By Jessica Belinda RodriguezJessica Belinda Rodriguez is a native of Los Angeles and holds a degree in Comparative Literature from UCLA. She currently lives in New York City.
Antolin, an eighth grader was one of my better students. He actually wanted to learn. He did his best to pay attention to Ms. Mock’s math lessons given in her butchered Spanish, and patiently waited for me to come around and translate the bits he couldn’t catch. He even befriended the lone white boy in class, who got placed with us because of behavior problems, some kind of relentless A.D.D. They could tolerate each other. Communicating with notes, sign language, and numbers, Antolin used all the ESL 1 he could with Scott and in turn, Scott cobbled together sometimes cohesive statements from his Spanish artillery. They’d sit in the back corner of the classroom and work out math problems together. They’d get a little loud at times, but I wasn’t quick to hush them. Not a lot of other Latino kids liked Antolin. He’d recently immigrated and still wore his uniform with the Prepa impecablness I saw my cousins don their uniforms with: the ironed collar, the creased pants, the old but clean shoes worked over with polish on Sunday nights. At the beginning of the year he still took pride in keeping himself presentable. His parent’s expected 10’s and 9’s from him, at the very worst 8’s. Though in Mexico he was known to have received a 7 en conducta from time to time, he’d confided to me. His jokes were cheesy, had an extensive vocabulary in Spanish, and he was kind whenever I botched a translation, always correcting me gently.
It was within the last few minutes of the lunch period one October day that Antolin tore into the classroom at full speed. He ran directly to the back of the room and began struggling with the heavy window, desperately trying to open it up.
“Ayudeme, Miss!” he yelled, his knuckles white with strain.
“¿Antolin, qué onda? ¿Qué haces?”
“La migra está afuera, Miss! Outside!” he exclaimed as he pointed through the window with his chin. The translated bit had been for my benefit, as if only in English could INS mean anything to me. Ms. Mock trotted over and looked at me quizzically. She understood “migra” and I asked, “Are they allowed o be here? At schools?”
“I don’t know” she responded with fear in her voice.
Antolin ran to the next window and began struggling to push it up. At this point the students had trickled into class and the news of Antolin’s sighting spread. A few began peering out the windows to see if they could spot any suspicious cars. Ramon gently tugged at the window Antolin had struggled unsuccessfully with, hoping no one would notice.
“Everyone sit down. Calmense,” Ms. Mock said as she pulled Antolin from the middle window. We each held an arm as he came down off the ledge. He was sweating profusely. The perspiration beaded on his nose and forehead, catching the sunshine, his dark skin luminous.
“Tell us what you saw,” she said to him.
“I was passing by the school office and I saw the Migra car. I have to go.” His voice cracked as he spoke, making sure he caught my eye, “I thought they couldn’t come to the school, Miss. That’s why I go to school instead of work. My parents thought it was safer.” My own family and friends that dodged INS flashed in my mind. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to get caught and sent back across the border only to show up two weeks later or never again. Those were adults though; Antolin was the first kid I knew whose flight instinct had been triggered in front of me.
“I–I don’t know, I’m sorry. Pero nadie te va llevar,” was my offering. Ms. Mock patted his shoulder, “That’s right; nobody’s going to do anything to you.Take a seat.” She led him to his chair and I followed. The bell rang and she issued a warning to the students to take their seats. She pulled me away, “I’m going to call the main office to see what’s going on. In the mean time, I think we should lock the doors.” She smiled tightly, her coral colored lips stretched unkindly across her face.
When I turned around a tidal wave of eyes washed over me. Their oceanic gazes heavy, unyielding, a quiet before the storm sea. Eyes darted from the door, to me, to the windows in the back of the room. I counted them, thirty-four. Ninety percent of them were Latino. I struggled to count how many I knew were undocumented and realized that I had no idea. I began wondering how many we could hide in the computer room adjacent to the back of the classroom.
Ms. Mock returned to the room, “False alarm, false alarm,” she yelped, “Alarma falsa,” she reiterated in false cognate. “Just the local police.”
