A day after N. first crossed the U.S. border from Mexico, he was caught and then released onto the streets of Tijuana. Undeterred, N. crawled back through a tunnel to San Diego, where he entered the United States forever. Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant is his timely and compelling memoir of building a new life in America. Authorial anonymity is required to protect this life.
Arriving in the 1990s with a 9th grade education, N. traveled to Chicago where he found access to ESL classes and GED classes. He eventually attended college and graduate school and became a professional translator.
Despite having a well-paying job, N. was isolated by a lack of official legal documentation. Travel concerns made big promotions out of reach. Vacation time was spent hiding at home, pretending that he was on a long-planned trip. The simple act of purchasing his girlfriend a beer at a Cubs baseball game caused embarrassment and shame when N. couldn't produce a valid ID. A frustrating contradiction, N. lived in a luxury high-rise condo but couldn't fully live the American dream. He did, however, find solace in the one gift America gave him–-his education.
Ultimately, N.’s is the story of the triumph of education over adversity. In Illegal he debunks the stereotype that undocumented immigrants are freeloaders without access to education or opportunity for advancement. With bravery and honesty, N. details the constraints, deceptions, and humiliations that characterize alien life "amid the shadows."
About the Author
N. is an undocumented immigrant. He lives and works in Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant
By José Ángel N.
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
AMID THE SHADOWS
The Jaguar's Path
My life in the shadows began some seventeen years ago. It was a hot April night in Tijuana, that border siren that lures both migrant and tourist with promises of boundless prosperity and unchecked lust. That night I joined a numerous army, an anonymous army. Under the infinite depth of night and guided by a sneaky coyote, we moved, slowly descending the slopes flattened nightly by the illicit weight of millions of other shadows who preceded us. Denied a legitimate chance at the American Dream, what better way to attain it than by penetrating America by night?
There were precedents in my family. Besides a brigade of distant relatives too large to count, two of my maternal uncles had already been to the States. By the time my turn to leave Mexico came, both of them had been back in Guadalajara for almost ten years. Their venture had been a failure, for now they were as broke as they were before leaving. My departure being rushed, we didn't really get a chance to talk about the experience of crossing. So upon leaving, the idea I had of what awaited me was that which I had pieced together overhearing their conversations. If my journey was to resemble theirs, then my trip across the border would be pretty tight and bumpy but safe—I'd be packed, like a sardine, in the trunk of a car among many others. (If things went badly, I'd have to climb over my fellow riders, kick them and push them down as I gasped for the last drops of oxygen, but that was unlikely.) However, reaching my destination safely and quickly was guaranteed. All arrangements had been made ahead of time by a distant relative who had agreed to finance my crossing and hired the reliable services of a reputable coyote.
Thus, after tunneling under that tall, rusty iron curtain that divides both countries, I was surprised. There were no cars waiting. I stood up, dusted off my pants, and looked at the horizon—a dark, endless stretch of hills and valleys appeared before me. I had made the journey with an experienced cousin from Zacatecas whom I had never met before and who didn't bother to inform me of what the crossing would be like. Now, after a ridiculous crawl, I had reached the United States, and I wasn't turning back. I'd follow the coyote's trail.
The stretch between Tijuana and San Diego is long. Very long. And it is as treacherous as it is beautiful. It is unlikely that anybody who has ever crossed it will easily forget it. Its desertlike landscape is bound to carve itself equally onto body and soul. Once this turf is trodden, the tiredness, the awe, and the terror experienced along these trails become permanent memories. Some take away a cactus scratch that eventually scars. Others momentarily succumb to the sheer magnitude of the heavens, the number of stars, the depth of night. A few are left behind to join the landscape.
This dark wonder. For many, like myself, this arid world, these steep hills and deep valleys, provides us with our first hike ever. It is also our first view of such broad sky. Our first communion with the infinite. It was probably under pristine and glittering skies like these that Immanuel Kant, bewildered, conceived his mystical dialectic between the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I, lacking all philosophical insight at the time, simply wanted to pause and contemplate this fragment of galaxy. But the coyote had other plans, and we kept pressing forward.
Human industry adds its own accents to the native landscape. From the top of a hill, we watch a long line of people advancing hurriedly in the valley ahead of us. Some two hundred years earlier, pushing westward in this very spot, they would have been considered pioneers. But the journey they have embarked on came too late, and they are not heading west but north, and that alone is their disadvantage and their loss. Or, if they were in other latitudes and times, based on the determination and enthusiasm that fuel their march, one would be inclined to think of them as troops or pilgrims. But here, they are simply shadows.
Suddenly, from a neighboring hill, a series of lights turns on simultaneously. Some come from trucks parked at ground level. Others descend, flickering rapidly like a furious shower of shooting stars. For those unfortunate souls, this is as far as the American Dream will go.
Way up on top, we duck and hide. We wait.
