When I found out my friend Daniella was the daughter of undocumented immigrants, my first question was, “Are you sure you want to be spreading that around?” That was three years ago, before President Trump’s election was a glimmer in the American public eye. In light of recent legislation, and the general hostility toward Mexican immigration, worries about the safety of those with an undocumented status have become even more pressing. But Daniella has maintained a come-what-may attitude, joking that a few weeks ago she overheard her grandma telling her aunt, in Spanish, that she already had jobs picked out for her family members were they to get deported to Mexico: “You can work in Puerto Villarta (a touristy place) and [your sister] can clean the fancy houses!”
Despite the ability to adapt to whatever unexpected dishes the White House may serve up, recent legislation hits close to home will have tangible effects on countless Latino families, whether undocumented or recent citizens. Many of these affected families have been here for decades and their children and grandchildren— first and second generation Mexican immigrants — are beginning to graduate from college and enter the workforce. I had the opportunity to sit down with two such students, senior Daniella Salazar and sophomore Gabidel Miranda, as they told stories of being defined by their generation.
I asked Gabidel Miranda where home is for her and she joked that I started with a hard one. She was born in Poza Rica Veracruz, Mexico and moved to McAllen, a border town in Texas, when she was three years old. She and her mother, then pregnant with Miranda’s brother, had fled flooding that wiped out her father’s business and put her mother and the baby at risk. Despite the early uprooting, Miranda still considers herself first-generation Mexican, especially compared to her younger American-raised brother: “His Spanish is very, very, very choppy … he prefers American food over Mexican food, but he eats it. He is definitely more American than I am, so he’s more second generation.”
Language became a mark of distinction for Miranda. She took predominantly bilingual Spanish-taught classes until third grade when her mother prompted her to pick up the language in the states. Still, living in a predominantly Mexican area, most students were at least familiar with the language. The ability to speak it well separated the first generations from the second.
While the term “Hispanic” is still used to describe communities such as the one in which Miranda grew up, the term defines those who are specifically Spanish-speakers, and would stretch to include individuals from Spain. Instead, younger generations — not all of whom speak Spanish — increasingly use the terms “Latino” or “Latina” to describe those in the United States who are from a country in Latin America (including Mexico, Central America and South America). Still, many prefer to preserve ties to their country of origin, even if they weren’t born there themselves, defining themselves as Mexican-American. In this way, the label is tied to place as opposed to being dependent on language.
Miranda’s mother — a single-mother who had to take on the job of two parents when she came to the states — “raised her in Spanish.” But when she started working, she was unable to do the same for her brother. “School kinda raised him,” Miranda said.
Her mother, who up until this point had diligently attempted to learn English herself, was forced to discontinue her classes when she started working and attending nursing school simultaneously. A language rift arose between her and her son whose first words were mostly English derived from the show Barney. Miranda remembers having to step up in a semi-maternal position. “She’d ask me to translate for my brother, like ‘what does he want to eat?’ … So that was something I didn’t realize was odd between the family until I was older.”
Conceptions of Difference
Senior Daniella Salazar was born and raised in Southern California, in a Latino neighborhood not entirely different from Miranda’s. Her public elementary school, located in her home town of San Juan, was comprised of mainly second generation Mexican-Americans and white female teachers.
In middle school, Salazar joined a program called Breakthrough, which offers assistance to students striving to be first generation college students. Here, she was able to form most of her Latino friendships.
A local preparatory high school, St. Margaret’s, hosted the program, and the program director encouraged her to apply to the school. Salazar was hesitant. St. Margaret’s was predominantly white, none of her friends were going and she would have to receive one of only three scholarships for the school to be a possibility. She remembers the sense of pride from both her parents and her aunt when they got the call that she had in fact received the scholarship. “And I was like, now I have to go.”
Taking these opportunities was easier said than done. While in elementary school Salazar was known to answer questions in class and help teach students the material, she was intimidated by students at the same or higher level in her middle school gifted classes: “I felt very singled out … I think [it was] a mix of my shyness and middle school insecurity. I didn’t want to participate in class, not because I didn’t know the material or I hadn’t read. I would do all my homework and I would listen to everyone’s comments, I just felt like I couldn’t talk without feeling stupid in the class.” The perception that she was different made it hard for her to step outside herself and even explore what it actually meant to be Daniella.
Breaking the Mold
This struggle carried on through high school, where she had predominantly white friends. Salazar recounts a silent sense of competition between her and another Latina in the school — who had also been the top of her class. The way she described it sounded like a game show: “Who can be the smartest Latina,” Salazar said with a laugh that comes out of nowhere. She says her sisters and mother all have the same “obnoxious” laugh, perhaps part of what makes them Latina or just what makes them family.
But back in high school, she didn’t have a strong sense of what being Latina meant apart from her family. Her fellow white students would ask her to teach them Spanish or teach them to dance. “[T]he idea of a token friend, that’s how it felt,” Salazar recalls. But at home among her family, it was clear that she was not only Mexican but Mexican-American. She didn’t speak Spanish as well as her grandma or her mom and was more culturally Americanized. This identity, predominantly grounded in family, was hard to translate outside the home. She wondered if perhaps she should just fulfill the stereotypes.