A sigh of relief ran through the room. Edgar flipped a middle finger toward the windows, “Pinchi Migra.” Brieseida began whining about needing to go the bathroom. Ramon leaned back in his seat, pulling his hoodie just past his eyes. Antolin laughed out loud, his white teeth standing out brightly in his mouth and joked about how sweaty he now was. I walked to the back of the room and sat in an empty chair next to him. Placed my head in my hands and asked the kids near me to behave because I didn’t have it in me to be after them today. One laughed and said, “Ay miss,” dismissively.
At the end of the school day Antolin asked me to walk him to his bus stop. A few of the other students joined us. They spoke amongst themselves on the way and I lingered nearby until their bus arrived.
After a few weeks no one made mention of the incident. I realized that in their reality, my students were not afraid of what went bump in the night. They feared what snatches up in the daylight.
When I first started college I needed money badly. Financial aid wasn’t all that kind to me the first few semesters, so I took a job as a translator in the local school district. I was placed in a school that housed 7th through 12th graders. My job was to translate English to Spanish for the students and vice versa for the teachers. I worked all subjects: English, math, science, history. I was fortunate to get along well with an older math teacher who taught almost exclusively to English as a Second Language students. Unofficially, I was placed in her classroom for a year. Memories of some of those students still jump out at me, like small arms reaching out from across a divide. From how they said “Mees” for “Miss,” to the humor they found in the world, and how they seemed to have lived in the shadows.
In a lot of ways, the kids weren’t so different from me. They said “guey” and spoke slang like I did on my off hours. “That’s dope,” “aight,” At times I’d catch myself saying hello with my stubby chin to the baby gangsters, lifting it in the air and tilting my head back in acknowledgment. I’d been a “home girl” to some from my own neighborhood, had even been corralled into backing up a few fights in middle school. The students who lived with their parents got the same lessons I had: “I don’t want you to fight, but if you do you better win. If not, I’ll kick your ass when you get home.” Only difference was that my mom had been on this side of the border when she’d gone into labor, but like most of them I’d been conceived in Mexico. I even got the “Hecho en Mexico” tattoo on my upper arm when I was eighteen.
At five foot nine Blas was tall for a fifteen-year-old. Tall for a Mexican. Gangly and always slouching, Blas appeared to be in a stage of puberty where the mind is not aware of the body it possesses, perhaps, even being in denial of it.
Blas was from Jalisco, but he had been moved to the states by the time he was two. “Mojados,” he told me, referring to the pejorative term used for undocumented people. Some think “wetbacks” comes from the sweat day laborers or migrant workers break out into at the job, but it refers to the cross of the Rio Colorado that runs along California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and the states of Baja California and Sonora in Mexico.
He was the second of three kids, the last one having been born on this side the border. His oldest sister was nineteen and working at a retail store downtown with a fake Mica or Green Card. I didn’t know what his parents did for a living; just that they got home late and exhausted
Academically, Blas didn’t do better than most of my other students. When I first met him he was one of the kids who only half listened and half tried, more interested in lunch break happenings and talk of video games and girls. He was a nice kid, though. He was polite with Hello Miss, Good-bye Miss, Have a nice day, Miss. Just before the winter break, on a day when the class lesson was a snowman you colored based on the solutions to double variable equations, he sat next to me in the back of the classroom and asked about one of the more difficult questions. When we got to the answer a loose, easy, smile overtook his face. He began asking me questions about college, what I studied, what I wanted to do with my life, if I would ever teach.
“Maybe. It takes a big commitment to be a teacher.”
“Come on, Miss. Get your own classroom. I’d study in your classroom.”
The next day I brought him a paper that outlined the high school coursework required to get into a state University. When I handed it to him and explained how it worked, the soft, easy smile returned to his face. As he slipped the paper into his math folder, he told me to please request him when I got my own classroom to teach in.
Blas began taking notes in class and completing assignments. I began counting on his work to be completed and I counted on him to behave while I refereed and corralled other students to do the same. It hadn’t occurred to me that a transition had happened until one winter day from my seat in the rear of the room, I saw him with his head down during a math lecture. I walked over and snapped,
“Blas, pon atencion.”
“Aw, come on, Miss. My head hurts, that’s why it’s down, but you know me better than that.” Indignantly he held up a paper. Every notation Ms. Mock has given was jotted down on it. The quadratic equation scribbled in the right top corner to refer to. A hundred flies buzzed in my chest for doubting the kid. “Perdon, good job.”
