A walk down Westchester Avenue in the South Bronx reminds me of the countless stories that exist in our beautiful borough. The work-worn faces of the food vendors and artisans that line the avenue often belong to immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador, Nigeria, and other Latin American and African countries. Many of these people left their homelands in search of nothing more than a better life for themselves and their children. My mother is one of those “people who left home,” in search of hope and prosperity in the Bronx.
In 1987, my mother, Cynthia, left Nicaragua after a bloody surge in the country’s civil war. President Ronald Reagan's U.S. backed Contra forces had been combating the communist Sandinista government that had toppled the Somoza family's dynastic dictatorship after over forty years in power. This disruption of life and bloodshed propelled my mother to seek out coyotes, people that are paid to sneak immigrants into the United States by way of the U.S.-Mexico border, or, the "frontera." If it sounds ominous, it should. Our country's southern border with Mexico spans over 1,954 miles and its arid and harsh climate is tough on the skin. The possibility of getting lost while crossing is omnipresent for travelers. Then, if you successfully cross into the United States that's where the real “fun” begins. You have to secure passage into a local city, find a way to your final destination, and begin your life in the shadows.
My mother left behind her family, her job at a popular Nicaraguan bank, and her three sons. Juansito was the youngest of her children as he was only 2 years old when my mother left him behind. Everyday I wondered about the internal anguish mom must have felt when she hugged and kissed her baby, turned, and walked out the door towards America.
After staying in Miami for a few months Mom eventually made her way to the Bronx where she picked up work cleaning houses, babysitting and bartending. Subsequently, my father’s best friend brought him to his favorite pub to flirt with “a new beautiful bartender.” And just like that my parents fell in love and had me. By then her oldest sons and their father had made their way to Los Angeles and had begun American lives of their own. Only Juansito remained in Nicaragua after the civil war had ended. Mom’s quest for her citizenship was a long and arduous one. She had lost thousands of dollars on lawyers and “licenciados” that claimed they could help her, only to be duped. But then something happened that altered our lives forever, Juansito came to the Bronx. My mom secured a visa for Juansito and had his father fly him in. Mom and Juansito had finally been reunited. I spent countless hours teaching Juansito English and in turn he taught me Spanish. We played manhunt on Pelham Parkway with our friends, hopped schoolyard fences to play baseball, and visited all of the iconic New York City landmarks together.
After mom and dad had separated things became harder for us. Not only did we lose the one male figure in our lives who we looked up to, but we also lost the possibility of our parents getting married and providing Mom with “Los Papeles”, or, a green card. It seemed like every time we tried to do something fun or adventurous to escape the confines of our deteriorating home life we were always blocked by Mom’s legal status. By this time Mom was a temporary resident and her fear of being deported seeped into everything we wanted to do, especially travel. We were always vetoed by Mom’s laments over not having “Los Papeles”, it was constant and depressing.
Herb: Mom, can we go see Armando in California?
Mom: No, papa. Remember los papeles.
Juansito: Mom, can we drive to Canada like Berto’s family?
Mom: No, Juansitio. Los papeles.
I often think about my mother’s journey and wonder what life outside of New York City would have been like for our family. But, it’s the Bronx’s grit and toughness that allowed us to learn how to survive and become good honest men in the face of adversity. But, in Trump’s America a sense of fear and anxiety has overtaken our political discourse and permeates everyday life. Families visiting parks, schools, and libraries are afraid of Trump, ICE and the possibility of apprehension and deportation. It’s a scary time to be an undocumented immigrant in America. The same fruit vendors and artisans that are threatened by the government are our neighbors that are simply trying to make a livelihood to support the Juansitos of the world.
This is how Mom lived most of her adult life in the Bronx. In the shadows, afraid of opportunity and advancement, and constantly in fear of the government finding out she didn’t have “Los Papeles.”