Missing Childhoods

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Missing Childhoods: Immigrant Minors Have No Access to Protection

of Their Human Rights

by Zhen Chen

June, 2018

Peter Orner, author of Underground America, talks about a series of human rights abuses through the narratives of undocumented immigrants. In these stories, most narrators had to face discrimination and exploitation and were treated unfairly by people in positions of power. Readers will be shocked to find out that not only adults but also minors are enduring social injustice. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nation in 1948, proclaims fundamental rights for all human beings, human rights abuses have continued to exist for decades. The U.D.H.R. states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1). However, at this very moment, a large group of people, even minors, has to face multiple abuses of their innate and inalienable human rights in different countries such as China, Mexico, and the US. Because of political and economic reasons, such as political unrest, discriminatory policies, and poverty, many people, including minors, are forced to flee from their countries of origin and illegally enter the U.S., and these undocumented children have to face unfair and even inhumane treatment both in their home countries and in the U.S, which violates their human rights.

The second child of Mr. Lai, a narrator of a story in Underground America, was threatened to be killed by the local Chinese government because Mr. Lai didn’t obey the one-child policy, which discriminated against unborn babies’ right to live and was enforced by inhumane treatment— forced abortion. Mr. Lai, a typical parent living in a rural area in southeastern China, loved kids, hoped to have more children, and was too frightened to lose his second unborn baby; thus, he and his wife hid in their sister’s house until the baby was born. Based on the policy, their second pregnancy was deemed “illegal,” and so their house was destroyed by the local officials as a punishment, making Mr. Lai even more determined to leave China. His wife was eventually forced to have a hysterectomy; otherwise, she would have faced imprisonment. With great disappointment, Mr. Lai sad, “I just had no faith in China” (Orner 36). The enforcement of the one-child policy, which abused their most basic human right, took away uncountable unborn babies’ lives. Even though some babies survived, their parents had to pay penalties or let them live without legal status for many years. The U.D.H.R. declares that “Everyone has the right to life” (Article 3). However, without birth registration, unborn babies were not allowed to be born in China. No matter the Chinese government’s explanation of how important the policy is to economic and social development, it cannot be denied that the harsh policy violates the right to life, and forced abortions and sterilizations are inhumane. From 2015 to 2016, the policy started to be dismantled, but pregnancies still must follow certain laws. The Chinese government, which tends to be autocratic because of the single-party communist political structure, through its supreme power, has commanded its people, such as Mr. Lai, to strictly comply with the family planning laws. Mr. Lai’s case demonstrates that the implementation of one child policy in China forced him to kill his second child by forced abortion, and the discriminatory policy most certainly abused the child’s human right to life.

In another instance, Roberto, coming from Mexico, had to drop out of his elementary school and work under terrible working conditions because of poverty; attracted by better working opportunities, he became an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. and still experienced exploitation in the workforce solely due to his legal status. In Mexico, Roberto first fled to Mexico City from a small ranch because his family was poor and his father always beat him badly. At age ten, he dropped out of school and got his first job, which was still very vivid in his memory because it was so dangerous, although he felt independent. He worked “on a plank of wood, lassos around our waists…eight stories up” (Orner 58). His employer was not concerned about his safety. Eventually, Roberto escaped to the U.S. for a better life and worked very hard to support himself and his mother still living in Mexico. During the time he worked as a farmer in the fields in the U.S., he watched undocumented children that were under ten years old working in the sun for a whole day. He said, “You see it, and it makes you want to cry” (Orner 63). After leaving the farm, he found an easy job in a tortilla factory in San Jose, California, but was paid only $4.50 an hour, which was less than the minimum wage. According to the U.D.H.R, “Everyone has the right to education…at least in the elementary and fundamental stages” (Article 26). Due to economic and political reasons, some children have to give up on education, or even worse, have to endure unsafe working conditions, long working hours, and unequal pay. The U.D.H.R states that “Everyone has the right to security”( Article 3); “Everyone has the right to rest…reasonable limitation of working hours” (Article 24). Roberto, like many other immigrant minors, was forced to give up on his right to education, leave his native country, and experience exploitation because his family had no financial ability to support him based on the economic situation in Mexico. Moreover, as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S., his “illegal status,” ruled by the immigration laws, made him vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination by his employers in the U.S. Roberto’s case shows that both economic and political inequality lead to abuses of his human right to education and exploitation from his boss.  

Because of the unstable political situation in Guatemala, Eduardo, Orner’s asylum-seeking client, was tortured inhumanly by a paramilitary officer for over a decade, and his traumatic experience violated his human rights to be treated humanely. Due to the fact that Eduardo was tortured from when he was five years old until he was seventeen, Orner considered this case strong enough to convince the judge. Nevertheless, the judge still ruled against Eduardo. Orner thought the judge might have seen too many similar cases in one day, and that it negatively impacted the judgment. This case reflects other children in Guatemala who also suffer violent assaults. Another book, which was written by Lauren Markham, called The Far Away Brothers, shows readers that not only boys but also girls face sexual assaults when they escape from Central America. Markham points out that “In 2010, Six out of ten migrant girls were sexually assaulted en route to the U.S- other estimates are even higher” (159). When these migrants arrived in the U.S., some still experienced sexual abuses at detention centers. “In 2014, Houston Chronicle investigated 101 reports of sexual misconduct…the alleged sexual abuse was often accompanied by threats…” (Markham 85). These boys and girls are innocent and don’t deserve to experience physical or sexual abuse. They might believe that escaping to the U.S. is the best choice for them because the U.S. is known as a country that protects human rights. The U.D.H.R. states that “No one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (Article 4). Therefore, the physical assault that Eduardo suffered, and the sexual abuses that some undocumented girls experience, both violate basic human rights and are caused by complex international politics, such as the civil war in Guatemala, and the detention system in the U.S..

