SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Elisa Medina

I Am Not Illegal; I Am American

factoryThe Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, was passed in order to stop illegal immigration from Mexico. 1986 was the year I was born in the U.S. and my father feared for my mom and older sister who were here illegally. My mother had told me she came here to follow my dad who was here first, “I had to go to the U.S and follow my husband, Arturo, I felt I belonged next to him.” My dad sent my mom back to Mexico two years later after the reform was enacted. Later my mom and siblings acquired a US Visa to travel to Los Angeles. I was nine years old when my family immigrated to the minority neighborhoods of California. Once in school, I noticed that being raised in Mexico at an early age gave me a barrier to developing the English language even though I had bilingual teachers.

Due to a family interstate job transfer I found myself in Phoenix, Arizona. We lived in the Maryvale area, in a Hispanic community. In 2003 Latinos were pronounced the nation’s largest minority group, surprisingly exceeding African Americans. The schools I attended were segregated by Latinos. Many Mexicans continued to cross the U.S border in order to work. My mom had trouble getting a job, “When I was in search for work I always needed a translator. A lot of places shut the door on me because they knew I was a migrant and I didn’t know English. I finally heard of a warehouse where they hired illegal immigrants. I was no longer illegal here in the U.S but I knew that would be a place that could hire anyone.” This same year, at the age of 16 I got a job. I felt uncomfortable by the presence of white people at work due to my lack of communication with them and my English language skills were not so good. This is the main reason I disliked school so much and I decided it was time to work instead.

My first job was in a textile factory warehouse where most Mexican employees were working illegally. I remember in the blistering mornings of Phoenix, Arizona I walked into the textile warehouse as early as five in the morning, the supervisor in charge was already yelling “a trabajar!” get to work! The smell of fresh new fabric with spray paint was in the air. The loud machinery prevented us from hearing the ladies gossiping around near their work stations. As always a small radio was turned up on high volume playing Mexican Spanish music. Even so, the loud music sounded far away, sometimes I could hardly tell what song was playing. It was a very noisy place. The warehouse seemed big, but really it was small with high ceilings that gave it a cavernous feel. On the floor and in boxes were piles and piles of T-shirts. They made the piles as big as me and I had to stand on the tip of my toes to reach the top shirts so I could start putting price tags on them. Surrounding me were pallets stacked with boxes as high as seven feet. I was sometimes afraid they could tip over and fall on me. The boxes awaited to be pick up for shipping to Target stores. The supervisor was always yelling, “Come on we have to hurry up, these have to be shipped today!” That constant voice became irritating towards the end of the day.

After two weeks of labor, my supervisor (who we called el gringo) had me go to the office to collect the money I had earned. I perfectly understood English but the boss treated me as if I didn’t. He told me that he would not give me a pay stub but rather he would pay me cash up front and would give me minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. I knew that was a dollar under the minimum wage. I wasn’t sure if what he paid me was because of my age or because of my race. Since most employees were illegal he probably thought I was too. He never asked for my citizenship status. He did however, mention that I should consider myself lucky to have a job. I didn’t take any offense at that; but on the contrary, I felt rather grateful to get paid a few dollars a day to help pay for expenses at home. The whole time I was in the office I felt a sense that I should not look at the boss and I constantly looked at the ground. He was as white as the snow, with white eyelashes and bright blue eyes. When I did glance at him, I couldn't help but to look at his pointy long nose. A mustache would have helped him a little. He was really tall and thin. To me he was someone really important and of great authority, but I have no idea why I was scared of him or why I was always afraid he would call the police, even though I was not committing any crime. It could have been that I was identifying with the other people working there, many of whom were far more vulnerable than I. I did not want to get him mad in any way. After I got paid my mom was so happy, “Wow! What are you going to do with all that money hija?” I was holding five hundred dollars in my hands, to me it felt as if I was holding a thousand dollars.

Eventually after a few months I left that job. After talking to the other ladies they mentioned other places were paying better wages. I was being overworked and never got a raise. I decided to go back to finish high school. After getting my high school diploma in 2006, immigrants (most of them Latinos and most from Mexico) launched massive demonstrations in cities and towns across the country in support of immigrant rights and to protest the growing resentment toward undocumented workers. Even though I did not march I watched Latinos marching on television. I felt a connection with them. I wasn’t here in the U.S. undocumented, but I had seen and experienced how some were treated in the workplace. This is when I realized that I could better myself and get a better education because I am a United States citizen and I do not have to struggle. I no longer feel indifferent or inferior to white people. Why should I? We are both American citizens. We have the same rights. In this march Latinos were getting strong and fearless and I knew I should be too. I no longer stare at the ground. I can now look at a white person in the eyes when having a conversation. The dread of being inferior is gone.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage