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My Immigrant Story – By Martina Robles Gallegos

I was born and raised in a small, rural town in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. I emigrated to the United States just short of my fifteenth birthday, right after graduating from elementary school.

I was the sixth of nine children, and there are three siblings younger than me, but my mom chose me to go with her to El Norte. I was surprised or shocked that she’d choose me instead of any of my three younger brothers, so I asked her why she’d chosen me. Her response was: Porque si la dejo aquí, se va a meter en problemas. Translated it means: Because if I leave you, you’ll get into trouble. She knew her daughter well. When I “got into trouble,” it was only because I had to stand up for myself against bullying cousins, teachers, and classmates.

My mom always said she’d never go to El Norte, but her three older children were there, and I knew she really missed them even though she loved and needed the little money they sent her, and she always gave each of us a toston, or twenty-five cents that we happily bought golosinas or treats with.

My siblings were in the U. S. undocumented and got there only because my maternal grandmother took them, only to later call immigration on them and have them sent back to Mexico at least once. They all eventually returned to the United States anyways, and my oldest brother started asking my mom to visit them, but she’d just laugh off the idea. Soon, though, she began to discuss with her friends the idea of going to El Norte. All her friends had either been there already or had family there, and encouraged her to make the journey.

I recall the very early morning mom and I were getting ready to leave our family and town, but what I also recall is that mom asked me to say goodbye to my dad. I kind of felt she expected me to say goodbye to him for her, and that made me feel kind of sad, but I did what she asked me to do.

I walked into my dad’s dark room and told him we were leaving. I gave him a kiss on the forehead and a hug, and I felt tremendous sadness and a strange feeling on my heart, something I’d never felt before.

We made the long, three-day trip by bus to Tijuana where we stayed with a Coyote for a whole month. During that month, I was memorizing the Coyota’s daughter’s personal information that I was going to use to cross the border. It was a large house where I experienced loneliness, despair, and saw the inequity of rich versus poor, especially when I decided to venture out of the walls of wealth to watch poor but happy children play in the landfill below. The contrast between these two opposites was startling and heartbreaking, but neither seemed to concern themselves with the other.

The day came for me to cross the border using the Coyote’s daughter’s papers, but mom still had to wait because she was having second thoughts about using one of her sister’s papers.

Except for one question I almost messed up but didn’t thanks to the Coyote’s sharp elbow on my ribs, my border crossing was rather uneventful; my mom’s, however, was a scary and painful experience. When she got home to my aunt’s house, she was all bruised and tattered. She’d had to cross mountains, deserts, and rivers and crawl through tunnels, all while immigration helicopters hovered over the group of people crossing together.

Despite her horrible experience, mom quickly found a job cleaning a house in San Dimas, California, and I’d found a babysitting job in North Hollywood, thanks to a young man who’d eventually become my high school classmate and asked me to take good care of his two little cousins who spoke no Spanish, and I spoke no English, but somehow we managed to work with each other well. I only left because I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t really take a comfortable shower or bath since neither worked well, and the parents didn’t see it as important enough to fix since they had their private bathroom.

I’d also started looking into the remote idea of going to school, but it was difficult for me to understand how the educational system worked and realizing I’d be in classrooms where most students probably didn’t speak my language. Fortunately, my oldest sister lived with and worked for an American family, and the mom took it upon herself to enroll me in school, and that’s when and how I started my educational journey in this country at Elliot Junior High in Altadena, California, in 1978, and a few months into the school year.

I recall mom asking me if I wanted to go to school or work. I had no clue what kind of work I could possibly do because I had no skills whatsoever, and my school experience in Mexico had been terrible, but, because my aunts quickly chose work, I quickly told mom I wanted to go to school. It was the single best decision I ever made, and I’m eternally grateful to my mother for having given me that choice.

My time in junior high was challenging and discouraging, but I persevered and would do so throughout my life.

I was promoted to high school despite the fact that some or most teachers didn’t think I was ready because I didn’t yet speak enough English, but a visiting high school teacher asked one of my teachers to give me a chance, and that’s the only reason I was promoted.

High school was a bit easier in that I quickly adapted to my new environment and made new friends, and wasn’t discriminated against as much as I was in junior high.

I started out as an ESL or English as a Second Language student but quickly left the program against the advisor’s consent, but with the full support of the teacher who’d visited my junior high school and was now one of my favorite and most supportive teachers.