Desperate political and economic situations cause forced migration, but living in the U.S. without legal status, many undocumented minors are forced to be separated from their families, which violates their human rights to family. Roberto’s description of his forced migration is heart- breaking: “Sometimes I talk to myself. Sometimes I cry by myself. Sometimes I scream by myself. Who am I? I’m nobody” (Orner 74). Even though the U.D.H.R. states that “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state” (Article 26.3), many undocumented immigrants are not allowed by the laws to reunite with their close relatives in the U.S. because they are living without legal documents. From all these cases that I explain previously, readers can feel each narrator’s pain of separation, and it seems to be so difficult for them to connect with their family members based on the harsh immigration laws in the U.S. Moreover, a lot of undocumented minors don’t have legal ways to protect their human rights to reunite with their families if the discriminatory laws keep ignoring their human rights.

Due to socio-structural change, including social and political institutions, many children who escape from abusive situations in their homelands and flee to the U.S. have to face different abuses of their human rights, involving the right to life and security, the right to education, etc. While many might think each example of child abuse is a singular violent action, various cases show us that socio-structural change, which is composed of politics and economies, is likely to result in multiple human rights abuses to children. Others might argue these children choose to give up on education by themselves. However, they drop out of school due to the desperate economic situations. Although all human beings are born with human rights regardless of nationalities, some children are confronted with human rights violations because they lack access to resources. Social and political inequality cause them to suffer human rights abuses. Furthermore, both economies and politics contribute to forced migration, and many undocumented minors are legally excluded from human rights and treated unfairly by discriminatory immigration laws in the U.S.

Works Cited

Markham, Lauren. The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life. Crown, 2017.

Orner, Peter. Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. Verso, 2017.

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

I Left on My Birthday

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I Left on My Birthday

by Oscar Garcia, February 2016

Poverty is a factor that forces many people around the world to leave their countries of origin to better their families’ economic outcomes. Some people risk the lives of their siblings and other members of their families. Today, many Central American children are forced to leave their countries of origin to help their families. Some parents know that their children might not make the journey, but still choose to let their children make the unpredictable journey to the US, and some of the consequences can be as bad as losing their lives–rape, exploitation, and/or possible deportation from Mexico or the US. A song by Rumel Fuentes, translated to English, sings, “through my [mother] I’m [Guatemalan] by destiny I’m American…both countries are home…” Although Henry states that he decided to make the journey, he is one those children who was forced to leave his family, to become a man at an early age, and his concept of home is his family.

The Salvadoran Civil War forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate to different countries throughout Central America. Guatemala was one of those countries to which Salvadorans fled. Guatemala had its own civil war beginning in the early 1980s and lasting through the late 1990s; members of Henry’s family were among the many Salvadorans who migrated to Guatemala. Henry’s father passed away when he was two, leaving his mother to raise him and his two siblings. His mother earned a living by buying and reselling bread. At fourteen, Henry began to feel guilty and noticed that his mother was getting tired because she was caring for them alone after his father had passed away. Henry’s aunt had promised that she would help bring him to the US, but Henry would have had to make the trip without her or any other member of his family. Although Henry claims he chose to make the journey through Mexico and into the US, in truth he was forced to make the journey to the US. With his aunt’s help, he began the journey through Mexico to the US. Henry was afraid and nervous to make the journey, but he had no choice if he was to improve his family’s economic situation in Guatemala. Now twenty-two, Henry lives in San Francisco, CA, and attends San Francisco State University; he is studying to become a schoolteacher.

Poverty was the push factor that forced Henry to leave Guatemala. Henry, who lost his father at the age of two, was left fatherless and felt that he should be the man who provided for his mother and siblings because his mother could no longer care for her three children. As Henry was getting older, he began to see that his mother needed help, and Guatemala was not going to be the place where he would be able to provide for his mother and siblings. Moser quoted the PNUO that 80 to 90 percent live in poverty and 75 percent live in extreme poverty, unable to afford the basic foods in Guatemala (46). Guatemalans who live in this condition have no better option than to leave their country of origin and look for a better place to migrate, like the US. Paul R. Amato, in “The Impact of Family Change on the Cognitive, Social and Emotional Well-Being of the Next Generations,” concluded that single parents put their children at risk because of economic hardships, which can cause stress for the children. Henry was one those children and began to feel the impact of the economic hardship that his family faced; he stated that he wanted to come to the US to help his family. “I wanted to help my mother because it was [difficult] for my mother to support my sister, my brother and I,” said Henry. Economic hardship within his family began to accumulate more after they started to get older and Henry felt that it was his obligation to provide for his family.