When she became a Christian during her junior year, in a high school that she describes as “very hostile towards Christianity,” her faith became what marked her as different, and therefore a main source of identity. Her Latina-ness faded into relief. Her youth group was predominantly white and she began to associate Christian culture with being white. “Obviously I noticed it was predominantly white, but I never noticed the way they operate or the way they think is predominantly white.” Her decision to apply to Christian schools instead of Ivy Leagues, and eventual decision to attend Wheaton College into whose white, evangelical culture she already felt “highly assimilated,” seemed to be more of the same. But the multiplicity of perspectives she encountered in college became the first step in breaking the mold of what it meant to be both a Christian and a Mexican-American.
First Generation Student
Miranda offered quite a distinct view of what it meant to transition to Wheaton. One of Miranda’s biggest goals for college was to leave the state of Texas, and Wheaton’s curriculum and graduation rate appealed to her. When she got in, she could remember thinking, “Great! I’m all this and a bag of chips!” She graduated top of her class in addition to being president of the debate team for three years and president of mock trial her senior year, adding that this “might sound a little pretentious, but high school was very easy.”
College was challenging in more ways than one, both academically and socially. Once she got to Wheaton, the amount of work was truly overwhelming. As she discovered, being a first generation college student comes with a unique set of challenges. She didn’t know that you could talk to a professor when you didn’t understand something, or that you could schedule a health check-up on campus. “I just really didn’t know how to navigate the college system because my parents didn’t know how.”
Similar to Salazar’s experience in high school, the academic challenges of Wheaton were exacerbated by the sense that she didn’t feel welcome by students or teachers, whom she reflexively pulled away from as well. “I was just different, I felt different,” said Miranda. She no longer shared the language and appearance of the majority of her peers, conventions of what it meant to be Latina for her. She remembers juxtaposing herself to Latina friends growing up who were blonde-haired and fair skinned in contrast to her own dark hair and tan skin and being told that she was more Latina and they were more American. But with the help of a Spanish professor and a friend on her floor who introduced her to Unidad, her definition of what it meant to be Mexican-American began to expand.
Both Miranda and Salazar’s conceptions of being Mexican-American have grown through their participation on Unidad cabinet, Wheaton’s Latino and Latina community on campus. While the club provides the solidarity of shared experience for many students, it also possess great diversity, erasing the dichotomy of Latino or Latina as simply first or second generation. “[T]hat’s something that I hadn’t thought about before. There’s no mold of a Latino or a Latina. No one can tell you are Latina, or say no you’re not, because that’s just rude. You get to pick where you are,” said Miranda. She has begun to embrace her love of spicy food, salsa and Spanish music as not simply boxes that her peers check in order to label her Latina, but fundamental parts of herself. Still, she finds her identity even more deeply grounded in her relationships: “This is me, this is who I am, but I wish this wasn’t the first thing that people thought of me. I’m not just Latina, I’m also a daughter, I’m also a sister, I’m also a friend, I’m also a student … Latina isn’t the only thing I am.”
Salazar has been wrestling with what being a Latina means since she got to Wheaton, but particularly in the months building up to and leading away from Trump’s election. “[W]hen difficult things like that happen, it’s a really good time to press into what it means that my parents are undocumented. And it’s not just an idea, but it’s a reality and it’s a part of who I am and my family.” In regards to her faith, she’s begun to see the particular way she reads Scripture as a Mexican-American as a benefit to the body of Christ as a whole.
Several legislative changes have been proposed in the last few months which will significantly impact Mexican immigrants in the United States and their families. One is a proposal to tax money sent to Mexico, a common practice for families like Miranda’s whose mother and aunt send money to her grandma across the border. While Miranda’s mother is legal and can drive over the border and deposit money in Mexico, the legislation is challenging for her non-legal relatives. Additionally, the administration is considering retracting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a law established in 2012 under the Obama administration which allowed those who’d entered the country as minors and have been in the states for at least 10 years to apply for work permits, as long as they don’t leave the States. Both Salazar and Miranda have cousins who are under DACA. If the legislation were to be repealed, Miranda’s cousins who have grown up in American and gone to school to become doctors would be deported back to Mexico, a country they don’t consider to be home anymore.
Miranda understands this desire to start forging out a new identity. After school, she hopes to live somewhere other than Texas, potentially the Northeast to experience different weather, of which Wheaton was only a foretaste, she joked. With a diverse array of interests in art and urban studies, in addition to being bilingual, many doors are open to her. When Miranda asked her mother during a dinner over break if she would be sad if she moved away from Texas, she was nothing but supportive, “[S]he said no, I wouldn’t mind if you moved out of state … I don’t live in the same country as my mother. I’m not gonna cut your wings and tell you you can’t live in (a different) state than I’m in.”
On the other hand, Salazar hopes to return home after graduation and is looking for ways to use her Christian Education major and ministry skills to open up conversations with her community in San Juan: “I just want to get to know the community all over again … In regards to immigration reform or lack of reform, I guess I want to be close to home and close to my family whatever happens.”
Salazar’s family of three sisters, her mom and her step dad are quite close, though she says she’s closest to her mother. Not only does she share her laugh but in some ways seems to share what she describes as her mother’s almost “childlike perseverance” and ability to use humor to lighten the heaviness. When she talks about her, she tears up. Recently they found out that her mother is unable to get a green card or apply for citizenship without several years of jail time. Still, she’s been Salazar’s rock. “I’m proud of who my parents are regardless of their status. And I’m proud that they are immigrants. I want the best for them and at this point we can’t do anything so we just have to let it go.”