How long we spend perched on top of that hill afterward I can't tell. Before the incident below, I reckon we have been going for more than an hour. All I know is I'm glad we stopped. A smoker at the time, I feel dizzy, my lungs are swelling, my nostrils flare rapidly, my legs are getting heavier, and I am drenched in sweat. The coyote squats and hisses at us not to move, gesticulating violently and pointing to the ground with his right hand.
I land on my stomach and crawl my way into a narrow space between a big rock and a thorny bush. The backpack in which I carry a change of clothes, a bottle of water, and some snacks is wet with sweat, and I feel a pointy rock stabbing me right in the stomach, but remain motionless. I am panting heavily and fear that my breathing will attract a rattlesnake. A few minutes pass, and someone close by begins to snore. I keep my eyes open.
The noise and commotion below eventually subside, but the coyote whispers, warning us not to move yet. I hear the car engines pull away and feel relieved. We keep waiting. More noises in the distance. A helicopter! A different group is being hunted down on another hill. With a little bit of luck, those two groups will keep the migras busy as we resume our journey.
We move on and keep going for what seems to be a very long time. We run and I keep coughing. We go up and down hills that never seem to end. At some point, running upward along a narrow path, I look down the cliff to my right and feel nauseated. It is a long, rocky fall. All it would take for my journey to be over would be a momentary distraction, a trip on a rock, a slip, someone accidentally bumping me from behind. How many dreams have ended like this, way down there?
We descend again, and I am glad to hear the coyote say, "¡Ya estuvo, ya la hicimos!" I hear him and feel relieved and share in the collective enthusiasm. People say "¡Órale!" and "¡Chido!" and "¡Ya chingamos!" but I still don't understand how it is that we have actually "made it." This valley looks as deserted as any other we have passed.
Reaching the bottom of the next hill, the coyote takes out a flashlight and points it with his commanding right hand. And then I see it, the miracle of this Mexican Moses who promises to deliver us from the Jaguar's oppression materializes in front of me—a dark circle opens up ahead, like a surreal toothless mouth, threatening to devour us.
Had the other two groups made it this far, the migras would have never caught up with them. No migra would ever go down this pipe. Nobody with any human dignity would, so we leave ours behind.
We enter the dark cylindrical hole, and I say to myself, so this it, this is what it means to have made it. The pipe is about five feet in height. We duck and enter the filthy bowels of San Diego where rodents make their home and humans are unwelcome invaders. The air inside is heavy and damp, and there is a pungent stench to it. I stretch my arms to the sides to find support on the inner walls of the pipe. My hands feel wet and sticky. I feel helpless. Amid the constant sound of shoes hitting the metal below, I sob quietly. Traveling in the same direction, narcotics on their way to give a high to those who vilify my journey are transported in a much more humane and sanitary fashion. The humiliation I experience is so deep I promise myself that if I am ever caught, I will never try crossing again.
Eventually, the darkness ends. We come out, and one by one we all collapse on the ground. I feel exhausted and sick. My back hurts, and I wonder if I'll ever be able to stand straight up again.
* * *
My first real sighting of the United States is that of a major highway down below. If I were to measure it across, it would easily be about two blocks of my hometown. I stare at it in awe, almost frightened by its sheer width. The coyote has given us a few minutes to recover, and now we are ready to move on. We cross that highway on a bridge above. A peaceful park welcomes us. Crossing the park, we reach the parking lot of a school, and, just past it, we encounter the first houses.
An unsuspecting sense of tranquillity guards the sleep of this pleasant American suburb. It is dark, and the silent peace is broken only by the echo of our steps.
Like thieves, we prowl through the night.
Crossing the border is a complicated business. At first I am so physically exhausted and afraid of being caught that I can't think of anything other than reaching my destination. But soon new feelings take shape. Entering a place uninvited implies a breach of trust. It stirs conflicting emotions and opens up room for moral ambivalence.
So far in my journey, I have felt only humiliated and robbed of human dignity. But now, breaking into someone else's backyard at night, I've become an intruder, and it shames me deeply. Though I don't know it at the time, I now suppose this is why the good, law-abiding American citizen clings so fiercely to his guns. If he discovered us, he'd have the full recourse of the law behind him to take a few of us down, invaders that we are. And wouldn't I do the same when it came to protecting the peaceful sleep of my own children?
The coyote directs us to a garden hose for a drink of water. But, good Mexican that I am, I know not to ever drink running water. I unzip my backpack and take out the bottle I carry with me. I drink the remaining water in one single gulp. And, after a moment of doubt and moral speculation, after being seized by feelings of guilt and shame, I chuckle. I take the plastic bottle, crush it with my right hand, and toss it onto the perfectly clean green lawn. A souvenir. A harmless weapon abandoned by an advancing horde of shadows.
When we get to a small strip mall, there are a couple of vans waiting for us. We get in and are driven away. The house where we are taken is small and filthy, and it is so full with people you'd think nobody else could fit inside it. But they make room for us. Other than a kitchen table and a few chairs, there is no furniture whatsoever. I stink and want to shower but am told I can't. The food they serve us is bland and cold, but we eat it all the same. We are not allowed to go out to the backyard, let alone leave the house. There is a television in the living room, and we all sit around to watch it. The guy sitting next to me leaves, and I am so tired I recline on the filthy carpet and pass out immediately.