Henry left his family and Guatemala; the arrangement to travel through Mexico was prepared and improvised. Smugglers need to be a few steps ahead of checkpoint agents so that immigrants could get to their final destination because Mexico can deport non-Mexican immigrants. “I left on my birthday,” said Henry. Henry did not know what the journey would be like and staying in Chiapas, Mexico for a few weeks helped him to pass through the checkpoints (Las Casetas); the plan was for him to stay in Mexico for a few weeks to learn the way Mexicans speak. In a book entitled Enrique’s Journey, journalist Sonia Nazario explains how checkpoint agents trick those they believe are immigrants from Central American by asking them questions and awaiting their response. Guatemalans use words like voz (you), sincho (belt) or chumpa (jacket), words of automatic deportation from Mexico, if they do not have the money to bribe them. Henry was picking up a few Mexican words, but was still afraid to speak because this might have made him forget what he needed to say when questioned. After a few weeks in Mexico, Henry’s smugglers got him a fake birth certificate with a name he does not remember anymore. Henry said that his skin complexion and facial characteristics made him appear as a Mexican from Chiapas and he resembled the person with whom he was traveling; he was advised that if caught he would have to say that he was traveling alone and wass going to visit his father. Audrey Singer and Douglas S. Massey have concluded that migrants “…on initial trips, crossing with either a paid (coyote) or unpaid (a friend or relative) guide dramatically lowers the odds of arrest; but on subsequent trips the mode of crossing has no effect on the odds of apprehension, which are determined primarily by the migrant’s own general and migration-specific human capital… (561-592). The odds of Henry crossing through Mexico with a coyote are improved, but there are coming checkpoints. After leaving Guatemala, Henry’s risks increased; most of Henry’s fears were cantered on what would happen if he was caught.

At the last caseta [checkpoint], thirty minutes into Sonora, the checkpoint agent called him out as Henry was boarding the bus. “I was the only one left behind,” Henry said. As he was re-boarding the bus, the checkpoint point agent called him out and asked him, “Donde vas?” [Where are you going?]. His fear was always about how to respond when questioned by any Mexican checkpoint agent. “Every thing went blank,” Henry thought. His mind went blank because he was afraid that he would speak like a Guatemalan and would be deported, although he was told that, if caught, he should give money to the checkpoint agent and maybe the bribe would buy his way from getting deported to Guatemala. “I remember the series of ‘El Chavo del Ocho’ [a Mexican TV show that began during the early 60s and still is played in Mexico]. I remember how the Chilindrina (one of the teen female actors of El Chavo del Ocho) called her dad ‘mi apa’ [my father], and Henry answered “Voy a ver a mi apa en Tijuana.” “I was afraid that my answer was not going to be enough, but the agent let me go,” Henry concluded. “We arrived around 2 AM in Sonara.” Henry said with pride that he had made it through the last Mexican checkpoint.

While in Sonora, the coyote begins to get him ready for the long walk. The smuggler lets Henry know that he needs to pack more water than food, and to mix the water with oatmeal: “it was nasty…but I won’t die, so I would be fine,” Henry said. Henry did not know how long the walk was going to take. To avoid migrants fearing dying in the desert, most times smugglers do not let them know the risks of the trip, especially crossing the Sonora Desert in Arizona. The average rate of walking depending on the terrain and people varies between three and four and a half miles per hour.   Henry claims he was walking about twelve hours per night with ten-minute breaks at times. The average hours at night in June were about twelve hours. “We did not know we [were] going to leave that day; [we] ate as much as we [could],” Henry added. Henry continues by saying that the smugglers fit twenty people into a Dodge Ram van. The van was going to take them as close as it could to the US boarder, and the rest of the journey was going to be on foot. They started to walk at nights through the desert. Some people argue that the reason the wall of the US boarder ends in part of the desert of Arizona is to deter migrants from crossing while others argue that only the strongest migrants might be able to make the journey “because of the utterly dangerous nature of trekking across the Sonoran Desert, especially in the summer months. Many of these unfortunate migrants succumb to the effects of heat-related illness and perish along the journey. The combined effects of a dry, hot environment and the remoteness of some of the trekking corridors can quickly render a deceased person unidentifiable by visual means,” Anderson concluded. Coyotes are known to let people die in the desert if they fall behind or lose their way. As soon their water runs out, so will their lives. Henry had this fear of dying in the desert and was the youngest in the group.

Henry says “my country” throughout the interview, but means his country of origin. His concept of home is not limited to Guatemala nor the US, though the US is giving him many opportunities for his upward mobility and here he has greater chances of improving than in Guatemala. He claims his home is his family. Henry left Guatemala because he was looking to better his home and to become a father, a father he did not have. Henry claims he might not go back to Guatemala and/or live in Guatemala even if he has the opportunity because his family is living in San Francisco with him. I can relate to Henry. We are both of us are from same trajectories; we left when we were fourteen years old. WWII veteran Irving Grover said, “It does not matter how old a man is, while dying (the wooden soldiers who were brought into the ship where he was a radioman) they called for their mothers.” A man’s mother is important no matter how old he is or what era they are living in. Henry makes that clear; even though at this time does not want to go back to Guatemala, he might change his point of view in the future. This happened to me because I felt anger towards Guatemala and its people. I went back a few times to Guatemala with my mother, but it does not feel like home anymore. Both Henry’s and my concept of home is our families, the identity where we live and how happy we are where we reside. If Henry or I, like any other migrants, would have the opportunities not to struggle with life basic needs in our country of origin and to able to live happily with our families, most of us would not have migrated to the US. My mother reminds me that she buried my umbilical cord in the corner of our home in Guatemala, but more than half of my life I have not lived in that house. At the same time, I am the only one who has lived with my mother of our family members. And maybe for many of us the concept of home might be the womb where we came from; after all, many of us make sacrifices so that we can be happy with our families. Henry missed his mother and felt he missed his country of origin as well, but since his mother arrived to San Francisco, he no longer misses her by being distant or Guatemala.