I had a friend visit early in the spring semester to speak to the students about going to college. When she spoke to Blas’ group, he pulled out the sheet I had given him and showed it to her. Apparently he carried it around with him every day.
Brittney was a girl whose family was from the same town in Mexico as mine, a port city famous for its American weekend cruises and seafood. She bought me a birthday card and wrote in block letters how she appreciated that I let her do her makeup in class if her work was done. Brittney always wore her shirts a bit too low cut, her shorts and skirts too tight and high, and heels that constantly threatened her center of gravity. She was boy crazy and would come into the classroom where I tried to hide out during lunch breaks with two friends to yap about their latest fifteen-year-old romantic troubles. I was only a few years older than them but I felt the need to tell them to respect themselves, urging them
to focus on school, that there would be time for boy’s later, statements I’d heard countless times from my own mother.
During one of these lunch breaks, the teacher from the classroom next to ours came in to speak to Ms. Mock. Taking one look at Brittney’s skirt she yelped:
“That is way too short, young lady! I’m sure if you sat down I’d be able to tell what you ate for breakfast!”
Brittney giggled nervously and rolled her eyes. “Whatever,” she replied and rushed out of the room. She returned for class later that day and at the end lingered while everyone filed out of the room.
“I have to ask you something, Miss,” she began gravely. She eyed the desk next to her, so I sat down.
With all the solemnity afforded to her, “Will you promise to tell me the truth?”
“To the best of my ability, Brittney, yes.”
She made a whooshing noise as she sucked in air, “Do I look like a hoochie?”
“Yes, Brittney, you look like a hoochie.”
“Oh,” she said and looked me in the eye.
A smile crept across her face and I could see as the laughter curling up inside, her slight shoulders betraying the laughter that unfurrowed from her mouth.. After a moment I was laughing as well and we stood there, cackling with our heads thrown back.
I wasn’t a happy camper taking this job. The hours were bad and while the pay was decent, I couldn’t stand some of the rowdier kids. I dodged them in the halls and a few times in the streets. I’d just edged out of high school the year before myself, having dropped out of my Advanced Placement and honors courses when I’d realized my grades weren’t getting me where I thought I’d end up. Instead of sitting around and waiting for my fellow nerds to find out which Pac-10 or Ivy League school they’d got into, I’d cut class and smoked weed before school with people I’d grown apart from after middle school. Kids I’d known since elementary school, had even been in ESL with some of them, but got tracked away from after the AP/Honors courses separated us.
“We thought you’d become stuck up,” they’d say.
“Nah, foo’, I was just caught up with class and homework and shit. But fuck that now,” I’d reply.
The truth was that I had gotten stuck up, full of myself and my sense of promise. I’d gotten it in my mind; by the way they treated and corralled us AP and honors students, that I was special. I’d go on to a badass college, get a badass degree, and make bank someday. Yet I was a first generation kid and my parents, while supportive and demanding of me, had no idea how the college system worked in the U.S. It was early in my senior year that my counselor snorted when I told her the types of schools I wanted to apply to. She pointed to my science and math classes and looked me dead in the eye. “Let’s be more realistic here.” Apparently, I hadn’t been taking the right courses all along. I yelled right into her apple pie face, “And where the fuck where you when I needed to know this? Why the hell didn’t you tell me all these years!” before being escorted out. I wasn’t written up because at that point I was still one of the good kids.
I’d enrolled into a community college two towns over only at my parents’ executive orders. I couldn’t bear to see people from high school; having to explain where I was at.
So I wasn’t thrilled to be working with the little shits, but they were mine. At least I had that.
Fatima was from a small town in the state of Puebla. I knew that state only because one of my housekeepers was from there and she’d told me stories of its hills and valleys. Fatima had a small squat body with a complexion the color of fresh clay, more red than brown. She dyed her hair a chocolate color; almost matching her skin completely, only breaking up her monochrome look with bleach blonde streaks. She was a good student, well and soft spoken, her clothes always neat and appropriate. She’d arrived to the States two months before I met her that fall. At first she studied during her breaks, but soon made friends with a group of quiet, seemingly polite girls. Being a quick learner, she advanced to a higher level of English and was placed in the honors Spanish class. Fatima told me that even though the science and math classes were mostly translated, they were also boring, even when reading ahead in her textbooks.
