Families of farmworkers and braceros – like the family of Belinda Montañez – had a unique relationship with this imaginary boundary cutting the U.S. from Mexico. Born on one side, moving to the other, family on one side, more family on the other; Belinda grew up with one foot in each country.
It was over seven years before her father’s status as a bracero – which earned him legal permanent residency in the United States – could clear the administrative processes to bring his family along with him. “It was a very lengthy process,” Belinda recalls, “but we waited.” Finally cleared, they came in batches, each of the 13 other children in Belinda’s family, aunts, uncles, cousins, and more.
Was emigrating to the U.S. taken as a given, or did some wish to stay in Mexico? “A lot of our family actually has legal permanent residency in the U.S., but they decide to live in Mexico instead,” Belinda says. “They have land there, houses there – their lives are there. They have the option to shop or work in the U.S. seasonally if they need to supplement their income.
I have an aunt in Guadalajara who emigrated through an H-1 visa; she cleans offices in southern California. Her boss asked them at one point to emigrate, that he would sponsor. They went ahead and did the paperwork. They see it as an administrative – they see it as bothersome. It’s annoying to have to come every now and then to renew paperwork. They still live in Mexico.” An ability unique to border towns.
Belinda was too young at the time to make her own choice but was deeply impacted by her move to the U.S. – and not in a good way. “It felt like the end of the earth – Armageddon,” she said, chuckling at the memory.
She had visited the U.S. throughout her childhood. “I enjoyed Disney, I enjoyed visiting relatives, I knew that I did not speak the language. I liked that the streets were clean, and it was safer, and it seemed orderly, but I didn’t know that that was going to be something permanent. And when it did, I really resented it. God, what a downgrade! Why couldn’t we stay in our bigger house in Mexicali where we had a housekeeper, there were no mice or roaches?”
Crossing the border north meant trading in a 3-bedroom house with a garage and a yard for a tiny 1-bedroom for the five family members who had emigrated so far. The house wasn’t the only downgrade; Belinda was horrified by her new school. Beyond the lack of air conditioning, chalkboards, and basic materials, she didn’t feel challenged academically. “I had a lot more responsibilities as a child in Mexico. We cleaned our own classrooms, we were very regimented, […] we were doing times tables by 1st grade. In the U.S. you were babied,” she says, shaking her head. “What do you mean you give me crayons? I thought, is this a special education class because I don’t speak the language?
It was traumatic. I acted out, was always in time-out; I wasn’t finding a place in my new environment. In 2nd grade I said, I hate school, I’ve had it. My mom said, ‘OK, no problem! You’ll do what your dad and I do and go work in the fields.'”
For one whole week, Belinda took to the fields – “onion pulling, cutting off roots: all week I worked really hard. I was like ‘I’m good at this, I got this'” But at the end of the week, when handed her meager earnings, she felt angry and exploited; “that’s all?!”
Her mother wasn’t one to mince words – “That’s all. If you don’t go back to school […] then this is what your life will be like.”
Lesson learned; Belinda went back to school. Though she worked in the onion and cotton fields over summer breaks along with many of her classmates, she learned to adapt a little better and started earning A’s and B’s.
Having both left school around age 10 to work in the fields, her parents – particularly her mother – valued education as the key to a better life. “She didn’t want us to be in the fields, ever,” Belinda said of her mother. “She loathed [her work] there. She would say, ‘It’s labor-intensive and it’s unstable. You don’t know if you’re going to get hurt, have health insurance – no vacation time, no stability. Why would you want this lifestyle? Go to the university and get a degree.’ It’s engrained in me.”
That’s just what Belinda did, and has since received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. In many ways, she is a classic success story of the immigrant’s American dream. In other ways, she finds herself looking back, wondering; “To this day I feel this horrible nostalgia and I wonder what my life would have been like if I had remained in Mexicali.” The U.S. may be a beacon of opportunity for some, but many are understandably less inclined to leave their home for a foreign land. Like her aunts that chose to commute across the border, one of Belinda’s brothers has never taken the offer to move to the U.S. “My dad volunteered to adopt my brother from my mom’s side, but [my brother] would have to take on his last name, and he didn’t want to. So, he didn’t immigrate. Just for that silly decision, he didn’t want to change his name!”
Maybe he’ll come one day, helping Belinda’s family deepen their roots even further, this side of the border. Then again, maybe he won’t, Belinda says. And “[t]hat’s OK. He’s happy there.”