Many Central American parents, especially single parents, find it impossible to feed and shelter their families and often have no option but to allow their children make a journey that could bring them into the US or leave them in the desert to die. Once in another country where they might have a better chance, they can help their families. Poverty is of one the main factors that force many parents to let their children make this unknown journey to the US. If the journey is successful, the rest of the family will follow. An unaccompanied child who journeys to the US might face possible death, sex slavery, and exploitation, which are risks people in this situation take.

Works Cited

Amato, Paul R. “The Impact Of Family Formation Change On The Cognitive, Social, And Emotional Well-Being Of The Next Generation.” Future Of Children 15.2 (2005): 75-96. ERIC. Web. 17 Dec. 2015

Anderson, S. E. “Identifying the dead: methods utilized by the Pima County (Arizona) office of the medical examiner for undocumented border crossers: 2001-2006.” US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: n. pag. NCIB. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18279232&gt;.

Grover, Irving. Personal interview. 9 June 2015. A World War II merchant Marine, formal radio operator who was let know how his life was during the war.

Nolastname, Henry. Personal interview. 1 Dec. 20015. An interview with an accompany minor migrant from Guatemala. Push factor of living his country of origin –poverty.

Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. New York: Random House, 2006.

Rogers, Ibram. “Deep Impact.” Diverse: Issues In Higher Education 27.8 (2010): 15-16. ERIC. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

The Freedom to Dream

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The Freedom to Dream

by Anobel Khoushabeh, January 2016

As Max De la Costa began to approach adolescence, the Guatemalan Civil War was raging, resulting in a wide spread of fear, economic turmoil, forced drafting, persecution, and the killing of many people across the country. Without many opportunities left for the future, Max’s parents, Oscar and Lidia De la Costa, decided to leave the country and immigrate to the United States in order to provide a better life for themselves and their two children. During his time in the United States, Max has been exposed to a variety of different experiences that have enabled him to generate his own perspective on the meaning of home and self-identity as a Latino living in the United States.

Growing up in Guatemala, Max was very limited in the extent to which he could prosper as an individual. Even though neither of his parents received decent education, they both understood the fundamental importance of it. His father, Oscar, was a bartender at a community social club and a huge admirer of the American culture and lifestyle. Because Guatemala lacked the proper public school institutions, Max spent a lot of his time as a child playing with friends, and swimming in a variety of different rivers, lakes, creeks, and canals instead of being fully engaged in school. As Max grew older, and the Civil War continued to progress, his father feared that his only son would be drafted into the military and sent to fight a useless and unethical war. The severity of being drafted was a serious fear that lingered above everybody’s heads. When asked about the situation, Max explained that “people were afraid to go to dances, movies, or you could be walking outside in the market and they saw you, and they would just pick you up and put you in a truck and take you.” Fearing for his family, Max’s father left for the United States to help his family make the move, but in the process he was met with an unfortunate injury that left his kneecap broken, forcing him into six months of recovery. As his father was stranded in Guatemala, his mother made the tremendously hard decision to leave behind her son and daughter in order to work in the United States and raise enough money to bring her family north of the border to the States. After spending several years in the United States, Lidia was able to save enough dollars to bring her family over the border. Without much complication, Max and his family spent around two and half weeks crossing Mexico before finally arriving in Los Angeles, California in August of 1988, tucked in the back of a blue F-150 Ford. For Max, leaving home was never a problem because Guatemala never catered to Max, and Max never catered to Guatemala. Without much difficultly for Max, America was now his new home. Finally, after residing in Los Angeles for a while, Max and his family moved up north to the vibrantly diverse city of San Francisco, where he would grow up, assimilate, even greatly admire his new home and self developed identity.

In Guatemala, there are extreme barriers that prevent individuals from upward mobility and social status. Moreover, this lack of opportunities even deprives children of dreaming about a future they desire. Growing up in the United States, we always dreamed as children about whether to be an astronaut, a fireman, or even a super hero; we had the opportunity to dream because we were told that if we put our hearts and minds into something, it could become a reality. For Max, however, growing up in Guatemala could not have been further from this reality. When asked if he had any dreams as a child, Max replied, “As a kid I didn’t have that many dreams because we didn’t have that many aspects of dreams. For most of us, it was to just go to school and have fun, but there were no dreams.” Poverty, a lack of education, and a devastating Civil War growing by the day deprived Max of ever dreaming about a future in which he can see himself on a pedestal. Max never aspired to be anything because the road to his future was already paved without his consent. When reflecting on these social issues in Guatemala, and looking back at that time in his life, Max cannot help but feel a sense of disappointment with his home country. Guatemala was a home that deprived Max of a future, but more importantly, it took away his capability to dream as a child.

