MENU

Photo: Author far left

I moved to Texas before first grade, but had to accept my Mexican roots before I could embrace the United States.

By Ana Ley

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

◊◊◊

My relationship with this country has always been complicated.

As a little girl who moved to South Texas from Mexico, I desperately wanted to assimilate and erase everything about my birthplace. America taught me to hate my language, my indigenous features and the extreme poverty that my family left behind at the border.

My elementary and middle school classmates often derided things that reminded them of the other side. A girl once told me she didn’t like the color turquoise because so many buildings in Mexico’s colonias were painted that garish tone. The cookie-cutter houses in affluent subdivisions north of the border were all different shades of beige—never the bright yellows, pinks and greens to the south.

In a place that was almost fully populated by people of Mexican descent, I was embarrassed to speak Spanish in front of my Americanized classmates, who looked down on the school’s mexicanitos—recent immigrants who typically lived in substandard housing and hadn’t shed their ties to el otro lado.

I remember the time my grandmother told me I was pretty “como una Barbie,” a compliment that fell flat when an aunt said I was too dark to earn the comparison.

We left Reynosa, Tamaulipas, when I was about 5, settling 20 miles north in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. My mom left behind her husband and country to make a better life for her three daughters and to be closer to relatives who immigrated before us. She didn’t know English and she didn’t have a college degree, but she found work sewing pants at a Dickies factory, and we made do.

My status in the United States was a sensitive subject. As “permanent resident aliens,” my sisters and I were here legally—and to stay—though none of us became citizens until adulthood. Even though I had a green card, traveling across the border and through checkpoints was nerve-wracking. I felt like an intruder—like someone who was allowed to stay only by the goodwill of whatever customs officer happened to decide I belonged.

A lot of kids I grew up with shared this fear, regardless of status. The older people taught us to be scared of la migra—the immigration enforcement officials that patrolled our neighborhoods.

It got worse when I was a teenager and customs officers detained me at the border. My mom had forgotten to renew my card, so a man in a blue uniform kept us in a waiting room for four exasperating hours. We sobbed the whole time.

I was furious with her. How could she be so irresponsible? Didn’t she know how lucky we were to live here?

She made a mistake, but we filled out the paperwork—if I remember correctly, the process was pretty simple—and everything turned out fine.

For a long time, l resented her, and even wondered why she didn’t have the sense to move to the U.S. sooner so that, like a lot of my cousins, I would never feel the threat of deportation.

The author moved from Reynosa, Tamaulipas to South Texas at 5, a mere 20 miles, but a different world.

I grew up to realize what a tough life my mom had trying to make us happy in a place that never seemed to appreciate her enough. And the older I got, the more I redirected all of that bitterness toward myself.

The public education system never taught me much about my native country. Despite its influence on me and so many others I grew up with, Mexico’s story felt like a side note buried in lessons on the Texas Revolution. But after graduating high school, a fledgling career in journalism and the ability to travel farther south than the impoverished communities of northern Tamaulipas made me curious about my family’s past, and I began to discover the culture and beauty of my birthplace.

My sisters became citizens, but I put it off. Naturalization felt like a betrayal to the heritage I had once rejected, and I hated this place for stripping away so much of my identity. It was also a reminder of how ungrateful I had been to my mother.

The 2016 presidential election changed everything. Candidates were talking about kicking out immigrants, and I panicked. The U.S. may not be perfect, but it’s my home.

For the next two years, I slogged through the U.S. immigration system. I got a new job across the country, and my change in address triggered at least five delays, none of which were clearly explained by the immigration officials I hounded for months. My green card expired while I waited.

Finally, an employee took pity on me after I begged guards to let me inside an immigration office without an appointment. She updated my address in the agency’s electronic system and explained that it was a common problem.

That means that even when naturalization applicants do everything right, the computer system used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services often fumbles their forms. It horrifies me to think of how many paths to citizenship have stalled or been killed by computer glitches.

The author poses with friends and her U.S. citizenship certificate after her March 2018 ceremony.

On March 27, after exchanging nervous small talk with other applicants for about two hours, I finally took the oath of allegiance to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”

My wait and its uncertainty were over.

Since the 2016 presidential election, a lot of Americans have made clear that they don’t want people like me here. It’s a hard time to be a recent addition, but the naturalization process deepened my affection for this nation and its diversity.

I was too tense to take notes the day I became a citizen, but I’ll always remember the African American judge in Norfolk, Virginia, who reminded me about the sacrifices of immigrants who came before us. Some, he said, arrived by way of Ellis Island. Others were forced here “in the belly of a slave ship.” Countless more—like my mother and the dozens of people from countries like Chile, Jamaica and the Philippines who packed his courtroom—have followed in the pursuit of a better life.

He told us not to listen to people who tell us we don’t belong. He said we make this country stronger.

I’ve grown to love this nation in all its complexity—its strengths, its flaws and its contradictions. I’ve also learned to do that with myself.

Ever since I came to America, I’ve felt lucky. It took me longer to realize that America’s pretty lucky I’m here, too.