paid to smuggle people across the border), and joined a group crossing the border. At the end of the grueling journey, they found themselves in Cincinatti, Ohio. That was nine years ago.
David stands at about 5 feet 6 inches tall, and is pudgy, yet handsome. He wears a cut-off sleeved Hollister muscle tank-top, shorts, and flip flops. His style is a hybrid between the countries. He openly loves the Dixie Chicks and admits he can’t dance to Mexican music – the first man I have met with this alarming confession – yet he is a devout Catholic, and carries traditional gender roles when speaking about his mother or ex-girlfriend. He speaks English with minor errors, including occasionally mixing his tenses and a slight abuse of the verb to do – “And I did an order at Chick-fil-A,” “I did a move to a new house,” and even “When a dog does a poop.” Otherwsie, he has my Spanish shamed. So, I embraced the welcomed invitation to break free from the timid chains of my personality-less Spanish and I let my English shine.
“Do you miss the United States?” I implored. David has only been back in Mexico for a couple of months now.
“Everything,” he said. His brown eyes flash big and glaze as though he were a kid speaking about a crush. “The food, espeically the waffle houses. And the beautiful people. I mean, I even miss that people would clean up poop when their dog did a poop on the grass. People here just don’t care. I mean, I hate that everyone hangs their laundry outside. There are no dryers! You’ve noticed that, right?”
David’s initial approach to talking to me is to catch me walking out of the bathroom at the end of the evening.
“Girl, you look boring,” he chuckled.
I stopped in my tracks, turned to face David, and let his gross confusion of boring with bored gently melt my insides. I have loads of language-learning empathy to be shed on anyone who tries.
“I’m a bit bored,” I gently corrected and smiled back.
He pulled a plastic lawn chair close to him and motioned for me to sit, “Have a seat and take a break from your table of retirees. You know, I could tell you were American for the moment I saw you this morning. You look, walk, and act like an American.”
I sat down in the lawn chair and after my initial niceities, I dove in. “What were you doing in the U.S. and why did you come back here?”
David has a story.
Enter Ohio. David said nothing to his mom or family before leaving. He packed his backpack and left. He and his cousin, Abram, initially moved into a house with one of Abram’s friends. The living arrangement “didn’t work out,” as he had trouble getting along with the roommates. So, David took his backpack, stole a paper McDonald’s cup his cousin had filled with quarters from the dining room table, and left. His eyes shift to his lap when he explains this part, as if this minor ethical violation committed nine years ago may still be weighing on him. The quarters lasted him for a couple of days for food, but without a shelter or any understanding of the English language, he was in bad shape. At 16-years-old, David curled up under a bridge, hungry and scared. And he prayed.
“But not like usual,” he explained. “My stomach was in knots. I prayed with my whole body: ‘God, I have no other options. Help me.’”
He fell asleep. When he awoke, a twenty dollar bill was dusting by him like a tumbleweed. David chased his fortune down, and walked over to the nearby shopping mall. Entering the food court, he approached the first restaurant he saw, a Chick-fil-A. This would be his employer for the next three years of his life. It was there he learned English, made friends, found a roommate, gained a mentor, met a girlfriend, “grew up,” “gained a work ethic,” and fell in love with America. Thank you, fried chicken.
“Yeah, I hated being a wetback in the States though. I never had family there and I was often hated because of my skin color. You’re Black or Mexican in the United States. Everyone from anywhere in Central America was ‘Mexican.’ Funny thing is, I couldn’t be more different from the people in Central American countries. The laws are tough and obviously working against us, but I don’t know, maybe some of us deserve it. Not all of us our criminals, but some of us are.”
I asked him to expand on this thought, but he shook his head, elbows resting on his knees, and stared down at his feet.
After Chick-fil-A, David was employed as a construction worker, a cook at a Sushi Hana, a ranch hand, and finally at Walmart. He was paid well and was able to purchase a truck. He knew that he wanted to return home, but he was unsure of when or how. Those issues were resolved for him earlier this year. Late one night while working the night shift as a janitor at Walmart, the usual buzz of the fluorescent lights was interrupted by screaming bouncing off the endless ceramic floor: La migra! La migra! Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had been tipped off. The vast majority of Walmart’s nightly janitorial crew were taken into custody that evening and deported. David spent one month in jail before being dropped off in a Mexican border town. A friend was able to meet him at the border with his truck, so David headed back home along the route he had taken North nine years earlier. This time, he had much more than a backpack.
David is currently unemployed, but he is creative in making money in the informal economy, as many Mexicans have done in adapting to the jobless climate. (More than 50 percent of working Mexicans in Mexico City work in the informal economy). His most recent money-making scheme involved buying flowers in bulk, and selling them out of the back of his truck at the cemetery during Day of the Dead festivities (families traditionally go to the cemetery to lie flowers and gifts on the graves of loved ones). His next ambition is to open a Chinese restaurant in Atlacomulco. He explains his experience as a cook at Sushi Hana would be helpful, although he does not have the money to open a restaurant as of now. He then pauses and laments, ”I wish I could have taken advantage of the opportunity while I was in the States. I want to study. I want to be somebody.”
I suppose opportunity is a relative concept, but the undocumented American Dream David found in Cincinnati, Ohio made him more money than the opportunities available to him here in Mexico.
“I love being with my family, but I know I’ll go back,” he assures me.
Having just returned from the States, he is in a transitional period – missing and resenting the United States, while loving and resenting Mexico. A blurred, bittersweet, bicultural identity. A unique and vulnerable position, yet a position shared by many.