The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960-1996, leaving behind decades of devastation and irreversible consequences. According to “Murder, Memory, and the Maya,” by Ashley Kistler, a professor of Latin American Anthropology at the University of Oregon, the Civil War began as a result of the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the democratic government of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (Kistler). Arbenz helped overthrow the “repressive dictator,” Jorge Ubico, who had for years ruled through intimidation and force. In hopes of bringing freedom and equality to the masses, Arbenz implemented an “agrarian reform legislation” that confiscated over four hundred thousand acres of unused agricultural land from the American fruit corporation United Fruit Company. Because of this threat to American investments, the CIA created a coup to overthrow Arbenz, replacing him with General Efrain Rios Montt, who later became personally responsible for the genocide of the Mayan indigenous population that left over 86,000 dead and many more missing (Kistler). The Reagan administration played a critical role in the conflict by implementing a disastrous foreign policy that devastated several nations in Central America. According to “Ronal Reagan: War Criminal,” by Emilio Horner, a political science senior at the California Polytechnic State University, the CIA under the Reagan administration helped smuggle Cocaine to fund the rebel insurgencies that fought for their beneficiaries in Central America (Horner). Horner makes the argument that,

“Post World War II, the United States has subjected millions of people worldwide to a lower quality of life, all because of the devastating impacts of a foreign policy that prefers corporate profit over human dignity. The nation’s ideological pretense of human rights further masks the fact that the United States sponsors state terrorism and a neo-colonial system ruled by fear, while serving the interest of business elites.”

Ironically, the Republicans, who are notorious for their devastating foreign policies that destroy the lives of millions of people around the world, are the loudest opponents of immigration into the United States.

Assimilation and exposure to diversity have allowed Max to see a variety of different cultures and ideas that have helped him shape his own perspective on culture. After his arrival to Newcomer High School in San Francisco in the year of 1991, Max for the first time was exposed to people from all different racial and cultural backgrounds. In Guatemala, Max states, “I never thought that I even had a culture, “ and when describing his experience in the United States he said, “it was just really cool that other cultures existed, and other languages, and people, and faces, features, body, skin color.” For Max, “American culture” means acceptance of other cultures: a unique collaboration of different beliefs that are fabricated together to form a unique belief. American diversity, for many immigrants, is shocking and hard to understand. In this case, however, Max embraced the diversity he witnessed at his new school and through it he has developed an appreciation for diversity and acceptance. By exposing himself to different cultures Max views himself beyond just being a Latino living in America, he is an American of Latino decent with a cultural interpretation that is unique to him.

Cultural differences between American-born and newcomers, immigrants from Central America, for example, are so severe that in many instances they formulate into prejudice, and blunt discrimination. Discrimination has always been a reality for immigrants in the United States; however, it hasn’t always been between from whites onto other ethnicities and races. This is something that many Latino immigrants do not expect or understand when they first arrive in the United States. Because of these repercussions, many will alienate themselves from their own community and culture. For Max, his relationship with the white community has been full of positive experiences; however, his relationship among Latinos has been much more complicated. I asked Max if he was ever exposed to any racial discrimination when he first arrived in the United States, and without surprise his answer was yes. For Max, the discrimination did not come from whites but instead from other Latinos. Without realizing this I asked Max what his perception was on whites, and he responded:

“white people which I didn’t have a problem with, actually I don’t ever remember being discriminated by them. But Latinos were discriminating between Latinos who were born or raised here. Uh, for me because I had a heavy accent, more than now, um, there was this guy who used to call me a wetback, mojito. A Latino himself, he would put his fingers on his tongue, lick them, and then hit his back. That was him letting me know that I’m a wetback.”

This tension between Latinos was very shocking to Max, and because of it his negative perception of his homeland and culture intensified. After witnessing this act of prejudice from his own community, Max eventually pulled himself away from the Latino community and motivated himself to improve his English to assimilate with other races and cultures more thoroughly.

Discrimination within the Latino community is extremely problematic and based on immigration status, language, and social class. According to the Los Angeles Times article by Michael Quintanillna “The Great Divide: They’ve Fled Poverty Even Wars in Their Homelands. Now, Immigrant Children Face Ridicule and Exclusion by Many of Their U.S.-born Latino Classmates,” many newcomer Latinos are subjected to harsh criticism and prejudice by American born Latinos who view themselves as “superior” because they have had the privilege of being born in the United States. The prejudice is at many times focused on indigenous Latinos who have different physical complexions in comparison with whiter toned Latinos. However, the tension also arises from “language barrier coupled with an unfamiliar teen culture (Quintanillna). Ironically, many immigrant children are ridiculed because of their shyness, clothing style, respectfulness to their parents and teachers, and as well as their dedication to academic achievement (Quintanillna). In many schools across the greater Los Angeles area and parts of San Jose California where Latinos are by far the majority, there is serious division between multiple groups such as “the recent lower-income Mexican immigrant; the middle-class Mexican immigrant; the acculturated Chicano kids and the cholo kids, lower-income Mexican Americans” (Quintanillna). This cycle of discrimination within the Latino community is the exact reason why Max felt alienated and eventually separated himself from his culture. Those who were unwilling to accept him as an American only motivated him even more to assimilate and adapt a new sense of identity.

Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus once said, “home is where the heart it.” The definition of home isn’t one’s birth location; it is where one feels content and safe. For Max, Guatemala might have been where he was born; however, it never felt like home. Many opponents of immigration make the bold argument that newcomers will always feel a sense of attachment to their native country, which prohibits them from ever truly becoming, or feeling American. When hearing Max’s story, this argument is without doubt invalidated. An uncountable number of immigrants feel that the United States is their home, and have a sense of loyalty and patriotism that a native-born might even lack. Especially after witnessing the quality of life in the United States, and being rejected by his own Latino community, Max became hostile towards his own country and in many ways rejected it. After five years of residing in the United States, Max and his family applied for citizenship. During the naturalization interview, Max was asked the critical question: if the United States of America were to ever engage in a military conflict with Guatemala, would Max fight for Guatemala or the United States? His response was dramatic, but completely resonated his feelings at the time towards his home country. Max replied, “In my perspective, you can throw an atom bomb and make a parking out of it. I was uh, very disappointed from where I came from.” It was clear that Max had no intention of ever calling Guatemala home because for him the United States was the home that provided him with the content, security, and opportunities he desired. His heart defined his sense of home, and therefore Max was finally at home.

