Personal Narrative: You are an immigrant

May 6, 2008 at 2:00 pm Leave a comment

Gabriela Chabolla/Adelante staff
Volume II, Issue 3 (Crossing Borders)

So you’ve reached the United States. You, a university student, middle-class Mexican with four suitcases of clothes and even the box of books you brought on a whim. You settled yourself a couple of days ago in the room you shall share with a native Texan, and now you walk with a group of recent acquaintances. You all stop in the hallway of your dorm (a building with potable water and air conditioning, of course; it’s your first encounter with the need to carry a sweater around everywhere when the temperature outside is 32 degrees Celsius –wrong, 90 degrees Fahrenheit- or face the possibility of getting sick. Goodbye, open-window nights and the bites of a million mosquitoes…).

You’ll meet new people. A stranger will come forth and the necessary introductions will be made. You will smile, take the extended hand and kiss the person’s cheek. A couple similar episodes will be necessary before you notice the second of disconcert that passes through the person’s face when your own gets closer to his than culturally appropriate. Then you will smack yourself on the forehead and, from then onwards, keep yourself at a handshake’s length.

You will go back to your room, with your roomie; meeting her boyfriend is only a matter of time. You will take advantage of the silent pact between people sharing a small space (“I don’t see anything beyond this half of the room and you don’t see anything past that half”) to discreetly observe the two people laughing and whatnot on the other side, waiting for the moment in which the individual will take his keys, say “Well…!” and leave. But as the hours go by and the moment of his going refuses to come, you get used to the idea of him staying. When it’s time to turn the lights off, the three respirations in the dark will make you go over mental images of mothers and society’s señoritas—respectable ladies—back home, conjuring saints, good customs and decency.

You will acquire the useful but incredibly dirty talent of making it seem like you understood what was said when what you actually heard was more of an auditory doodle rather than an intelligible phrase. A couple of months will be necessary before your tongue stops getting stuck in your mouth and your ears open to the syllables of the American South.

You’ll discover that familiar dishes like queso, burritos and the pico de gallo retain their original words in menus but with a “u” that sneaks in at the end when pronounced. You’ll wonder where the Es in Guadalupe and Rio Grande went.

Lemonade changes tone this side of the border; the one you order is yellow and not green. Curiously, lemon and lime translate into English in unexpected ways.
In conversations, you’ll stand there, fish-faced, as soon as cultural references are dragged in. When had you ever heard about SNL, Dave Chapelle, Bob Dylan? Where did Looney Toones, el Chavo del Ocho, tazos, hielocos (old novelties of Mexican youth) go?

You’ll get used to seeing people buy half a liter –er, a pint- of ice cream and eat it in a single go, but you’ll somehow be unable to tolerate medicine commercials. Maybe it’s the fact that the same voice that advocates for a happy and healthy life warns the viewer about unsavory reactions like vomiting and palpitations in the same velvety tones.

But these are concrete things, things you can see and that will occasionally make you laugh. As your stay here stretches on, a dimension of memories extends until covering and mingling with your presence here. You almost forget the dust, the rags that covered brown arms, the smell of buses, the crowds of people walking with corn on the cob, chamoys, shaved ice, chips, buñuelos and churros on Sundays in the plaza, the city’s doors open to midday’s warmth after wintertime and the bugambilias that decorated your city. In gas stations, you don’t see any more the shadow of two men in dirty brown jumpsuits, filling up tanks with 200, 300 pesos of gas under the green, white and red sign of monopolistic Pemex.

On the streets (infinitely different because of details; the disorder of electric cables, the amount of dusty signs in the sky, the million pieces of paper and empty soda bottles give the last brushstrokes to the Mexican street), you don’t see girls in jeans and high heels, made-up faces and hair rigorously in place, but a frequency of long hair (hair salons this side of the border also charge about five times what is usual on the other side).

You’ve integrated. You don’t have to work. You don’t even have to worry about immigration details (did I mention you were privileged?); you almost don’t even have to multiply everything by 10.50 when you’re in stores.

But you can’t deny the motive that brought you here. The knitting of the country is certainly tighter, and everything is a couple of centimeters (oops, inches) more above the ground, so to speak. You’ve been enveloped by a sense of security you didn’t have before. Abstractions don’t exist here; rules are rules, and there are no holes through which one can slide.

The buttons in the buses, the absence of sweat (not counting the intended type, in air-conditioned gyms), the padded and immediate position of things around here make you remember it less often. It’s only when you see a little sea of laptops in cafes that you think about the modest Sanborns, with its dressed-up waitresses and the little old ladies that still retain the practice of going out for coffee with their friends; or when you realize that there are no stones to stumble upon downtown, that you miss the idea of Mexico a little, some spice they put in the food, or the impression of a sort of closeness between the people.

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Entry filed under: Crossing Borders 2008. Tags: , , , , .

Narrativa Personal: Eres una Immigrante You’re going to need your passport

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