A true Los Angeles native knows that life without a car is no life at all. This L.A. transplant of 20 years whose coming of age happened in the great City of Angels couldn’t agree more. She would also learn that life without Los Angeles is hard to imagine.
To love L.A. is to drive it. Even when you can’t get a license, an undocumented Angelino/a finds a way. We were certainly forced to find one after 1994 when licenses stopped being issued for folks without papers (although that has recently changed with legislation granting California Driver’s Licenses for Undocumented Residents).
Oh, yes! I remember the first car I drove. This car was what we call a carcacha, it definitely looked like a clunker; but on my last year of college it spared me the agony of the daily commute from my home in South Central L.A. to the San Fernando Valley, and back. On a good day I would spent four hours hopping on three buses and a metro. With that kind of commute I was certainly no friend of the Los Angeles public transportation system, but I was determined to get a college education and 30 miles were not going to get in my way. No way! Besides, the long rides gave me time to do my homework or take a nap, my antidote to a normalized sleep deprived life style.
When my dad had enough savings to buy me a car, it didn’t matter it was a vehicle that looked as it was ready to head to the car graveyard. In its past life, it had survived an accident that left a dent on the door on the driver’s side, but any repairs done to it didn’t remove the evidence that it was a survivor, like me. It had a missing window that was usurped by a type of plastic that was good enough to look like a glass window, but it distorted the driver’s view, giving it a blurred vision effect that made driving it either bit interesting or hazardous, depending on the type of driver you are. As long as I never had to take it any place where valet parking was required, I was good to go!
This minivan made me fall in love with Los Angeles, its multiculturalism, diversity, gentrification and segregation, all for the price of one. It took me everywhere I needed to go and become the car that made me a happy and fearless driver on the 101/405 FWYs. In my post-college years, so much of my life was dependent on my car. Going to work meetings, road trip to Las Vegas with my family to spend the holidays, rushing to meet my friends for happy hour, even grocery shopping.
After graduation, I upgraded by purchasing my first car, a red Camry Toyota that allowed me to continue my driving relationship with LA. This one survived a Freeway accident and an immigration persecution. Yeah, the one where I was stopped on my way to work. I’m sure my car will never forgive the officers for forcing me to leave it stranded in the middle of the street to be towed away. The bloody bastards!
A friend once asked me, “When will you stop being a deportee?”
Although I can’t recall what I answered, I still remember this question because it struck me as an odd one. Being a deportee is not a state of being or as fluid as my emotions. It is more like a permanent label that I have slip into as a result of political and legal systems. It is a fact that I was detained and expelled from a country and that will never be erased from my past; but I hope my deportee status earns me some karmic brownie points with the birth lottery system in my next life. But I digressed, going back to the question… If my existence in Mexico and my work around activism, migrant rights, and my current career path as a migration scholar were all propelled by a label that has become a part of my identity – can I live without it? Has my quest to dignify this stigmatized label constrained my existence post-deportation?
To complicate matters, I have attached another identifier to this label by calling myself a “deported Dreamer” as a way of acknowledging my own experience as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. and connecting it to my struggles here. It was also a strategic choice for me as I wanted to convey the message that I was still part of political movement in the U.S. propelled by (what I call) the “millennial Dreamers”. I mean, we are of the same kind. I have much in common with them, we all arrived as a children in the U.S. and growing up in the country that would later become home as undocumented immigrants. The main difference was that I was part of a generation who lived mostly in the shadows. We were also not as organized as the millennial Dreamers are today, and of course since 2009, I’m no longer in the U.S.
Being a Dreamer on the south side of the border (I thought) was part of extending the immigrant right’s struggle to Mexico, because being a returned migrant in Mexico is no walk in the park, as I have tried to illustrate in most of what I written heresince I started blogging in 2012. My new found purpose was wrapped around a fight for recognition in a country that won’t have us back, that doesn’t want us back. Four years later, I find myself at a crossroads and I have made a decision others in U.S. Dreamer movement have made – to drop the label. I am no longer a Dreamer.
That is a simple question, isn’t it? Well for some of us, the answer is not so straightforward.
My experience in London in the past four months has included fascinating dialogue with people I have come across. It is one thing I have come to expect from such a global city where you are bound to meet people from so many places around the world. Such interactions have sparked in me the need to explore my conception of identity as part of my own self-discovery process. Primarily because most of us conflate the place of origin and ethnicity with identity. If I claim to be from a certain part of the world, what does that mean about the way others expect me to look, speak, act, and be? In engaging in this inquiry, the first realization I have made is that the answer to the question of ‘Where are you from?’ is very telling not only about one’s own perception of identity but also of the one imposed by others.
