Maria* came to the United States from Mexico when she was seventeen. This is her story:

I did most of my growing in a village called Cocoyoc, three and a half hours south of Mexico City by bus, two if you took a car.

In that town they used to grow sugar cane in their gardens. When it was time to harvest, they burned it. We kept our laundry out in the sun to dry; all of a sudden you’d see a sort of snow coming down but it was black and we’d have to run to bring in the clothes.

Cocoyoc, Morelos, Mexico

Cocoyoc, Morelos, Mexico

There was corn all around also, and mango and avocado trees. We had a lot of water in state that we lived, Morelos. The streets were dirt with rocks and gravel. When it rained it was very muddy.

My grandfather lost his wife when my dad was six years old. They lived in the mountains on a farm, so they didn’t have access to doctors.  My grandma had complications and she passed away with the baby. My grandfather never got remarried, so he took care of his kids—seven kids he had. My father was the littlest. He was the last one to get married, so I think that’s why Grandpa moved in with with us.

On Sundays Grandpa would go get us breakfast, fresh milk and bread, and wake us up, “Come on, get up! I have breakfast!” He was very religious. He’d tell us to wear veils at church and not to wear shorts. “Cover your legs.” He loved to sing while I played guitar. He would always pick me to go to the nearest town to get tools. I was his favorite.

I was happy in my childhood. I loved school. My mother was very hardworking and very good to us. She took us swimming. I remember she had a lot of headaches. My grandpa would rub her head with homemade remedies he knew.

My father built houses. He didn’t make that much money and we could only rent a house. I think my father wanted to own a house, and the only way to buy land and build a house in Mexico was to work in America. When I was seven, he left my sisters and I with my mom and grandfather and went to the U.S.

He came to Barrington, Illinois, where someone he knew worked in a restaurant. He worked as a dishwasher and then maintenance at a golf course. He sent money back. Mom saved the money in a separate bank account.

He visited us every two years and stayed for the wintertime. At one point, he stayed for a year and a half, then went back to the U.S.  We did miss him while he was gone. But it was the leaving that was hard.

Every time he came back, he would surprise us. I would come home from school and he was there—after two years! One time, he was in a taxi and I was walking. He made the taxi stop and said, “I think that’s my daughter.” I said, “I think that’s my dad.” And we started crying. I’m always the one to cry. My other sisters never cried. I was the only one.

In 1986, my dad was given amnesty through a Reagan program and he became legal.

New Home

He started building his house in Cocoyoc when I was nine. We lived in it and he would continue to go back to the U.S. to make money to keep building the house—enough for

Mexicans entering the U.S.  Source: Library of Congress

Mexicans entering the U.S.
Source: Library of Congress

painting, appliances, etc.  It was a one-story house. We had three bedrooms, a bath, kitchen, dining and living room. I think it was pretty much like the houses here. In our village, homes were one big room and you didn’t use to have the bathroom in the house. The bathrooms were outside. It was one of the things we were excited to have, that I remember most. I think the house was similar to the kind here because he worked in the U.S., saw it, and came back and built it.

My dad would always say to my mom, “We will get you a washing machine.” Here in the U.S. you have a nice washer and dryer. Not in Mexico—you do laundry by hand.

On top of the roof, we had strings to hang clothes to dry. My grandpa was always helping with the laundry. He was up on the roof and he was coming down with a bundle of sheets and he fell onto our cement driveway. That’s how he died. I was sixteen.

My dad was home at the time. I was walking  from school and I saw my dad’s truck; he was speeding and he didn’t even see me so I moved to the side of the road. He stopped then and said, “Jump in the back. Your grandfather is dying.” My mom was holding his head. He was praying.

We had no 911 or ambulance service. We drove fifteen minutes to the doctor and she couldn’t do anything. So she sent us to the nearest hospital, three hours driving. They also could do nothing. He had passed away on the way.

After that, my dad decided he didn’t want to stay there and it’s better that we move. He said, “Let’s go, I want to sell everything and take you to the U.S. to see a different life.”

New Life

It was 1990. It was exciting for me to think I’ll be in the United States. My dad was a resident. We were not. My dad knew someone to help us. The man told us we had to dress nice. “You need to look like you’re from the U.S.,” he said.

We sold the house, the car, the furniture, our clothes, everything. Part of the money from selling everything my dad saved for our trip, some he saved for a small piece of land he had purchased in Mexico in case we ever needed to come back.

We took a bus thirteen hours to the border. We got to a hotel on the Mexico side. My mother and sisters and I went to buy food and my father met with a man who told him to cross with our things through the gate and then he and another man would cross us at the river. There was more water than they thought, so they carried us on their shoulders, five of us. And then we crossed three tollways on foot, running. That was the scariest part.

