Heroes and Villains

by Monse LaVie

The year was 1998. The Green Bay Packers were facing the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl showdown. I was in the fourth grade, finally feeling like I was fitting in with a group of girls at school.

And then it fell apart. I walked out of school to a worried mother and into a silent empty house. The day, so bright, suddenly fell grey. My mother’s worry became mine. My siblings had yet to arrive from school. I was alone in my room, paranoid, wondering, running through every relative in my head who could be considered dead. No, everyone still felt alive.

It was in the afternoon when the tension peaked and my uncles arrived that I realized my father had been deported. Deported sounded like Departed. As in, Gone. My mother and uncles had been on a wild goose chase following false leads, and then it came to light: my father was “undocumented”. My mother was “undocumented”. My brother was “undocumented”. My uncle pointed to my sister and I and said, “You two keep your mother safe. They will never tear a mother away from her citizen daughters.”

All the years of falling silent when the news anchors reported on the latest immigration bill finally made sense. I grew up believing everybody worried about their immigration status, that knowing what was being legislated was just part of life, noise added to the din of growing up Mexican-American. My sister and I were U.S Citizens. I felt unlucky. Disgusted. Torn. My citizenship cleaved the connection to my mother, father, and brother: I felt the border rise up between us. And I felt sorry. Sorry that I was on this side, the “American” side, while my father was being corralled through a deportation process that would dump him in Tijuana.

I was ten years old, in the fourth grade. Race meant nothing to me. I didn’t yet understand box-checking terms on standardized tests: Hispanic (non-white)? Chicano? I didn’t yet understand what kept classmates away from me on Cinco de Mayo. I didn’t yet understand why being a light shade of brown made me different from the darker shades I jumped rope with. Immigrant? Undocumented? Citizen? As far as I was concerned, everyone was an immigrant. I knew the history. Columbus and the settlers were the original anchor babies.

I had heard the term “anchor baby”. I heard it when I played in the sandbox at recess, my classmates on the bars acting out scenes from Amistad, and they called me an anchor baby and told me to get off their boat. So I jumped off the bars and swam to the bottom of the ocean, cupping fisfuls of sand and declaring, “Okay! I anchored you to the bottom of the ocean! You won’t drift away anymore!”

“Don’t you get it?” a friend cupped sand with me. “An anchor baby is someone who was born just to keep their parents in this country. You’re Mexican, so you’re an anchor baby.”

My father, deported. My mother and brother, undocumented. My sister and I, anchor babies? I resented it.

I resented the danger my mother and brother now faced. I looked to my sister, wondering what 10 and 12 year old Citizens could do to restore our family. “Go to school and act like nothing is different,” my uncle advised. “Get good grades and be good students. Raise no suspicions, and they’ll never come knocking. That’s the only way to protect your family.”

I didn’t know there was a governmental entity dedicated to tearing families apart. As I write this, I am choosing to leave out the legalities surrounding my father’s deportation. I am also choosing to leave out the illegalities exercised in the 1997-98 raids that deported my father and thousands like him. I make this choice because the 10 year-old that faced this episode with a clenched jaw didn’t see the system. She saw only one thing: A good, hardworking father. A father who enslaved himself to building the transportation infrastructure in one of the largest cities in the nation; A father who sacrificed himself for the future of his progeny; A father who was now being called a “wetback”, “leech”, “illegal”. No law, no political border, no official or authority figure could justify why my father didn’t come home from work that day. At ten, I registered the inhumanity of the term “illegal alien”. At ten, I said, “No human being is illegal.” At ten, I declared, “Open borders now.”

My father was gone for days, but it felt like weeks. My sister and I strapped ourselves into the backseat of my uncle’s car and we drove down to Tijuana, scanning the San Diego landscape as my uncle pointed and said, “I slept there that night. We could hear the wolves howling. It made my blood run cold, but I knew we made it.” And then we were in Tijuana.

My uncle drove straight to the airport. My father had been sleeping there since the plane dumped him. He’d cleaned up in the bathroom. I wanted to run to him. I wanted to jump into his arms and be swept around. I wanted to cry and kiss his cheeks and hold him tighter than the security at the border. But I knew his heart was broken. I knew his American dream had been crushed. I know mine was. So I stalled. The American me felt responsible for the fact that my father had been treated like a mangled street dog. I didn’t want Citizenship in a nation that treated my father like this. I didn’t want to be associated with a nation that held us paranoid through sleepless nights. I stood back. I watched him rise from his perch on the ground and wipe tears from his cheeks. He held his arms out to my sister and I, but I resisted.

“¿Que paso, mija?” My father pulled me to him.