If home shackles you to confinement, takes away your opportunities and rights, it’s no longer in essence called home. For Max, the United States was a door to many opportunities that he would have never had access to back in Guatemala. From a young age, Max always had a fascination with mechanics and automobiles; however, he never aspired to pursuit this passion because he simply couldn’t. During his time at Newcomer High School, Max enrolled in a trade program that taught him hands on mechanics. From this point on, he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and with this passion at hand he landed himself a job at a mechanic shop on Ocean in San Francisco. Max married, had a child, divorced, and even joined the Marines in 2001. His determination to continue to progress has never ended, and at this moment Max is currently enrolled at City College of San Francisco with his son Alberto to continue taking advantages of the opportunities given to. As the years went by his hostility towards Guatemala gradually decreased as he began to see the world in a much broader perspective, however, for Max Guatemala is still a place of memory, not a place he can call home. I asked him what his feeling was towards his birth country, and he responded back,

“I went back like almost ten years after, um yah, ten years I went back, things had changed. Um, but you know, as they say the more they change the more stay the same. That’s how it is now. There is more Democracy now, the Civil War has ended, but now there is more gang violence, uh more than the Civil War was. There is more Capitalism, freedom. It’s a good place to live in certain places, but uh, it is not some place that I would go die at. Yah, it was home, but it’s not home now.”

The United States had given Max what Guatemala had taken away: it had given him the opportunity to progress himself, to provide himself with a life that was not possible back in his birth county.

The meaning of home and identity are significantly difficult to understand for they vary among every individual. Through his immigration experience, Max has realized that home and culture aren’t confined within boundaries but are elastic and prone to change. Home is where one feels content and safe, and identity is what an individual defines it to be. Being an American Latino is beyond the literal phrase, it is a collaboration of experiences that create a unique identity. Those who spew anti-immigration rhetoric to defend the American identity are mistaken. To be an American is to be you, to be free beyond the borders of race, ethnicity, culture, or religion. This is the fundamental idea that brings millions to our shores. It is this very idea that Max cherishes and implements in his life. For Max, home is where there is opportunity to grow, safety for his family, and the comfort to be oneself regardless of what others label you. Like home, the identity we relate with is one that makes us feel content. If we can learn anything from Max is that people grow, learn, experience, and collaborate ideas to form their own way of life. We all come from different backgrounds, but in the end we are all humans seeking a life of fulfillment and purpose. 

Work Cited

Kistler, S. Ashley. “Murder, memory, and the Maya.” Latin American Research Review. 49.1   (2014): 251+. Academic OneFile. Tue. 15 Dec. 2015.

“Ronald Reagan: War Criminal.” UWIRE Text 27 Oct. 2015: 1. Academic OneFile. Tue. 15    Dec. 2015.

Quintanila, Michael. “The Great Divide: They’ve Fled Poverty Even Wars in Their Homelands. Now, Immigrant Children Face Ridicule and Exclusion by Many of Their U.S.-born Latino Classmates.” Los Angeles Times. 1995. Web. Tue. 15 Dec. 2015.

“De la Costa, Max.” (2015, November 9) Personal Interview.

Exile for Yedel

Exile for Yedel

by Ruth Alemu, December 2013

Has it ever boggled your mind why people want to leave their counties and struggle through different cultures just to start a whole new life? Or have you ever wondered why some people don’t just work hard in their own countries and better themselves? Well, people leave their families and countries to find better life, peace, freedom, money or love. A conducted interview with an immigrant named Yedel Sew, who currently resides in the Bay Area, explains why people are exiled to other countries. Yedel Sew is from Ethiopia and grew up in a good neighborhood in the historic city Bahir Dar. He was exiled to the United States to find freedom for himself because he was punished for criticizing the Ethiopian government about forbidding the freedom of speech and the choosing of one’s own political party. For a long time, he had refused to give in to anger or exile; instead, he resisted the government threats.The government accused him of being a terrorist when they found out that he was working with the opposition political parties to bring about a fair democratic government. Despite the fact that no accusation had evidence, many of his friends were imprisoned and killed. Yedel wanted to leave the country when he realized that most of his friends had been thrown in jail or killed. According to Yedel, the torture was extraordinary; for instance, the males were forced to carry and pull heavy weights tied on their genitals until they pointed out one of their political member. For this reason, Yedel left his country and exiled himself to the United States of America (USA), and suffered through lots of misery. He left his good job, family and fiancé behind. His exile to the US was more devastating for his fiancé and his mother, not only because he was their source of income but also they couldn’t flee with him. During his journey, he was hungry, slept in refugee camps, was imprisoned, and almost lost his life while he was traveling on a boat. Although arriving to the US seemed to promise a life with freedom, being an undocumented immigrant made it difficult to find jobs and start a new life all over again. Until he acquired legal papers that allow him to stay in the US, he worked under the table, which was difficult for him because employers often felt free to pay him low wages and ignore dangerous conditions since he had no legal way of complaining. Along with significant language and cultural barriers, exile left him with a lengthy bureaucratic procedure until he established his new legal status. People that are facing political problems in their counties, like Yedel, should exile themselves to other countries in order to gain freedom regardless of encountering multiple setbacks and struggle during the journey because it will help them live better lives.