Rio Grande

Rio Grande

They took us to an apartment building. They gave us papers so we could fly. We didn’t know what an airport looked like because we never flew, so they drew us a map and picture and explained to us exactly what to do. They told us how to answer questions, that we could not tell anyone our dad was our dad. “Pretend you don’t know him or he will be deported,” they said.

We flew into Chicago. We got here in December and I’d never seen snow. We were excited. We got a one-bedroom apartment for three months while my father searched for a house. I slept on the sofa but I didn’t care. Everything was new. My two younger siblings went to school. I went to work in a picture frame factory. I just liked it right away. I was glad we were all together, my family. That’s what I liked. That’s what mattered to me. When we moved here, my dad’s priority was to be together as a family.

Whenever we saw a cop we were very worried. I was driving with no driver’s license. When I applied to work, I had to get a fake SS card and fake ID. You go to Chicago and there’s places you can get it. They always come to you, “Oh, do you need…” I didn’t like to go to those places.

There’s no specific moment I’ve experienced discrimination. I can sense something, like if you enter a place where everyone is white and American, in my mind they are thinking, “Oh, Mexican. Oh, Hispanic.” And so they’re wondering, “Are they illegal?”

We were illegal for two years. After we got a house, and my dad became a permanent resident, he went to a lawyer and asked how we could legalize ourselves. It took six months to get our green cards–though they were pink–and we went out of the country. Then we came back into the country legally. After that we had to wait five years to become citizens.

Illegal Immigration

I do care about the issue of illegal immigration. When we came, I was a child. They never asked me. As long as I was with my family, I was ok. I never thought about it. When my father came, he worked, he paid taxes. So I think he did deserve to get his papers. I do think a lot of people, they need opportunities to work, to make money and be able to go back to Mexico.

Current illegal immigrants are driving with no license, no insurance.  They should be legalized in some way. Especially the people who have been here fifteen, twenty years. But I do believe if you are on a waiting list, the U.S. should make them a priority.

The waiting time for Mexico is longer than any other country. My older sister was married so she did not come with us. A couple years later, my father helped her cross, illegally. But she didn’t qualify for citizenship; she needed to be under 18 for my father to apply for her. So she’s been here for more than twenty years and she still has no papers. She had kids here, she works, most of her life is here.

My aunt is a citizen. She applied for her daughter, who is in Mexico. Twenty years later, she’s still in Mexico waiting.

My sister-in-law applied over ten years ago. She’s still waiting. Nothing.

Mexico is a great place. People work hard but there are no jobs, or they pay very minimal. They need to create more jobs so people can find work.

After over twenty years in the U.S., I feel like I don’t belong here and I don’t belong there. Here I don’t have friends like I used to. It’s not the same because they’re not the ones who knew me when I was a child. I go back and nobody knows me–the neighbors or old school friends. We didn’t keep in touch. I have to ask who is who because I don’t remember, either. It changed a lot. You don’t know how to go around the place anymore. I’m not sure where I belong.

Maria was kind enough to share her true story with us. All respectful comments are welcome.

*Name changed

Pine Ridge

I took the following pictures of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a road trip across the western U.S. in 2009. I often struggle with my desire to take photographs, to so openly document the things I see; many of the photos below are blurry because they were taken quickly, often from a moving car. I did not want to appear to be what I was: a privileged white tourist merely on her way through one of the poorest spots in America.

Entering Pine Ridge res  2009 466

Pine Ridge reservation (Oglala Lakota), 3,469 square miles in southwest South Dakota. Population 28-38,000. Established in 1889.

Pine Ridge trailers 2009

The unemployment rate is 80-90%.
Per capita income is $4,000.

Pine Ridge 2009 468

Pine Ridge has:
8 times the U.S. rate of diabetes
5 times the rate of cervical cancer
Twice the rate of heart disease
8 times the U.S. rate of tuberculosis

Road Trip 2009 469

Farm animals wandered about without pens or barriers. One of the most striking images of the trip I did not photograph: a dead cow had been dumped behind a low, roadside billboard, I am assuming because there is no garbage collection, or it is too costly.

PR 2009 471

The alcoholism rate is estimated to be as high as 80%.
25% of infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects.

PR 2009 494

The suicide rate is more than twice the national rate.
Teens commit suicide 4 times more often than in the rest of the U.S.

PR 2009 473

Out of respect, or fear or shame, I didn’t photograph the dozens of roadside crosses we passed.

PR 2009 475

We stopped and bought bracelets from one family selling them by the road. They were full-blooded Oglala Lakota, which seemed to be a great source of pride. She said the previous winter, they were snowbound in their trailer for many weeks and could not even make it to the outhouse.

PR 2009 492

There were no swingsets or seesaws at this park.

There were no swingsets or seesaws at this park, just the sign in a grassy area.

