The first person who came to mind when this assignment was presented was my eldest Aunt on my mother’s side, “Betty.” Out of her 5 siblings she was the only one who was not born in America and wasn’t a citizen until her adult life. To protect anonymity, all names have been changed. She and I have never had a conversation about how she became one.
She was born and raised in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico. At the age of 7 she emigrated to the United States. She would go back and forth to become a U.S. Citizen, twice with her Husband *Le Le only to become a citizen 28 years later. Now an American citizen, let’s immerse ourselves into her journey.
My childhood memories flood back to me. Her kitchen smells of pozole rojo and Cala lilies. I can already hear her greeting me, “Hola Corazón“! I sent her the zoom link, she immediately logged on. There she was in her kitchen having dinner surrounded by flowers. I have 15 questions about her journey, and I’m thrilled to know every detail. With the upcoming 1-year anniversary of her son’s death due to the opioid crisis I brace myself to hear his mention.
Her citizenship status wasn’t a secret, I had known she was born in Mexico. My Aunt was raised in Mexico and then in America. Unlike her siblings, who were born in a small town in Texas called Del Rio. However, we had never had this conversation before. My curiosity was stroked based upon multiple stories told of the difficulties immigrants had gaining American citizenship.
Not only was she my eldest aunt, but my favorite. I looked forward to visiting her and trying her authentic Mexican dishes. She is the best cook in the family and owns a restaurant and has a catering business. When I told her about this project, she was immediately interested in it and offered to be interviewed. Her only request was to keep her privacy and peace of mind intact.
She took two bites of her chicken and rice bowl which she had crafted for dinner and smiled awaiting me to ask the first question.
What motivated you to leave your home country, or were you forced?
I was 7 years old when my mother and father decided to emigrate to America. They knew they could make more money there. At the time, your mother and I were the only two alive. I had no say in the matter at the age of 7. I felt out of place in America. For 7 years they stayed, and we moved all over from house to house. Eventually we moved back.
My father had fixed my papers and made me a permanent resident. When we moved back, I rebelled and wanted to stay in Mexico. We kept going back to the US whenever your grandma was pregnant, and your grandfather needed to make money. We came back when I was 14.
Were you bilingual prior to emigrating to America?
No. It was then that I learned English in school and slowly became bilingual.
Did you rely on a translator or a family member or friend?
No. My mother relied on me and what I had learned at school. When your uncle was born, I found out where babies came from. I translated for the doctor and stared at a wall when she pushed him out.
What motivated you to emigrate as an adult?
When I was 14, I met *Le Le. He was handsome, 17, and we met in the Barrio. I used to go buy bread just to see him hanging out with his friends. His friends used to tease him and say he was Arabic. Years later we found out that he was in fact Indian! Two years later we were married. Your grandmother felt that because he had taken my virginity that I should be married to him. She was old school. But I was in love. I was 16 and was happy to marry a man who wanted to stay in Mexico with me. A year later I was pregnant with your cousin. I never wanted to leave Mexico but *Le Le was a dreamer and I was a doer, so we complimented each other.
He went to school and heard about opportunities in America. He was a tailor. He pressured me to go. We were financially struggling in Mexico. I was a stay-at-home mom. His idea was for us to make 1 million pesos in America and then to return to Guanajuato in two years. Then we did.
Did you have friends in America or family members that supported your emigration and choice to become an immigrant?
No. We only had family. But I did make friends along the way. We had the Church of Christ.
You obviously came back to America. Why?
When we returned our families didn’t get along. Then the Mexican government took over half of the money in the banks. The families (Mine and Le Le’s) were fighting over who would take over property and so we decided to ditch the drama and move back to America.
What was the current politics of your home country when you decided to emigrate to America as an adult?
At the time there was a search for El La Dea and they were looking for Camerena and they couldn’t get money back and the peso lost value. The value of money went in half. This happened 1983-1986. I had your other cousin that year.
Did you make this transition on your own or did you have a supportive system?
At the time my mother and your grandfather had split, and she chose to live in the U.S. with my other siblings. She welcomed me with open arms. We crossed the border on our own and on foot. We were stopped with your cousins in my arms, but I had my papers sorted. Your uncle had a hard time, but they let him go. Your cousins were not citizens, but because I was their mom, they let them through without checking their papers.
What challenges did you face when you emigrated to America? Be it physical, mental, emotional, or financial.
