Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My Immigration Story

Unless your ancestors were Native Americans, you have an immigrant in your family. We all do. Even our Founding Fathers were the progeny of immigrants. The United States was colonized by immigrants, and the country was built on the backs of immigrants.

In my own family, I personally knew three immigrants. I want to tell you about two of them today.

The first was my great-grandmother on my mother's side, whom everyone lovingly referred to as 'Buelita. Both my mother and I were very close to her; we moved in with her when I was still very young. By the time I was born, Casimira Luna Valdez, was already 70 years old and looked much like she does in the picture above. She was born in Monterrey, Mexico, to a very poor family. Poverty was hard on her family and she once confided to my mother that at one point they only had banana peels to eat, dug out of the garbage of the richer families in town.

But Casimira was a fighter and worked hard. She grew up in the plazas of Monterrey where she learned to cook amazing dishes by watching the other women and eventually became known as a fabulous cook herself. It is rumored in my family that she once fed Pancho Villa himself and a few of his men. True or false? No sé, but it would not surprise me in the least.

At any rate, Casimira finally had enough of the poverty and decided to leave and come to the United States to make a better living for herself and her family. Initially, she came with a woman who promised to help her enter the U.S. But it wasn't long before Casimira realized that the woman was full of lies and though she had brought her here, the woman wanted her to do things that were wrong. Things no woman should have to do. And so she left and went back to Mexico, determined to come back to the United States a different and more honest way. And she did, but this time, she brought her sister, Maria Luna, with her.

They settled in Dallas, where Maria went on to establish the city's first tortilla factory, Luna's. It is a historical landmark today. My 'Buelita, however, decided to do what she did best: cook. And so she founded El Originál, the best Mexican restaurant in Dallas for years. It was family run for a long time - my own mother and uncle working there up through their high school and college years.

Casimira was known for more than just her cooking. She never forgot her roots and the poor she left behind. Every year, she would drive down to Mexico with a car full of clothes to hand out to people on the sides of the road. The memory of her own childhood and her deeply religious beliefs made her a very compassionate woman who was ready to help those in need always, and sometimes she would feed the poor or homeless from the back door of her restaurant. She was, however, intolerant of liars and cheats and once ran a man out of her restaurant for not being there with his wife!

The day came, though, when family moved on and she no longer had help. So Casimira finally closed down the restaurant.

Luckily for me, I was able to reap the benefits because when my mother and I moved in with her, I became her best customer. She never stopped cooking and so I was blessed with my own personal chef!

My 'Buelita died when I was 12. I remember the day clearly. And I still miss her today.

The other immigrant in my life was my father.

After graduating from college, my mother went to Spain to get her Masters degree. There she met my father -- a charming, tall, dark, and handsome man who bore a striking resemblance at the time to Al Pacino.

One thing led to another and after a few years they were wed. When it came time for me to be born, however, my father had enlisted (been drafted?) into the military in Spain and so my mother came home to the U.S. to be with family while she was pregnant, waiting for me to be born.

My father arrived soon afterward, and gave living here a good try. But he was unhappy. Like most immigrants, he missed his family, his culture, and his language. He couldn't get a job here that he liked because he didn't speak English. This was so hard for him, having done well at whatever he chose to do back home. This was not the life he had imagined nor wanted. And so after two years, he painfully gave up and went back home.

Immigrants come to this country for many reasons, but mostly to find a better life for themselves and/or their families.

Today, in my own town, I watch the migrant workers and their families who labor in the fields planting and picking tobacco. My children and I stalk them in the parking lot of our local grocery store hoping for a chance to share a smile, or a few words of kindness. I know their stories, and I try to pass them on to my own children.

So for all these reasons, I am a strong supporter of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. I believe in the words that the poet Emma Lazarus wrote in her poem, The New Colossus, and which are inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. I've shared them before here on MommyMaestra, but the words never fail to move me and inspire me to raise my own voice in love and honor for those courageous souls who are willing to leave their homes and everything that is familiar to them because of a dream - a hope - for a better life.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


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