BY ELIZABETH ELIZALDE
Growing up, I was forced to lie about my identity my ethnicity, my culture…everything that has helped to make me the woman I am today.
I lied that I wasn’t Mexican.
Born to an Ecuadorian mother and a Mexican father, I was always told by my family that I had the best of both worlds. That was not the case when I faced discrimination, throughout elementary and middle school, because I looked ‘Mexican.’
“Go make me a taco, you wetback!” “Go back to Mexico!” were some of the derogatory comments I grew up listening to. My classmates knew my mother was Ecuadorian, yet had no clue my father was Mexican. “Don’t say you’re Mexican,” my father said. He wanted me to lie so I wouldn’t face discrimination outside and inside of school. My mother was not fond of the idea.
I kept my identity a secret so well over the years, but now I am no longer ashamed to say that I’m half Mexican-American. Today, I am proud to say that I’m Mexican.
New York City is a cultural melting pot. But the Mexican population here has increased 82% in 20 years, from 58,410 in 1990 to 342,699 in 2009. If the Mexican population growth continues at this rate, by 2024, Mexicans would be the largest Latino group in New York City. This expansion is the result of mass immigration and high birth rates among Mexican women in the city.
As I have been proud of and accepting of my own identity, I wanted to explore what it means to be a Mexican immigrant woman here in New York City so I sat down with three different women who transitioned to America in search for opportunities and a better life. They’ve experienced hardships and success, sadness and joy all while preserving their identities and their Mexican culture. Here is each of their stories:
Susana Arellano Alvarado, 30, is an architect and urban planner born in Mexico City, Mexico who came to the United States 3 years ago, studying initially in Arizona. She is a graduate of the Urban Development Planning program from the University College of London. Her work has focused on youth participation and the cultural development of urban policies.
Arellano lived in Mexico with her parents and is the only child. What she misses most about living in Mexico is her neighborhood, San Pedro de los Pinos, a small province that used to be part of Mexico City. Her small town had a local market, a church and just about everyone knew each other, despite living in a large city.
“I feel like I don’t want to go back to Mexico immediately,” she said, even though Mexico City doesn’t experience much of drug trafficking, mostly kidnappings, mugging or violence that people read about happening in other parts of the country. Living abroad is when she realized how dangerous Mexico was. “I didn’t want to be living with that fear, at least for a while, until things start changing,” Arellano said.
Coming to America also resulted from Arellano’s change in her career path. “I was transitioning in my career because I started as an architect, but I wanted to changed and get my masters in urban development planning.” Arellano wanted to work as a facilitator to help communities overcome poverty.
“Studying in another place, you are not just getting an education but getting the chance to experience a different culture,” she said.
Arellano said “culturally it wasn’t that much of a shock,” growing in a large city and she knows people that have come to the United Stated and have been overwhelmed by New York City, “but I felt just at home”
On the other hand, when she lived in London, Arellano didn’t see a Mexican community like she did in New York City or many Latinos as a matter of fact.
Arellano and Rafael decided to move to Brooklyn from Manhattan in search for affordable rents, and they found themselves living on Onderdonk and Stanhope Streets in the Ridgewood sections of Queens. Arellano described her husband as a “strange mix,” born in the U.S from a Spanish father and an Italian mother, but raised in Mexico all his life. Arellano and Rafael met in Mexico City while working together as architects, since then their relationship blossomed.
“It was amazing because we realized we had on one corner la commercial Mexicana and many other Mexican stores around the area,” said Arellano. She felt comfortable and accepted in her neighborhood as she did in Mexico. She also admitted that she felt homesick at times where she misses her friends and family and walking around Mexico.
Although Arellano’s parents are divorced, she talks to her mother on an everyday basis because of their business together, and communicates with her father regularly. The business that Arellano has with her mother a bakery called ‘Manjar.’ “When something is really good you would say “es un manjar de dioses” meaning delicacy of the gods, she said.