Being a refugee from third world country was challenging due to the rising of anti-refugee sentiment in many industrialized countries; the journey to the US was not as smooth as Yedel assumed. He started his journey from Ethiopia to Cuba with legal visa (a passport), but from there to the US, his passport was useless not only because he was travelling by car and boat but also because he was coming from a third world country, which didn’t guarantee him a pass or respect. He described how he left his passport in Ecuador: “I threw away my Ethiopian passport since it is no longer helping me to transfer, because I couldn’t get any visa with Ethiopian passport” (Yedel). Having an Ethiopian passport definitely prevented him from getting a visa because most of the people from third world countries are running from their homes scared of war and poverty, like him. His long travel includes the countries Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and lastly, the United States. Yedel and his two friends started the big journey together without any knowledge of where or how to go. Eventually, they contacted some smugglers to assist them through their journey. Besides the payment paid to the smugglers, they had to bribe the officers every time they got pulled over. He wrapped a stack of pesos with a U.S. dollar and handed to the police officer to make it look like a lot of U.S. dollars because he couldn’t afford to pay them in dollars every single time they pulled him over. Long drives, walking, staying in refugee camps and being thrown in jail without knowing for how long they would be kept, the journey was extremely distressing. There was a time when Yedel almost lost his life; he was trying to cross the border between Colombia and Nicaragua with a small boat made out of wood that carried around fifty people without any access to restrooms. He says, “The smugglers told us we will arrive in two days, but it took us eight days. We were lost in the middle of the journey and the boat run out of gas, so we put bed sheet to move the boat with the help of wind. The phone inside the boat stopped working; they said no battery. Also, we were moving without any compass and we didn’t eat anything else except one apple a day” (Yedel). It was a life and death situation for him to be in that boat because there was lack of basic survival necessities such as food, water and restrooms in addition to getting lost in the middle of nowhere. The boat was overcrowded, making it potentially dangerous, but they continued with the journey. The trip lasted days; the waves were high and they suffered more when the motor stopped and they began moving through the help of the wind. When they finally reached land, it was like liberation. Even though being from a third world country was a setback on his journey, he felt liberated when he reached the freedom land.

Although Yedel wanted to stay in Ethiopia, the government dictatorship made him run from his country due to the fact that there was no equality between ethnic groups and also political difference was not accepted. While he was in Ethiopia, freedom of speech was like a dream. The dictator leader wouldn’t let him live because he was against the system. He explained his experience in anger: “While I was in Ethiopia I had a very nice job with the field I graduated and I had a good life. But I have been jailed and beaten around three four times only because I was spoken the truth during community meetings. When you say I need freedom, they will look for trouble and beat you up” (Yedel).  The so-called “Democratic Party” controls the country. If a person talks about what is wrong and what is right, that person will end up in jail. That is why an independent and ambitious young man like Yedel could not live in Ethiopia because he believes in speaking out. He fought not only for himself but also for people who can’t fight for themselves as well. In reality, he doesn’t have security or the guarantee of his life because they can throw him in jail any time. Hence, Yedel left his country even though he wanted to stay and do something tangible to improve his country. Before he left, Yedel was becoming wealthy because of his hard work, but the ruling party was not happy with what he was getting and wanted to destroy him. In the 2005 election, Yedel and his friends participated in the opposition political party. The idea was to push the government to have a free and fair democratic election but the government was harassing the opposition parties and was using systematic political control, which made the election difficult. At that time, the majority of the people were supporting the opposition party, so, if the government didn’t want to have a fair election, they wanted them to give up power peacefully but when the government found out about their plan, they put his life in danger. Yedel fought until he couldn’t take it anymore; however, waiting for his death was not possible for him because some of his friends got imprisoned, tortured, were deprived of sleep and food and lastly killed. Given these actions, Yedel left his country in order to flee from extreme and almost humiliating politics.

Knowing his basic rights helped Yedel to gain his freedom, yet many times he was denied it. While crossing a border, there was moment when they put him in jail without letting him know how long he had to stay there. They were caught at the Nicaraguan border by the border police and imprisoned for forty-five days. During those forty-five days staying there caused a lot of suffering; the food was not etable, the hygiene was bad and they were sleeping on the floor. Because of the bad treatment they received, Yedel and his friends planned to do a hunger strike in order to fight for the basic human rights they were denied. The hunger strike went very well as he explained, “We didn’t eat for eight days while we were in the journey and again we did four days food strike, so some of the people got constipated and sick. Normally, they are not allowed to have under age prisoners in the facility but one of the guy that fainted was not even eighteen. They were scared of being sued so they begged us to eat and promised to let us go” (Yedel). This shows that they knew this strike would attract human right fighters’ attention, which in the end helped to free them. Besides, the guy who fainted was not even eighteen years old; thus, he was not supposed to be imprisoned with them. Fighting for their rights allowed them to continue their freedom journey. Then, Yedel and his friends left Nicaragua because the Nicaraguan government asked them to pay for every night they stayed at the camp. As they had planned already, they continued their journey to the United States and left Nicaragua. In the book Underground America, a collection of the narratives of undocumented immigrants compiled by Peter Orner, a storyteller, Abel, was abused by his employer but knowing his rights and fighting for it saved him from abuses. He said, “Some of us are more comfortable speaking up about our rights—we know what we are entitled to. We speak to Americans, people who do have papers, people who work at organizations, people who can do something for us. The bosses of the companies are afraid of these organizations because they support us” (Orner 132). Even though he didn’t have legal papers to stay in the country, knowing his rights helped Abel to fight for himself. Yedel did the same thing too; he stood up for his rights, looked for organizations to fight for his right. Therefore, knowing his basic human rights minimized the suffering during the exile.  