My standard response to this question when I first arrived was ‘I am from Mexico’. However, I did not anticipate the confusion this simplified answer created. I was also faced with having to explain why I speak English with an American accent.
I began to be confronted with a part of myself I have been denying since my ‘return’ to Mexico. I suppose that part of the process of incorporating back into Mexican society after living my formative years in the U.S. included embracing my mexicaness to avoid being perceived as an outsider. Once again, I was posed with assimilating and adapting to fit in into a new host society. I did not find it safe to publicly embrace the American identity I had formed growing up in the U.S. because of the negative discourse about those that emigrated from Mexico and those that return due to a deportation. I felt I needed to hide any evidence that would label me a foreigner.
Despite my best efforts, my American accent was also picked up in my spoken Spanish. I was not saved from having to excuse it by saying, ‘… well I really don’t sound Mexican when I speak Spanish because I grew up outside of Mexico’. Then, I hoped for no further inquiry because I did not want to explain why I was back in Mexico.
However, my response to ‘I am from Mexico’ attached with such a disclaimer was still excluding a part of me. The fact is that I am far from being ONLY Mexican. I simply had to look at the way I carried my life on a day-to-day basis. That little inner voice that we all carry with ourselves every single moment speaks to me in English. At my previous job during team meetings, even if they were conducted in Spanish, I would write my meeting notes in English. I would read the news in English as well as listen to American radio stations. I still watch American shows. I keep networks of friends in the U.S. with who I communicate in English. I continue to celebrate Thanksgiving and NFL Superbowl becomes an excuse for organizing family and friend gatherings.
I also acknowledge Mexican Independence Day. I speak in Spanish with my parents. I can only pray and listen to mass in Spanish and Mexican food continues to be my favorite cuisine. I am Mexican by ethnicity and nationality but I lived most of my life in Los Angeles as an American. When you factor all these variables, what conclusion can I arrive about my own identity? Am I more Mexican or American?
Coming to London did not save me from this identity dilemma. My answer to THE question now has a second part; ‘I sound American because I am ALSO American?’. I am culturally American. That is the truth I cannot hide any longer. Interestingly, most people agree with that. They understand. Your home is where you grew up. Where you set up roots. Where you formed your identity. Unfortunately, immigration laws fail to acknowledge that.
So when I am asked about my identity, I now explain that by nationality I am Mexican, that culturally I am American. That you can be removed from home if you are undocumented. That one day you can get picked up by immigration officers and be thrown back to what is supposed to be your home. That when you are back in this foreign place where you hold a nationality, you are questioned as to why you do not speak as someone that grew up there, or why you think or act differently. At the end of this complicated explanation, the inquirers would then understand the injustice of restrictive immigration laws. They understand why I am here studying global migration.
I return to the question – how can such a complicated experience be captured in a single label? It seems that the only thing left to do is to accept that I have a hyphenated identity (1). I am Mexican-American. That is the identity I declare for myself moving forward, whether or not there exists a document to validate it. Because who you are should not be dictated by a government or a society. Because it is my choice to embrace the worlds that I am part of, even if it means engaging in a fight for inclusion and belonging. Just because there are immigration policies that do not permit me to return to the place I grew up and was once my home, it does not mean that my identity also remained on the other side of the border. It goes with me everywhere I go and it has followed me to London. It just took me to answer a simple question in an honest manner to realize it.
The problem is that we are trained to have a simplified view of a complex social construct as is identity. It is easier to place others in categories that match the ethnic checkboxes we are used to seeing in government documents. The problem is that when you adopt a label that is not easily understood, it can be quite threatening. But I dare to say that is precisely the reason why such conceptions need to be challenged. Because if we are not able to embrace who we are, we cannot expect our friends, our communities, and governments to do so either. The process of claiming our own rights begins with each of us embracing the truth of who we are.
(1) I came across the concept of hyphenated labels and identities in my reading of the following book which discusses the claim of American identity by immigrant children/youth that arrive in the U.S.: Stepick, A. and Stepick, C. (2003) ‘Becoming American’ in N. Foner (ed.) American Arrivals: Anthropology Engages the New Immigration, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 129-161.
Published in Pocho.com on February 3, 2014