Once Briseida, the resident obnoxious girl, tried to start in on her. Fatima shut her up quickly. Briseida had flung a snarky comment. “Don’t start with me,” Fatima had said, “Things will not end well.” Her voice had been no louder than her usual steady and matter-of-fact tone, as if explaining how she arrived to an equations solution. “I don’t let people push me around, Miss,” she told me when I spoke to her after class. I admired her quiet strength and was proud of her.
She had been sent by her parents to live with her sister in the States, but Fatima eventually wanted to go back to her pueblo to teach. In the mean time she worked at a popular restaurant on the weekends, taking double shifts, to help her sister out. She’d take her books with her and read if she could. If there was a lull between the lunch and dinner shift she was supposed to be able to sit down and eat, yet she confided in me that she was often unable to rest for the thirty minutes promised to her. The restaurant manager had once come by and picked up the plate of food set in
front of her during her break saying, “You no eat, customers, no break.”
“And what did you do?” I asked.
“I went back to work.”
“They’re not allowed to do that. There are laws, Fatima,” I told her. She shrugged. We both knew that a complaint would be futile. I didn’t suggest she quit. I could not insult her like that.
When she disappeared for two weeks I asked around for her. I told her friends that if they heard anything about her to please let me know. They promised, but I sensed with crossed fingers. Even if I had befriended them, I was still an authority figure of sorts. It pained me, but I understood their assumption that any information they gave me about her wouldn’t necessarily remain confidential.
When Fatima came back I was happy to see her and spoke to her the first chance I had, “¿Qué pasó contigo, Fatima? ¿Dondé haz estado?” Her sister’s husband had been deported and she had decided to go back with him to Puebla while Fatima chose to stay. She moved in with a distant aunt who wanted her to pay rent and help with the bills, so she’d been working double shifts for the past two weeks to get the money. “¿Todos los dias?” I asked. “Yes, Miss, I wanted to return to school as soon as possible.” I excused her form the work she’d missed in her absences and encouraged her to stay after school to catch up with the concepts she’d missed.
“I work after school now.”
“And the weekends still?”
“Yes, I have Thursday off. Can I come in on Thursday?”
After that her grades began slipping. Her roots grew back in, the ink black contrasting harshly with the now brassy brown. She often wore the same outfit twice in a row, and her shoes became permanently scuffed. The bags under her eyes and her sallow skin gave away her exhaustion. She was even caught sleeping in class once or twice. Fatima became an expert at the exasperated teenage eye roll. If I called her attention to the lesson at hand, she’d snap at me, “Yes, Miss, si, I know, I know!” She got into a fight with another girl in the school parking lot, tackling her down to the pavement, yanking her hair and landing punches to the girl’s ribs and face.
She came into my classroom in April, her face blotched with tears, “Miss, someone stole my money.”
“I had $500 in my book bag and now I have nothing. It was my rent for the month! I have nothing left!”
We tried. We couldn’t find it.
I asked her what she thought would happen when she went home. She shook her head slowly, her lips pursed and absent. If I’d had the money, I would have given it to her, but I didn’t, and became furious at myself. The girl was fifteen and fucked and there was nothing I could do about it. The soft squeak coming from her shoes as she slid one foot in front of the other towards the door that afternoon was her only good-bye.
I waited for Fatima to return, hoping she’d figure out a solution. Each day that she didn’t a tiny river flooded my chest making it hard to breathe. I became curt with some of the students, wondering if they’d been the ones to steal from her. A few noticed the change and asked what was wrong but there was never a straight answer I could give them.
On the last day of classes a few tears escaped as I exchanged good-byes with a few kids but more than sadness, I found myself frightened for them: Where would they go? Which ones would return in September? Who would watch over them during the summer?
The orange notice to confirm my appointment as a translator for the following school year arrived in the mail two weeks after classes ended. They were only sent to those that had satisfactory evaluations from both teachers and students. It looked no larger than a post card as it collected dust on the edge of my desk over the summer. I left it there long after the deadline to submit had passed.