“Vamos,” I said, “Estamos en Mexico. Vamos con mi Mama Mago.” I didn’t know how far Mexico City was from Tijuana. But I wanted sanctuary. I wanted my grandmother’s house in Naucalpan. No more dirty names. No more immigration talk. No more borders and no more America.

He laughed, and told me that I was asking for an eight-hour drive south. And besides, he added, you’re the illegal one here now. You’re not Mexican. You’re American.

It stuck with me all day. I wasn’t what my parents were, Mexican. They weren’t what I was, American. They couldn’t be here, and I couldn’t be there. My heart split in two.

In late afternoon, we headed back to the border. My father and I held hands and approached, walking. My sister joined my uncle and his family in the car. This was it. We would cross separately and meet on the other side.

I knew what we were doing was risky. But I also knew that crossing my father back over the border in the boldest of ways was a slap in the face to the system that had just deported him. I knew that the slightest mistake would have him arrested and I would be taken into custody, ripped from mother, father, brother, and sister. I knew this whole operation was banking on the trust that my father’s name hadn’t yet been blacklisted in the system. But I also knew that I wouldn’t have it any other way. I knew what had been done was wrong, and I felt it my moral duty to make it right.

And then I was at the counter, staring up into the paunchy face of an overweight agent who grinned at me and asked for my identification. I handed him my school id and birth certificate. He asked for my grade, school, age, and reason for being in Tijuana. I held up the bag of new shoes and said, “Shopping.” Then he asked me where my parent was.

I scanned the line. My father had gotten called up to the next agent. I pointed at him. “There’s my dad.”

“It’s rude to point,” he reminded me, smug.

“The man standing over there with the exact same face as mine.”

He snorted, and tossed my papers back at me. “Go to the next line over there and put your bags through the scanner.”

The line he pointed to was right next to the exit. My heart lifted. My father stood next to it, waiting for me. I slid my bag onto the conveyor belt. My eyes caught the television screen. Green Bay scored their second touchdown in the first half.

Hurry up! I panicked. In my mind I saw an army of agents marching towards us. I almost felt their arms grab me when my dad ripped the bag from the conveyor belt and marched me through the door, to the other side.

Back in America. Back where I was legal, and he an “alien”. And then we ran.

My uncle met us down the street. He drove us to the San Diego airport, and with a stern look at us both, said, “We’ll meet at your house.” My sister would be riding back with him.

We bought two tickets to LAX. I watched Denver score while we waited. When we finally boarded, I sat silently, patiently, staring out the window as once again I was separated from my father, this time by a row of seats. The stewardess brought me a Pepsi and some peanuts. It was the first time I ever had Pepsi.

“He won’t let me put the guitar away. He wants it on the seat next to him.” The stewardess was updating the Captain on a difficult passenger situation.

“Let him keep it then, we have to get in the air.” She strode back down the aisle, stopped at my seat. “Would you like to hear a song, hon?”

“Excuse me?” I looked over my seat at my dad, who nodded his permission.

“That man back there with the guitar, do you know who he is?”

I shook my head. I saw him board, he wore a tan sports jacket and sported longish hair. I knew he was the reason our flight was late.

“The gentlemen back there are the Beach Boys.”

I knew the Beach Boys. I turned slowly to look. The man with the guitar smiled at me.

“Hello,” he crooned. “What’s your name?”

I looked at my father and refused to respond.

“Where did you grow up?” he asked.

“Lennox,” I responded.

“Lennox? I grew up in Lennox too. Actually, Hawthorne, but I know Lennox. Say, we’re neighbors.”

I smiled, and slumped back into my seat. The Beach Boys. The Super Bowl. Pepsi and peanuts. This experience was an American dream.

They sang songs the entire flight. I sang along. When we landed, I was disappointed to find out that Green Bay lost. But when I took my father’s hand and walked through the LAX airport, I knew I scored in a much bigger way.

I was ten and in the fourth grade. And I had just stuck it to the biggest bully I knew.

I continue to stick it. This experience awakened the belief in me that no human being is illegal. No one is alien. No law, no border, should ever be instituted that displaces families and severs ties. I realized the monster that ripped my father from me those few days was big and complex. But it didn’t scare me. It didn’t scare me years later when it reared its ugly head again and took my mother. She returned soon enough too. I swore to myself that day, as I stood in line at the border, that I would live a life without borders. I declared myself sovereign, and chose to live in a state of acceptance. Of freedom. Of tolerance and respect. The borders that split my family in two were meaningless. The borders that draw lines between people, be it class, race, privilege, are non-existent.

Borders exist if we deny ourselves the power to climb over and see beyond– beyond to where the river flows, where the ocean waves; where the mountain peaks, and where the Earth bends.

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