The challenges we faced were mental and financial. At first, I really hated leaving Mexico. I never wanted to leave my home. I thought marrying your uncle would keep me in Mexico. We first faced financial challenges in the U.S but we were very fortunate to have your uncle skilled in tailoring. We immediately were both hired at a place called *Charlie’s tailor which was owned by a Czechoslovakian man. He was an immigrant and a lifelong friend. Eventually we would buy his business. The biggest challenge was learning English. But I had my family.
Do you recall the current politics of America towards emigration when you emigrated?
Le Le was discriminated against at the border every time and held. They thought he was Arabic and they held contempt for him. I remember it being easy to come into America. I was too busy being a mom and running the tailor shop to keep up with politics. At the time they were not important to me.
Do you recall the viewpoints American citizens held towards you as an immigrant?
My first American job was working at a grocery store. I spoke Spanish in the break room. My boss yelled at me and told me that I wasn’t allowed to speak Spanish in the break room. I asked her why. She said because I was talking about her. She said I needed to learn the language. I interrupted her. I said I only speak about things that are important, I would never speak of you. I can speak Russian, I can speak English, I can speak Spanish, wherever I want.
One time a man came into the tailor shop and told me I was not American and told me to go back to Mexico. I asked him where he was from, and he said America. I asked him if he was sure, because he looked European and that was geographically Europe. I said I was born in South America, so I was an American. I felt attacked but I surrounded myself with my family.
It took me 6 years to become a U.S. citizen and even longer for my husband. They rejected me every time I applied. I was a permanent resident because my father had fixed my papers. Each time I was rejected I wasn’t given a reason why. Le Le was told because he didn’t marry a U.S. Citizen. Finally, a Black gentleman reviewed my paperwork. He asked me why I had been rejected so many times. I told him I didn’t know. He looked me in the eyes, and said, “F–king idiots”. He then stamped and approved my paperwork. I was then a citizen.
Tell me about your citizenship process. How long was the process for you to assimilate to American culture?
I don’t think I ever assimilated to American culture. I never wanted to. I created my Spanish world and land here in America and I built a community here. You see me here and I cook Mexican food, I speak Spanish, and I only speak English with my friends who do not speak Spanish and with you Corazón When are you going to learn Spanish.
When are you going to teach me?
What did you miss out on by leaving your home country when you emigrated to America?
I missed out on seeing my cousins get married, my siblings grow up, but I was always able to visit.
Currently, Betty is happily chomping at her dinner bowl. I see red spices and can red chili she has ladled onto her chicken and rice bowl through the webcam. I can hear Le Le chiming in with digs and laughter. Her culture is most present in her food and the way she quips back in Spanish.
Did you miss family milestones, or did you create family milestones while living in America?
I created so many milestones while living here in America. I became a grandma at 47. I got to see my kids grow up and have kids. I started and sold many successful businesses. We owned 3 tailor shops, a catering business, and one restaurant which we sold, and still have one and my daycare is still thriving. Your uncle told me, “You know, you’re great with kids. You should start daycare with my wife”. And I love children, and it led me to all of this. This home, this time spent with my family and my success.
When the Dot-com boom hit we struggled. It was your cousin *P (deceased) who suggested I rebrand the daycare and market a language immersion program. I was bilingual and so it worked out for us. Le Le was a dreamer, and I was a doer and it got us here.
Did you have a vision for yourself in America? Did that vision come true or has it changed.
I never wanted to come here. I did, however, envision myself living a better life in America and being financially stable. Never would I have imagined my success and comfort. I never thought I would be here sitting in this house, and everything happened the way it turned out. My husband had the vision, and I was motivated to do something with my life.
Are there any sage words of advice or anything else you would like to share about your experience with others considering emigrating to America?
If you are going to emigrate anywhere, learn the language. The most important thing in the world. And not just stay in the same job and sit and do nothing with your life. Always keep moving and looking for more for yourself. Stay motivated. I see people who do the same thing for 40-50 years and their mentality doesn’t grow. If you’re going to stay here in America, learn the language of the state, educate yourself, open your eyes to new things and opportunities.
Betty’s journey of becoming a citizen of the U.S. took 28 years. Her love for her home country and desire to stay assisted digging her heels into the ground at the Mexico border.
Unlike many stories of immigrants her journey was comfortable and cushioned for the majority. She waited to become a U.S. citizen for an average amount of time in which most immigrants wait when they apply. She didn’t have a dream. desire, or vision. She followed the money where it could be made. Her motivation to emigrate was to be near her family, specifically her siblings who were citizens of the U.S. She chose to be an immigrant to be closer to them. Her husband’s vision ultimately guided her into a successful assimilation and immigrant.
The interview and narrative were done by Briana Grijalva, a niece of “Betty” and community college student.