I interviewed my step-grandfather, Juan Herrera. He came into my family’s life in the mid-90s by marrying my biological grandmother on my mother’s side; however, his journey before joining my family is quite inspiring. He came to the United States in the 1980s as an undocumented immigrant to create a better life for himself and escape the poverty he was experiencing in Mexico. I interviewed him about his reasons for initially moving to the United States, how he settled into his life in the United States, his struggles with immigration and his journey to gaining a green card and citizenship.
Although Juan is my step-grandfather, I will refer to him just simply as my grandfather due to our close relationship throughout this essay. In the first part of my interview with him we discussed his initial push factors for coming to America. He told me “It was poverty, I was poor, I was 21 years old when this happened. I tried to get a better life over there (in Mexico) but they do not give you the opportunity to get a better life. So, that’s when I decided to come to America”. I thought that this quote was powerful because it shows he wanted a better life for himself and had initially tried to look for opportunities where he was already living.
Next, I asked him about his immigration experience. He explained that he did not come to America with documentation and that he had to cross the border with someone called a ‘coyote’. A coyote is someone who is paid money to get people across the border undetected because they are familiar with the process most of the time they are helping people cross who are undocumented. He explained that they usually go in groups and his particular group had about 25 people. They waited for the border patrol to move and they just started walking through the night until arrived in San Diego where there were several large vans waiting for them. They all got into the vehicles and started driving to a house in Bakersfield where they were held for 2 to 3 days, and then continued driving to central Oregon to start working in a pear orchard.
I was curious as to if he ever had any difficulties during his immigration experience and he told me that there was only one instance where he was tense and thought he may be caught during the journey. A police officer had pulled over the driver of the van my grandfather was laying in the back of shortly after they had departed San Diego. As my grandfather lay there the officer had shown his light through the back of the vehicle. Fortunately, the driver had told them to lay very still so they went undetected. The van seemed normal to the officer as there was a woman and a child in the vehicle to make it look like a family moving from Mexico to Oregon. The officer was not suspicious of any additional people in the vehicle and allowed them to continue driving.
Having captured a good understanding of how he came to America. I went on to ask him how he established his life in Oregon and how long he ended up staying in Oregon since he now lives in California. He explained to me that because there was already a job waiting for him the owner of the orchard that he worked on also provided cabins as housing on the property. Additionally due to the convenience of not having to pay living expenses and not having to find housing that did not require documentation he stayed in Oregon for 12 years as he did not mind having roomates who were experiencing immigration with him.
I wanted to know more about when he decided that he did not want to live and work in the orchards anymore, and he told me the following. “At the time, I thought, you know what? I thought I want to get out of here because if I never get out of here I will never get a better job, I will never learn English. It would be the same as Mexico, being stuck in the orchards all the time and there’s nothing wrong with that if its a job its a job, I respect that because it made me tough, you know? My English is not good but it is a lot better than before”.
This quote speaks to the experience of many immigrants as many of them want to get a better life but there are things holding them back such as language barriers or lack of documentation. Due to this commonality, I wanted to push him to explain further on what made him finally comfortable with moving from Oregon to California. My grandfather said he was able to apply for a green card in the late 1980s which he had successfully been approved for through a government program that had been accepting immigrants who were already living in the country.
Having a green card made him comfortable enough to be able to move to California but it was not until after he was married to my grandmother that he considered citizenship. He had to renew his green card and when he went to do so he asked the clerks how much the cost of a greencard was versus a citizenship. The clerk listed the greencard renewal price at just above $900 and the citizenship application as just below $700. My grandfather was not a wealthy man and saving $200 was a considerable difference at the time. He applied and studied the questions for his citizenship interview and told me that there was a list of 100 questions but they would only ask him 10 questions in the interview.
The day of the interview came and he got all of the questions correct except for one of them making him eligible for citizenship. The determination my grandfather had to make a better life for himself is incredible. After hearing his story I could not help but try to put myself in his shoes.I could never imagine being in a situation having to build up my life in America from the ground up. He became an even harder worker, a grandfather, a citizen and someone who will inspire me for the rest of my life.
This interview was conducted by Senja Johnson, a student at Foothill College in Los Altos, California.