Besides running the baking business, Arellano also focused on urban development and felt New York was suitable place to engage in community organizing and neighborhood building. Neighborhood Women is one of the non – profit organizations that Arellano is involved in. Her job is to introduce the organization to the new generation of women of the women community activists of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In order to preserve the Mexican culture for young women and Mexican immigrants, Arellano and Raphael have been in talks with Mano a Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, another non-profit organization that advocates for cultural preservation.
The pair noticed a huge gap between first and second-generation immigrants. The first generation immigrants migrate to the states while the second generation are born and raised into a different culture, with different set of values and the language barriers. Many of the children serve as translators for their parents. Arellano and her husband decided to start a photography class that would bridge the generation gap between youths and adults, where they can communicate with each other and vice versa.
The class is called ‘Photographia entre generaciones’ meaning ‘generational photography’ where she teaches at Mano a Mano. “I feel that they have so much potential, that the are so smart, and that they have a very big advantage being able to grow with two different cultures at the same time,” Arellano said of the children in her class. She knows how difficult it is for young immigrants to adapt to a new culture, especially in the United States. “I think that growing up in New York must be amazing,” she exclaimed, but things have not always been great for Arellano.
She experienced racial discrimination while studying in Arizona. “It was horrible,” said Arellano. It was shocking to her; being that she was close to Mexico there was a racial divide between borders.
In 2008, the Arizona Immigration Law targeted immigrant workers with threats of deportation for being employed with forged documentation. Arellano was in the midst of the controversy.
“Go back to Mexico!” Arellano recalled, “I have never lived something like that, I grew up in Mexico so no one would yell discriminatory things to you.”
On the contrary, she has never felt discriminated in neither New York nor London. She said that everyone in London is very accepting of different cultures and see Mexicans as an ‘exotic’ culture “Everyone is very excited to know someone who is Mexican”
As for the children in her class, she was excited that the Dream Act would soon provide them the opportunity to receive financial assistance towards a higher education. “I think it’s going to be very difficult because it has many people against it,” Arellano said enthusiastically. “Little by little, yes it’s going to start moving forward, but I’m not sure how long that’s going to take and that’s obviously not enough, because there’s people going to college every year”
Arellano plans to have children of her own, but not anytime soon. She has decided that she would speak to her children in Spanish and would love for them to go to Mexico as often as they can, to meet her family, taste the food, hear the slang and the jokes she grew up with.
“I don’t know how many years I’m going to be here, but it will never feel the same as my home, which will always be Mexico.” Arellano said nostalgically.
* * *
Hallelujah praises bounced back and forth inside the Hebrews 11 Pentecostal church. Worshipers kneel down on the hardwood floor, raising their hands as the Christian band played in the background. That is where Abigail Miguel goes to church every Friday with her family.
Miguel, 17, came to America when she was 6-years-old from La Paz, Mexico City Distrito Federal.
She doesn’t remember her trip to the U.S, only in her dreams. “I only know I’ve passed by a desert,” she said.
In her dreams she is walking through the desert at night with her mother Teresa, younger brother Aaron and her uncle Jose Luis. She recalled seeing her mother’s face in anguish trying to get inside the car but was the last one as the coyotes almost left her behind. Coyotes are smugglers that transport people through international borders for pay. The Miguels were very excited but at the same time nervous not knowing what to expect.
Miguel’s father, Arturo, was already in the United States. “We didn’t know anything,” she said of her father’s sudden disappearance. “I didn’t know about immigration until I was 10 years old,” until her mother explained to her. She says that her brother Aaron still has a difficult time accepting he is an immigrant, on the other hand, her little brother Isaac is an American citizen born and raised in Brooklyn.
The family first stopped in Arizona, after taking a plane to New York. Miguel would never forget the say she reunited with her father at the airport. “ My dad had flowers and teddy bears, and a toy for my brother,” she said in an excited tone. “I was like that’s my dad! I was crying,” she said, “My mom was happy that day, I’ve never seen her that happy!”