WK  2009 481

The town of Wounded Knee, on the reservation

WK Memorial 2009 482

Memorial at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when 300 men, women, and children were killed, often at close range, often unarmed, and sometimes running away. It was the last official clash between American Indians and the U.S. government in the war for the frontier.

WK cemetery  2009 483

Cemetery in Wounded Knee. Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.

WK cemetery 2009 484

The grave of Lost Bird, an infant at the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre, who was found alive under the frozen corpse of her mother at the site of the massacre. She was adopted by a white couple and died of influenza in 1919; her remains were brought back to Wounded Knee from California in 1991.

WK cemetery 2009 488

The infant mortality rate on Pine Ridge is three times the national rate.

I didn’t share this simply to depress you, or throw you into a fit of guilt–though, for me, that often comes with the territory. Here’s what I do with this information:

The Friends web site has other ideas–if you’re a teacher, you could teach there. If you’re a doctor, you could offer free clinics. If you’re a business owner, you could do business with them. Or you could do something as simple as donate your coupons.


I’ve read these statistics in many places; for this post, I referenced:

Lost Bird:

Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

My neighbors’ son came home from school last week and happily recited the hero-worship of Christopher Columbus he’d been taught that day. They were less than thrilled because they know what most adults know: Columbus committed murder, torture, and rape, and enslaved adults and children. He also apparently combined some of those pursuits into a sex-slave trade. In 1500, he wrote: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

Of course, my neighbors also know we can’t teach that to young children. But do we need to teach the opposite? Weren’t the Vikings here before Columbus, anyway? Do we have to be such suckers for the victor’s version of history?

Their story reminded me of an incident that occurred when I worked at the Minnesota Legislature. A very conservative woman had been appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to head the state’s education department and decide what students should and should not be taught. One contentious issue was her opposition to the notion that the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture in the 19th century was genocide.

On public radio, she said: “I don’t think the accidental infection of some blankets with smallpox could be termed genocide.”

Let’s put aside her total ignorance of facts–okay, let’s not: population decimation, forced assimilation of Native American children taken from their parents and dropped into American schools, reservations, the slaughter of the buffalo… Not to mention the U.S. Army’s purposeful infection of blankets with smallpox—known today as biological terrorism. You don’t need gas chambers and ovens to commit genocide and someone supposedly smart enough to lead an education department should know that. (Perhaps she was the victim of her own sugar-coated education–we tend to tell the truth when others commit atrocities, but not when we do.)

However, she made another point: Even if in some crazy, alternate universe we had committed genocide, she said, children should not be taught that in school.

But we did commit genocide. So the question becomes, do we teach our children the truth or do we lie? Do we rely on fact or do we include fiction?

This dichotomy of American thinking, the ability to acknowledge and accept conflicting ideas, is as old as the country itself: We were founded on groundbreaking principles of personal liberty—plus slavery.

Democracy, plus lack of women’s suffrage.

A nation of just laws, plus Jim Crow.

Go West, Young Man! plus the genocide of the Native Americans.

It’s no wonder our schools teach cognitive dissonance. I felt betrayed when I learned, in college, the truth about so many of our histories. What had my public education been for, simply to memorize euphemisms and half-truths? Isn’t that sort of like brainwashing?

I understand that we need to instill pride in this country, otherwise the country is lost. And America is great. It’s just not perfect.

I believe if we teach children the truth, at age-appropriate levels, then we will raise learners who question. We will nurture critical thinkers who can problem solve to save the world. I believe we can hold and accept two conflicting ideas, as long as it’s acknowledged that they are conflicting. As long as they’re real.

If we teach the bad with the good, we will show children what this nation has overcome and can overcome, which is what truly makes us great.

What do you think? Fact or fiction? Or isn’t it that simple?

My favorite views in North America

Adventurers would consider me a homebody. Homebodies would consider me an adventurer. I have been lucky enough to gaze on some beautiful landscapes in North America, mostly during road trips I took with my sister. (I have to add the “North” because there are two pictures of Canada in here, but most were taken in lovely, old America.) Some of my favorite spots:

Starved Rock State Park, Illinois. Not far from the suburbs of Chicago where I live, but another world.

Sullivan's Island, South Carolina

New Glasgow, Prince Edward Island, Canada. New Glasgow is a farming community in the middle of the island, with this river shimmering through it.

Red sandstone shores of northern PEI, near Cavendish

Yellowstone River, Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Wyoming--the most beautiful 3,472 square miles on Earth.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Somewhere east of Yellowstone and west of the Bighorn Mountains. Land of antelope and wild mustangs.

Near Pine Ridge, South Dakota

San Francisco

Arches National Park, Utah. My sister and I made a last-minute visit during a road trip to California. Turned out to be one of my favorite places in America.

Yosemite National Park, California.

And, finally, what weary traveler wouldn’t love coming home to this sight?

Next up: Road Trip IRELAND, July, 2012. But tell me, what are your favorite spots? I need to start planning for 2013…