Although Yedel felt ambivalent when he discovered that his expectations about the United States were unrealistic, he was happy because he gained freedom, which was the center of his journey. Life in The United States started out great for him though it was not as he expected. Although the job market and the economy was not as good as he expected, he did not complain since his main reason of moving to the US was to gain freedom. He said, “The main reason I exile from my country is because of freedom so I am okay with any economical or personal disappointment like missing my family. I was not respected in my own country but I am living here freely. Nobody touches you” (Yedel). While he was in his country, he had a good job but in the United States, because of his legal status he wasn’t able to get a better job and he was a little bit disappointed by that; plus, by the time he arrived in the United States, the economy of the country was not in good condition. The other thing that makes him disappointed is missing his family; in fact, he can’t reach his family any time soon. Yedel has missed not only his family but also his longtime fiancé who he was about to get married to within a month before leaving the country, but he was waiting for her to graduate. He was preparing for their wedding but sadly he had to leave right away to avoid putting his life in danger. During his journey, he couldn’t communicate with her because he was not in good condition either. That created a big gap between them and it was too late to fix the problem because she got married and had kids. She couldn’t wait for him since he was not able to go back to the country. Yedel said, “It is hard to get that kind of love right now. I don’t have that kind of satisfaction and happiness right now.” He loved his fiancé too much and can’t bring the old time feeling and satisfaction with anybody else.

Things haven’t gone smoothly with his family either; the family business that he took care of is now out of service, and the cafeteria he owned was sold to cover his expense in the United States. His family is not at the same economic level; his brothers got fired from their jobs because they were working for a government office and, since they are connected with Yedel, the government took revenge on them. After four years, one of his brothers started working some low level jobs even though he is a graduate from the university and had been working for long time. Yedel was full of anger when he talked about the crises in his family. He couldn’t support and provide his family like before because in the United States the working situation is different. He doesn’t have motivation like before when he used to go to school while working long hours and taking care of his own business. He said that he was taking care of all that responsibility just to get rid of the stress he had in his country. More or less, he is happy in United States, though he is not in the position that he supposed to be. Altogether, Yedel lost three major things in his life: his family’s economic status, his job, and his fiancé.  But freedom has balanced all his losses.

Even though it’s hard to predict the future, Yedel believes change will come through time with the help of an endless effort. In the future, Yedel has some expectations for his life and has already planned to do lots of things in the coming New Year. He wants to go to school, work hard, start a family in the United States, and help his country to gain a free media because the ruling party controls most of the media. His passion for his country is still fresh. Surely, he wants to participate more in politics; so far, he writes articles and gives donations every month to private medias organizations because he believes the media plays a big role in politics. The Ethiopian government has banned almost all private media outlets for reporting facts about the government’s hidden actions. “The Anointed Leadership,” an article written by Makau wa Mutua, shows the current image of Ethiopian journalism: “Human rights groups estimated that over 60 journalist have either been imprisoned, detained, or are awaiting trial for being critical of the government” (Mutua 2). Government authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism charges only for speaking of the truth. Only government medias can talk about politics; around twenty non-governmental magazines have been closed but four private magazines are still open only because they allow the government to manipulate their messages. They will not report reality; they do not talk about the people who are lost in the dessert while trying to escape from the country. Even though he lives from paycheck to paycheck, he knows that, if he contributes something, it will help a lot. He said, “I support the media because I want to know what is going on in my country and the only means I can get that report is from the private media. I cannot forget about my country. I will not sleep until I see freedom in my own country like other countries” (Yedel). This shows the last ultimate vision of Yedel is to see the free flow of information and freedom of expression without the influence of political units. Ethiopia lives in a world where information is literally fabricated for the people as truth but nowadays bloggers play a big role in spreading information. Yedel helps these bloggers financially. One of the anonymous bloggers said in the articleThe Hazards Of Dissent,”“The blog carried reports and analysis of the trial of opposition leaders. In some cases, international human rights group like Amnesty International have followed through the leads in my blog and demanded the government stop its human right abuses. Under pressure, the government released some prisoners and closed torture chambers” (Zagol 62). Not only do the bloggers increase the flow of information but they also help justice to be served. Therefore, because people like Yedel supported the media, for example the blogger mentioned above, the increase of the flow of information has brought the government to reconsider their decision, which fulfills Yedel’s hope for change.

 In conclusion, although people like Yedel go through multiple setbacks and struggle when they flee from their countries due to political problems, finding freedom and living in a country where freedom of speech is respected brings feeling of accomplishment in life. Migrating would also allow others like him to continue helping their countries as he has with the support of media as mentioned in the above paragraphs. On the contrary, others may think that, instead of fleeing from one’s country, one should stay and face the problem in order to solve it. People like Yedel do not choose to flee from their countries to make money or to relax; instead, they are exiled to the US to spare their lives from ending up like his friends—imprisoned or killed.   

 

Work Cited

“The Hazards Of Dissent.” Index On Censorship 36.4 (2007): 59-63. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Mutua, Makau wa. “The Anointed Leadership.” Africa Report 39.6 (1994): 30. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Orner, Peter, and Tom Andes. Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2008. Print.