I tripped and stumbled in “Regular English” classes at the beginning but quickly found my way to the top of several classes, especially math and Algebra. Unfortunately, I lost my mother to suicide when I was a sophomore, and the devastating event almost caused me to think of quitting, but the idea of working who knows where or doing who knows what kept me in school. However, some teachers and my academic counselor sentenced me to a life as a high school dropout, drug dealer and user, pregnant teen, and counselor told me I couldn’t be a teacher, psychologist, or writer because my English was “not strong enough.”

A toast to them all because I graduated from high school top ESL student, attended community college, university, and graduate school, and graduated from each with better grades each time. I faced the same societal evils every step of the way, and some “professors” didn’t even hide their disdain for the Mexican who wanted to be somebody because before I was always known as the nobody. I even used to spell both with a capital S and N. Tragedy struck again when I attended California State University, Northridge; again, I lost another loved one to suicide. It was my sister this time, and, again, I thought I’d quit but somehow found the strength not to quit and stay alive. I also experienced bullying but sought counseling and eventually graduated and went on to get my bilingual credentials.

I became a bilingual elementary school teacher and taught a first/second combination group of mostly migrant students at the beginning then students from different parts of the world the last seven to ten years, and parents always requested me for their younger children. I was attacked by a student whom another teacher rejected and ended up in my classroom. She terrorized both students and me for a whole month, and I let office staff, principal, and district administrators know about my concerns and observations, but nobody ever did anything, not even Mom. She’d simply dump her daughter and leave. I always feared another attack after that, and my students never got the help a superintendent promised me they’d get.

Many of my students’ parents were undocumented fieldworkers, and, like me, feared being picked up by immigration and sent back home. The fact that I was one of the few teachers who was truly Mexican and spoke Spanish fluently made it easier to connect and identify well with students and their parents, but that same fact caused me problems with colleagues and some administrators because when parents had concerns, they came to me first before going to office staff or administrators.

While I was again experiencing the effects of discrimination, racism, sexism, agism, prejudice, and stereotypes at work, I was pretty much experiencing the same thing in my neighborhood with my HOA Board. The idea of achieving the American Dream had become a total and devastating nightmare and continues to this day. I experienced bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide that still haunt me daily.

The good thing now is that I work with a compassionate and caring therapist, and my psychiatrist actually listens to me and takes my input into consideration when it comes to medications. I’d had nightmarish experiences with other so-called medical professionals, some of whom almost cost me my life and could’ve caused me another stroke or even a heart attack because my heart was failing due to a hole doctors found when I was in ICU.

In 2012, I suffered a work injury that required surgery, and two weeks after my ankle surgery, I suffered a near-fatal hemorrhagic. my family was told I was not going to survive and to get ready for the worst. I was in coma but survived, went back to school while doing my rehabilitation. I completed a Master’s degree and started publishing my story and haven’t stopped writing and publishing since.

It makes me sad that my dad didn’t get to read my books, but he was proud that his Martinita was a teacher in El Norte and also knew I was working on my Master’s before he passed away on January 6th, 2011, Dia de los Santos Reyes. He seemed to have chosen his day well.

I know he sacrificed his happiness so I could have a better life in El Norte. He actually visited a few times after Mom, and I lived in California, and he’d been a bracero, too. He stopped visiting after some “pinche gringo” stole his big Mexican sombrero when he came to visit by train, he only way he traveled.

There’s no way I would’ve been able to go to school in Mexico or achieve anything I’ve been able to achieve living in the United States. Nothing was ever easy, and I didn’t expect it to be either, but I knew that always working and going to school, because that’s what I always did, was the best and only way to thank my parents for their sacrifice. My mom died in her mid-forties, and my dad died at ninety, and both were two hard-working people who, although one barely finished first grade and the other second, both valued education and read our books and encouraged us to go to school and listen to our teachers. I also know both would be proud of the kind of life most of their children chose.

In the end, poverty was not going to be a deterrent for me to make something productive of my life, regardless of the many obstacles I face and continue to face, and there have been too many to count. Perseverance strength, and determination have gotten me through everything, and that also mirrors who my parents were. ¡Vivo!

Martina emigrated from Mexico and got a Master’s degree after a massive, near fatal hemor-rhagic stroke. Find her works in Poetry Super Highway, The Bloom, WFWP: Poetry Festival, Canada, LA Magazine, CanvasRebel, and When the Virus Came Calling: COVID-19 Strikes America: Published by Golden Foothills Press, edited by, Thelma T. Reyna.

Photo credit: Annie Slagboom

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