“Sometimes I think, what would my life be if I lived over there [Mexico],” said Abigail, “I would be crazy, I wouldn’t go to school, probably be outside the whole time.” She said its better to live in New York, because you only go to school and home since she has no other family members to socialize with. “I like school,” she said so there wouldn’t be a possibility of her dropping out her from her high school.
Abigail’s first day of American school was in a Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she first lived with her family. Her first grade ESL teacher at the time gave her unsatisfactory grades for not being able to communicate in English, which is why she transferred to P.S 45 Horace E. Greene School in Brooklyn, where she had more opportunities to communicate with other Mexican students.
The Miguels now live in Bushwick, Brooklyn and she attends High School of Telecommunications Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge.
Her father wanted his children to get their college degrees in hope of going back to Mexico to permanently stay there, but obviously the plan has changed. “When I finish high school, I want to work in photography, art design or drama,” Miguel said of her aspirations.
After living in New York for 11 years, Abigail said she has no plans of going back to Mexico. “My place is here, I’m used to it.”
* * *
Luz and Juan Carlos Aguirre are brother and sister, who founded the non-profit organization Mano A Mano: Mexican Culture Without Borders, to preserve the Mexican culture in New York, through different arts and culture programs. They both feel that that there is a lack or Mexican organizations for the number of Mexicans living New York City.
Mano a Mano is located on Saint Felix Street near the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. There is a large Mexican flag hanged in their office, displaying their Mexican pride of green, white, and red.
“When you migrate its not an easy decision,” said Luz “You’re going to leave everything behind. You’re going to cross the border and start from zero” she said.
Luz, 34, and Juan Carlos, 33, migrated with their mother from Mexico to the United States in the 1990’s when she was 11 years old and Juan Carlos was 10. “When we got here we faced a lot of prejudice,” said Juan Carlos, who has experienced bullying from other Latinos, especially in school.
“People would make fun of the way talk, the way I walk, everything about being Mexican,” said Luz, who always defended herself in those situations. “What the heck are you talking about? Listen to you!” she would say if people tried to make fun of her. For Luz, discrimination doesn’t affect her because she is confidant of who she is.
Many of the Mexicans that come to New York are mostly from small towns, which is why children may not have their sense of identity in tact because of their small town mentality. The programs at Mano a Mano help children to form their identities by learning new things about their culture they wouldn’t learn at home.
Juan Carlos thinks some of the conflict arises out of different lifestyles “When we came here, our family came with the idea of going to a new country and not looking back.” The mentality of Latin Americans is to stabilize for several years to make a living, then return to their home country to provide for their family, but, “unconsciously they know they’re never going to go back,” Juan Carlos said.
Luz’s daughter Eve, 12, knows everything about her Mexican culture. Although she was born in the United States, she knows they history of her Mexico, which makes Luz delighted to know that her daughter won’t lose her identity. “I want her to be proud of who she is,” said Luz, She communicates to her daughter that she is Mexican and that there is no other way around it, but at the same time encourages her to learn about other cultures rather than her own. “She loves the idea that here are so many languages around the world and I think it comes from, being proud of who you are and allowing yourself to embrace who you are,” said Luz, as she watched Eve draw Frida Kahlo on paper.
Juan Carlos said the main problem immigrants face is trying to cut off their cultural roots when they come to America. “You can be very Mexican and very American at the same time,” he said. When he goes to Mexico, Mexicans see him as an American or as a gringo as they say in Mexico, and the gringos in America see him as a Mexican. “I feel that I belong on both sides perfectly,” said Juan Carlos.
“I’m a New Yorker, I’m an American, and I’m completely Mexican,” said Luz “I’m not a pizza pie that you can cut and say how much of it are you,” she giggled, “I know who I am.” Juan Carlos agrees with his sister that no one should betray his or her culture. “This country is made up of pieces of the world.”