As the day progresses, people come and go, taking some of those who made the journey with us. Nobody comes for me and my cousin or for a few others until the next day, when we are taken to a different house. We wait around for a few hours, and I feel bored and restless. I want to get out, move about, walk through the neighborhood. Then it happens—from the room where we sit around looking at each other, we hear a loud noise, and the front door is kicked open. We freeze, and a tall Hispanic man dressed in green comes in first, ordering, "Nadie se mueve!"
* * *
Being in jail is not as scary as they make you think. At least not the jail I am taken to. I expect beatings, interrogations. But instead, when my time comes to make a statement, I am kindly led to a desk where a blond officer sits. In a Spanish that impresses me, he asks me my full name and place and date of birth, whether I have tried crossing before and if I'll try again afterward. I say no to both, and I don't remember if he either makes me sign a document or takes my fingerprints. (Many years later, my bad memory will haunt me. A lawyer I consult will insist that this detail is crucial. Not knowing whether I signed a voluntary deportation note could potentially make a difference when trying to get my papers.)
Back in my cell, I look at the others—our eyes bear a single sadness, a single disappointment. I have been told by those who can fly that the trip from Guadalajara to Chicago is about four hours long. Counting from the moment I departed from Guadalajara, about four full days have passed, and I feel frustrated and exhausted. We sit in silence until an officer comes and opens the cell. He pushes in a cart filled with sandwiches, chips, and soda. His civility and kindness confuse me and make me suspicious. The treatment we receive at the detention center is much better than that offered by the ring of smugglers, one of whose operators now sits right next to me. Looking at us with sympathy, the officer suddenly says, in a playful and encouraging voice, "¡Órale cabrones, muevan la nalga, por eso los agarran!"
Hours later, having fed us and taken everyone's statements, they herd us onto a bus where others are already waiting. We are driven out of the detention center, and soon I see myself traveling along one of those amazing highways that were my first sight of real America. Not long after, we see a cluster of high-rises. Someone says it is downtown Los Angeles. I remember this is a sight I have always wanted to see, but under different circumstances.
Reaching the border, we are released and go back to the hotel where we spent a few hours when we first arrived in Tijuana. That very night, I break the promise I had made to myself—I disappear into the deep night of San Diego again.
In the Land of the Free
In subsequent chapters, I will describe in greater detail the events that have taken place since I crossed the border successfully the second time around, events that may make it seem as though my story embodies the fairy tale of the American Dream: learning English, working numerous jobs, getting my GED, putting myself through college and grad school, and becoming a professional translator who now owns a condo in a luxury high-rise overlooking the city. For a young adult who left his native Guadalajara with nothing more than a ninth grade education and a large debt to pay for his smuggling, achieving each of these goals has been highly rewarding, each one more meaningful than the one before.
But this is all the nice part of my story, and what I am interested in telling in the following pages is something quite different—the story behind the mirage of my accomplishments.
If I could tell it with a riddle, it would go something like this: What climbs toward the light only to be engulfed in gloom? Answer: the undocumented.
* * *
I've grown used to living in the shadows. Although it is plagued with inconveniences, I've learned to embrace this lifestyle wholeheartedly. If I had to, I'd choose to live it all over again—every single moment of it! I've come to appreciate the anonymity. I love the permissiveness to slip in and out of places virtually unnoticed. Plus, this subterranean life offers other advantages. Like evolution.
There is ample room for growth in the shadows. Although it took me a long time, I have finally realized that one can actually thrive in the shadows as well as anywhere else. Except that down here you evolve differently—you become darker, you grow antennae, your senses get sharper, and, best of all, you learn not to take things so seriously.
But this sardonic wisdom comes only with time. It is only after you have been engaging in the business of descending to explore the shadows and going back up to greet the light again that the whole transition from one world to the other becomes joyful. A pleasant seesaw ride.
Although my expedition into this world of shadows started long ago, only within the past few years have I reached its final depths. In a strange twist of irony, this last descent of mine started simultaneously with my climb toward the American middle class. Pulled in both directions, I have become a hybrid creature of darkness and hope, one who can scratch the heights of prosperity but who remains permanently rooted in misfortune.
In a way, my life since has been a strange negation of Plato's allegory—the chains that used to bind me are now broken, but I never left my imprisonment. I stayed back in the cave, amid the shadows. Add that to my private nature, and what you get is a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, except that the landscape is bustling downtown Chicago, where I wander about.
Excerpted from Illegal by José Ángel N.. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by F. González-Crussi, ix,
1. Amid the Shadows, 1,
2. Of Things Lost, 27,
3. My Adult Education, 41,
4. The Song of the Cicadas, 57,
5. At Work, 77,
6. The Day I Got Counted, 89,