Plenty of things forced my father to leave Mexico. He was born in an adobe home into a poor family in Mexico, the eldest of seven children. He was charged at age 10 with providing for the family alongside my grandfather so he dropped elementary school and picked fields instead. He sold candy and shined shoes in the park in worn out second-hand sneakers.
My father decided to hop on a freight train, leave his family, his home, and all that was familiar to him behind in Mexico to emigrate to the United States. He was afraid, he says, not just of the perilous journey but also of his arrival and the new world that awaited him on the other side of the border, ‘en el otro lado.’ But he got on the train anyway, on the side of a grain car precariously positioned above the steel wheels on the rails because he needed to get to the other side, desperately.
Immigrant stories like my father’s are as old as humanity itself. It shows in a country like Spain, where I write this now and where I will continue to report from for the coming weeks. The Iberian Peninsula is one of the gateways into Europe, having seen countless waves of historical migration because of its position in proximity to Africa. The empire that once called this peninsula home spanned across all continents and Mestizos from these Hispanicized lands have emigrated to Spain in varying numbers.
Like Spain, the United States has a long history of migration. Before Latinos like my father gathered at the border and before the Irish sailed into New York City through Ellis Island, pilgrims came to the American continent and claimed plots of dirt where they could pray in peace. This nation was built by immigrants, some Americans take pride in that, though it was at the cost of hundreds of American first nations. Still, the United States is divided on immigration. Immigrants are seen as invaders from other lands by some, taking our jobs, crime and bringing about the destruction of our own nation.
While Spain seems to understand migration better than most nations. In comparison to other countries in the European Union, there is little anti-immigrant sentiment in Spain. Perhaps the Spanish are weary of any right-wing authoritarian rhetoric having lived under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco for most of the 20th century. Perhaps, after having lived through a devastating economic crisis in 2008, the Spanish understand the economic hardships that force people to seek work abroad.
Perhaps Americans will one day understand too.
Right now, as you read this, a man or woman is contemplating leaving everything they know, good and bad, in exchange for stability or opportunity. Perhaps they’re fearful of the journey, across the Rio Grande or the Mediterranean Sea, the Sonora Desert or the Sahara. Perhaps they’re afraid of the destination, of the unwelcome stares or sneers of their new neighbors. But perhaps they know they can thrive under such pressure and adversity.
But maybe some people are born Nomads, destined to move and be Strangers someplace else. When my father talks about his decision to leave, he talks about everything he saw in Hollywood movies: the paved black roads painted in yellow and white, the towering highway overpasses, the pristine lawns in front of immaculate houses and the suburb streets soaked in golden streetlight. When he talks about coming to the United States, I’m convinced my father didn’t leave Mexico just for an opportunity to work. America’s allure called to him.
Whatever his reasoning, what’s true regardless is that my father changed the course of my life long before I was born. Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like in the tiny town of Anahuac, Chihuahua had he not come to the United States. I like to think it’d be more of less the same, that I’d still be a writer, a student, and a journalist. But more likely than that, I’d be fixing Coca-Cola refrigerators in neighboring towns and waiting tables on the side, much like he did, and like him I’d struggle to get by.
In hearing my father tell his immigration story and in exploring the parallel universe where he had not made the decision to leave Mexico, I’ve become curious. I want to know what drives people to make that decision, to leave everything and start again, and what comes as a consequence of that decision, for themselves, their descendants and the worlds they leave and newly inhabit. Moreover, I want to find stories like my father’s and share them with those who think immigration is a problem to be solved, a nuisance or a threat, rather than a natural condition of humanity.